Sunday, 16 December 2012

Panch Chuli - Part 1. The Fire of the Pandavas

It was inevitable, I should have known. A cool dry wind blew across the cultivated fields of Dhauj, causing little ripples to dance on the surface of the lake. The rocks jutted into the winter sky, catching the pale morning light and using it to illuminate their subtle shades of bleached ochres and browns.

"Do you want to lead?", asked Mohit. If I had said No then, I would not have a story to tell. I am sure it was this thing called destiny.

"Why not?" I replied eagerly, clipping the rope into my harness and rubbing my fingers to warm them up a little. The touch of the cold rock on the first handhold was reassuring as I swung up my right leg onto a fairly decent sloping ledge. A couple of more moves and the rock began to overhang. I looked up : if I could grab that hold just out of reach of my outstretched left arm; then I could swing and lever my body just enough for my right toe to jam into that crack. I looked down and could see Mohit peering up at me as he belayed me. I unclipped a camming device called a "Friend" from the sparse stock of protection gear on my rack. I pulled on the contracting lever with two of my fingers and as the cams rotated into a thinner profile I snuck them up the crack above and slightly to my right and then let go to allow the cams to expand and their hard, serrated titanium edges to bite into the sides of the crack. I tugged at the Friend. It did not budge; it seemed secure and firmly seated. I clipped the rope into the carabiner that was attached to the Friend with a small webbed loop of nylon tape. I pulled on the two sections of the rope which now looped down. Nothing moved. Reassured that my protection was secure, I began to move upwards and leftwards, past the Friend. The rope slid smoothly through the carabiner. No problem there, I told myself.

I lunged for a hold on the overhang to my left, slapped the smooth marble like rock with my fingers and hung briefly, my right foot scrabbling for purchase on the rock which rose like an unforgiving wall near my waist. Even the "sticky" rubber of my rock climbing shoes failed to adhere to the rock and my foot slipped. My left arm gave in, my fingers parted company with the rock and I fell like a stone. For a nanosecond I thought the Friend would break my fall. Incredulously I watched it fly out from the crack and I knew instantly that this could be the end.

I hit the hard rocky ground with a resounding thud and blacked out. When I regained consciousness a couple of minutes later my back hurt and a thin trickle of blood was flowing out from the right hand side of my mouth. Mohit was beside me, yelling out my name, glad to see I was still alive. I must have fallen from about twenty five feet or so and was fortunate that I had not landed head first. I had instinctively curled myself up as I landed and avoided injury to my skull. I had bitten my tongue inadvertently with the jarring impact and that was the blood that Mohit saw. He summoned a man who was herding a camel nearby. He brought some water from the lake and I sipped it slowly. The initial shock began to wane. They helped me to sit up and a little later Mohit helped me to stagger to my feet. He made some inquiries from the camel herder and armed with the knowledge that there was a primary health centre in the village of Dhauj, we set off. The pain in my ribs was excruciating and I was sure I had broken a couple. With my arm on Mohit's shoulder, I hobbled along the narrow pathways between the fields of wheat waving seductively in the wind.

The little room that served as the Sunday clinic was full of villagers seeking medical advice and help on one of the few days in the week that they actually got to see a physician. I felt guilty to take up one of their precious spots : here I was, suffering from the aftermath of a personal and selfish indulgence, in a place full of   simple folk who went about their daily lives and who had to deal with their ailments and illnesses without much access to medical care. The good doctor who saw me had obviously taken the Hippocratic oath in its true spirit and compassionate sweep because he refrained from making any remarks about crazy people from the city who scrambled over some rock outcrops for entertainment.

Mohit's guide book

Fortified with a pain killing injection I hopped onto the rear seat of Mohit's Bajaj scooter as he kicked the starter and we puttered out of Dhauj and onto the road to New Delhi, an hour and a half away. That bumpy, dusty ride on the back of that Bajaj will remain burned in my memory as one of the most painful that I have had to endure, not because of any deficiency on the part of Mohit's riding skills, but because the pain that shot through my chest each time we hit a bump was excruciating, to say the least. I had to fight to remain conscious.

As my ribs healed over the next few weeks in Mumbai, I had a lot of time to think things through and ponder the future. This was February 1988, exactly three years since the last time I had almost died, falling off the cliffs at Mumbra ( see my earlier post Once again I had time on my hands and once again an idea began to form in my head and once again, not surprisingly, I began scheming. T.E.Lawrence (made famous as Lawrence of Arabia in David Lean's sweeping epic of a movie) wrote : "All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible." Margaret, my long suffering wife, would have agreed. But I was going to get round that problem by including her in the dream!

