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Friday 4 January 2013

Panch Chuli - Part II. Lessons in Humility.

"Bitter February, within and without. Mood to watch the weather; raw and overcast, near to freezing." Dick Francis might as well have been summarising our mental state, instead of launching into Chapter One of his book "Bolt".

I laid the paperback novel borrowed from Ravish down on my sleeping bag and peeked out of the tent door.   Overcast, certainly, but far removed from the jockey-author's world of racehorses and evil doings. The brilliant white glow of the Sona icefall was accentuated by the backdrop of dark grey clouds swirling among the seracs and fissures. The emerald green meadows swept up to the base of the glacier. A few stray yaks meandered high up on the slopes where their owners had left them weeks ago. Eventually, their human masters would come up from Son-Duktu and herd their precious charges down in preparation for their annual migration down the Darmaganga as winter descended from the eternal snows.

More than a week had gone by since we arrived at our first Base Camp. We had spent the subsequent days ferrying loads across the moraine of the Meola glacier to where our eventual Base Camp would be - this was exactly the same place where the Scots had pitched their Camp II in 1950. When I looked through the viewfinder of my camera, I was blown away by the similarity of the two camps, 38 years apart in time!

The Scottish camp - 1950
(Frontispiece, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition by W.H.Murray)

Our Base Camp, 1988
It was an exciting thing to be following in the footsteps of the pioneer explorers. I set aside Dick Francis' tale of dark deeds set in a faraway isle and thumbed through Murray's account :

"To each side of the summit great glaciers descended: on the left the Meola, on the right the Sona, each ending up in ice-falls four thousand feet high....Their lower halves were impossible; the upper halves, leading to the south and north summit ridges respectively, looked climbable......Between the two great glaciers a great rock ridge dropped from the summit five thousand feet eastwards. Below it, and still dividing the glaciers, stood a wide cliff. In its right hand half the cliff was three thousand feet high and towards the left two thousand.....We could see that a very steep grassy shelf slanted up the cliffs, starting just to the right of a prominent waterfall and then rising leftwards...."

Sketch map by Robert Anderson in Murray's book

Murray's original sketch enhanced by Rajesh Bathija
Our plan was to go up the slanting grass shelf and establish a camp above it. From here, our paths would separate: while the Scotsmen had explored the Sona glacier to gain access to the north col of the mountain, we were hoping to skirt the upper Meola icefall on its right hand side and find our way to the base of the southeast face. If that was possible, we would attempt one of the systems of buttresses and gullies which dropped steeply from the north ridge of Panch Chuli II.

The Scottish approach via the Sona glacier

However, man proposes, and the weather disposes. As soon as we had finished ferrying all our loads across the moraine of the Meola to what was to become our final Base Camp, the heavens opened up and the rain came down in sheets. After a couple of days of being incarcerated in our soggy tents, we decided to retreat to the relative comfort of the dilapidated schoolhouse in Duktu, to dry out. Our arrival coincided with the return of the trekking party from Sipu and the demise of a sheep which had fallen off a cliff. The owner sold us about 2 kilos of the meat and the whole team, with the exception of Jayant and Raghu who were vegetarians, feasted on this flesh over 2 meals.

When the trekkers began their journey back to Tawaghat, I decided to accompany them to Nagling to divert my mind - and to spend a few more hours with Margaret! After getting over one more farewell, I marched back to Duktu with an SPF (Special Police Force) officer and his batman. He offered me chai at their post in Baling, we exchanged names and addresses, and he invited the entire team to the SPF camp at Goh, just beyond Duktu. In the event, we never really took up his invitation.

Taking advantage of a brief spell of clear weather we hurried back to Base Camp and over the next three days had managed to find our way up over the grass shelf to a potential site for a camp at the base of the big rocky cliff which drops down from the mountain and separates the upper Meola from the upper Sona. There were faint shepherd tracks which we followed all the way to some broad gently sloping pastures which housed a rudimentary stone enclosure for sheep. The initial climb was steep but worth every gasp of breath: as we crested the last rise, stupendous views of Panch Chuli V and IV took our breath away. A little further up and Panch Chuli III came into view. Looking back to the east, the valley of the Sona dropped away to the little dots that were the twin villages of Son-Duktu, and beyond rose an impressive array of unnamed and unclimbed peaks.

The first view of Panch Chuli V as we topped out onto the first grass shelf

A little later, Panch Chuli IV (right) crept into view

Panch Chuli IV

As we ascended a rocky ramp at the edge of the Meola, Panch Chuli III was the last one to appear

Looking east we could see the ripening fields of millet and barley around the villages of Son-Duktu

Kum Kum leads the way up some ropes that we fixed to secure our route to Camp  I
The weather window proved to be short lived. Soon the rain clouds began to mobilise and we were trapped in our nylon shelters at Base Camp once again. One more week went by in a constant barrage of rain; sometimes it would be mixed with sleet. There were ominous sounds emanating from both the Meola and the Sona icefalls as masses of ice shifted and towers collapsed. One day there was  a frightening volley of rocks shooting down the grass ledges as the ridges above became unstable. Our time was spent cooking, eating, dozing, reading, and once every afternoon, at precisely 4:55 pm, listening to a special weather bulletin broadcast by All India Radio for us. We laughed when the announcer said, "....and now for a special weather bulletin for Expedition Beauty (for some unfathomable reason, this was the code name assigned to us by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation who had arranged for this special weather report)......" The report only served to confirm our miserably wet and cold state.

As I sat in my tent and listened to the patter of the rain on the tent fly, I could not help contrast this trip with my first Himalayan climb. In 1985, exactly three years ago, I had left Mumbai on the15th of August and was standing atop my first summit two weeks later, at 20,000 feet! Perhaps that was sheer beginner's luck...

We decided to retreat to Duktu once again!

Finally, on the 26th of Sept., a full month since our departure from Mumbai, Ravish and I reoccupied Base Camp. The Khadalia couple would come up a day later as Kum Kum (who is a doctor) had to attend to an old lady she had treated for a cut a few weeks earlier.

The next day, Ravish and I set off to establish and occupy our Camp I. We re-tensioned some of the ropes that we had fixed up the rock / grass gully. We were grateful for the security of the ropes as the constant rain and snow had made ascending the gully a bit of a challenge.The grass slopes at our proposed camp site were now under more than a foot of snow. We pitched one tent and hurriedly ate dinner, followed by some chocolate fudge (which Margaret had especially made back in Mumbai) to celebrate my birthday up here!

Camp I

Brahma Kamal - the Lotus of God, growing at Camp I

The Pandavas may have stopped here to cook their divine meal; as far as we were concerned, our menu was in the slow cooker and the ingredients consisted of more rain, snow, and sleet. Days went by: we managed to put in another camp and set off on a couple of reconnaissances. The prospect of actually descending into the chaos of the upper Meola to gain the col between peaks II and III was totally unattractive, to say the least. It was ridden with crevasses and behaved in an extremely fickle manner during the period of our stay. We unanimously agreed that we were not going to risk life and limb in the midst of its ice towers and crevasses. We were firm believers in the dictum : There are Bold Climbers and there are Old Climbers; but there are no Old Bold Climbers!

Camp II
We cast around to see if we could traverse on the lower slopes of the east ridge and then drop down towards the col. A