Helping to coalesce vague desires into some form of objective was a book by W.H.Murray : The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. I reread this enchanting tale of exploration and high adventure in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalaya in 1950 by a small team of climbers who spent three months in the then largely unexplored valleys and mountains of this part of the range. Towards the end of their expedition they had attempted to climb the 6904 m Panch Chuli II, the elegant and highest of a cluster of five peaks. They had failed to reach the summit but had paved the way for later climbers. A large and well organized team from the ITBP (Indo Tibet Border Police) finally claimed the first ascent in 1973, reaching the summit in classic siege style, from the western approaches to the mountain.

L to R : Panch Chuli V, IV, III, II as seen from Duktu in the Darma valley.
Panch Chuli II is the highest of the group at 6904 metres.

Casting around for like minded dreamers, I sounded out Jayant and Kum Kum Khadalia and when they said yes I was thrilled. Their friend Ravish Puri was also interested. A month earlier, we had spent some time rock climbing at Mt. Abu in Rajasthan and found that we shared the same outlook on climbing and expeditions. Margaret, Mohan, Franklyn and Raghu would make up a trekking team who would accompany us to Base Camp. Thus Panch Chuli 1988 was born : we were hoping to make some progress on the mountain from the eastern the footsteps of the Scottish team and in a lightweight fashion.

We left Mumbai for Delhi at the end of August. The noise and apparent chaos of the ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminus) was by now a familiar experience after a couple of previous transits through there. The overnight service took us to Tanakpur where we transferred to another bus which would take us away from the muggy plains and up to the cool hills of Kumaon. I have always enjoyed these journeys which take you through a changing landscape in the space of a few hours, from the lower moist tropical forests to the cool and dry elevations where the chir pine and the deodar rule. As opposed to flying into the mountains which transports you perhaps too quickly to truly assimilate and appreciate the change, an approach by road allows the soul to gradually soak in the wonders of a changing environment.

While most people doze (or throw up) as the small hill buses grind their way up endless switchbacks and U-turns, I always sit glued to a window seat, watching in delight as the almost treadless tires splash through pebble bottomed streams, the occasional bright coloured bird flits in the shadowy recesses of the trees. I  listen to the music inevitably blaring from the driver's little cassette player sometimes taped to the dashboard. The driver is also usually talking non-stop to a buddy or some passenger seated in the front and if you listen carefully there are always gems of information to be gleaned from their seemingly trivial chatter: you might pick up the latest info on road conditions further up in the mountains, of bridge closures, landslides, local politics..... I have always admired the stamina and patience of these hill drivers as they constantly swing the steering wheel one full revolution clockwise followed by another full revolution anti-clockwise. They are invariably courteous and allow all traffic going uphill right of way and extend a cheery greeting and exchange information through the open windows when they pass their colleagues driving another bus. And so it goes on for hours till he stops at a welcome tea stall where everyone gets off the bus just to stretch their legs or to have a bite. The male passengers also usually line up at convenient locations to pee; I have to admit that I am as guilty as the rest of my gender! The women seem to have better control of their bladders, perhaps a result of generations of cultural and environmental evolution...

This was my first visit to the Kumaon Himalaya and I revelled in the relatively uncrowded roads, devoid of tourist hordes - of course this was 1988, more than 24 years ago!

We arrived in Pithoragarh in the afternoon and immediately checked into the Tourist Rest House where the views were magnificent, the food was great and the tariff was only Rs.25 per double room! We obtained a permit to buy kerosene and another permit to enter the town of Dharchula, our next stop. Yes, those were the days of fuel rationing and the dreaded Inner Line Permit! The main hurdles to mountaineering were encountered well before one ever set foot on the mountain.

Leaving Pithoragarh at 5 am, we were in Jauljibi in time for a breakfast of parathas and tea. This is also where our permit for Dharchula was checked. At Dharchula, new permits were to be issued at the Sub Divisional Magistrate's office. When we arrived at the office, it was closed for lunch. Half the team proceeded to Tawaghat, while the rest of us hung around the magistrate's office for his minions to return from their lunch break. We were given the usual time consuming run around in that dusty office stacked with files from a hundred years ago and serving as cobweb anchors. The petty official who was typing out our permits was agonizingly slow on his rickety machine. I suggested gently that I might be able to relieve him of this tedious task. He readily agreed and I hammered out our permits in a fraction of the time it would have taken him, even though I am no wiz on the keyboard.

The roar of the Dhauli Ganga hurtling past the PWD Rest House at Tawaghat lulled us to sleep. It had taken us four days from Mumbai to get here; but the show was finally on the road! The jeepable road continued for another 17 km to Sobala, but we were going to start walking. We had concluded negotiations with a muleteer for 6 mules to carry our baggage to Base Camp. The rate agreed upon was Rs. 80 per day per mule. Each mule could carry about 65 kilos. We would be relatively lightly laden, our rucksacks weighing between 20-25 kg each, just enough to get us fit by the time we arrived at the base of the Chulis.

Tawaghat is only 3700 feet above sea level and even though the waters of the Dhauliganga are cold here, it does not really have an alpine ambience. We were only too happy to start walking on the jeep road on the first day of September and in four hours were at the village of Nyu, 1800 feet higher. The scenery was quite good, there were many waterfalls to admire along the way, and tea stalls almost on the hour. It was a great way to warm up for the weeks ahead. The rest house at Nyu was quite nice and there was a tented SPF (Special Police Force) camp next to it. A little drizzle followed dinner and we were glad to be sleeping indoors. Raghu, who had not been feeling too well all day had to be sedated to sleep.

It is strange what things get jotted down when you keep a journal. In my entry for 2nd Sept 1988, written in the evening of that day at Sela, I had jotted down : "Immediately after leaving Nyu, we passed Sobla where a loud fight between a husband and wife was going on...."

Notwithstanding such domestic strife, the walk was a delight: dark green forested hillsides drenched occasionally by waterfalls, a lunch stop which served up a very tasty potato bhaji, with fiery red chillies. There were rhododendron trees and dwarf bamboo lining the trail later, so we could sit in their shade and doze a little to help the digestion!

Margaret and I on the track from Nyu to Sela

As is usual in the Himalaya, we were soon out of the narrow entrance valley of the Darmaganga on day three of our walk. The vistas opened up to the high mountain pastures and seasonally cultivated fields, carved out by generations of hard working Bhutias who inhabit these settlements in the summer months. Soaring up and above these were the craggy cliffs that girdled the bases of scores of named and unnamed peaks, some of their impossible summits rearing defiantly into the azure blue skies.

Looking back down the Darma valley to the small settlement of Baling
We spent the night in the gorgeously located village of Duktu. With its twin Son, just across the river from which it takes its name, this has to be the best viewpoint to see all the five summits of the Panch Chuli group from the east.

At 10 am on Sunday, 4 Sept. we arrived at our Base Camp, after a mere two hour walk from Duktu. While we busied ourselves pitching tents and paying off Mahinder Singh (the muleteer), a group of young girls and women who had accompanied us from Duktu set off merrily up the surrounding steep grassy slopes, laughing and chattering like a flock of Himalayan green finches we were to see much of later. They returned a couple of hours later, carrying huge loads of medicinal herbs with a tumpline. They would sell these precious herbs to a middleman who would then pass them on to a local wholesaler who in turn would sell them for a handsome profit to a representative of some pharmaceutical company. I am sure these wonderful ladies would have loved to have something like a co-operative movement which would have rewarded them more fairly for risking life and limb on these precarious slopes in the shadows of the Chulis.

Franklyn and Mohan on the trail from Duktu to Base Camp

After the excitement and relief of having arrived at our destination subsided, we realized that the muleteer had deposited us on the wrong side of the glacier! Hurriedly going through our copies of the Scottish expedition and subsequently the attempt by Graaf and Snelson, it dawned on us that our Base Camp should have been on the true left bank of the Meola glacier. Ah well, we reasoned, we could remedy that by ferrying loads across the moraine and establish our Real Base Camp! This would also serve to familiarize ourselves with the terrain and become fitter.

In the meantine, we enjoyed the company of our trekking party who were soon to depart for Aanchri Tal further up the Darma valley.

The trekkers leave Base Camp for Aanchri Tal. L to R : Mohan, Franklyn, Margaret, Raghu.

The route to Camp I 

There is a legend about the Pandava brothers of the Mahabharat : they are said to have halted at the five peaks of the Panch Chuli group (so each could have his own little summit, I guess.) on their way to heaven and cooked their evening meal. Thus, when the alpen glow turns the snows of the Panch Chuli into a fiery red in the light of the setting sun, it is easy to believe that this could be true.

For our part, we turned to our humble portable stoves to cook our dinner. Raghu scouted around the camp for bits of dead juniper wood and lit a bonfire over which he toasted papads, a favourite pastime of his when camping. The wood crackled and gave off sparks and the heady scent of juniper filled the air. In the night, there were rumbles and explosions in the air : the Meola icefall was flexing its muscles and we were to get used to its nightly groans for the full duration of our stay.

From the comfort of 12,000 ft. we could see the summit of Panch Chuli II : more than 10,000 feet higher and a couple of miles away, it seemed icy and remote. Would it allow us to set foot on one of the ribs on its south east face we were contemplating? We had budgeted almost six weeks for our forays above Base Camp and were confident that this would be sufficient. But first we had to shift our Base Camp right across the moraine of the Meola...

Panch Chuli V - 21,120 ft.


  1. Superb narrative style and choice of route embarked. Would you like to write for us on trek routes and contribute towards developing a trekking culture in the country? Write back to me at

  2. CAMP WILD DHAUJ Comment Thanks for sharing good information !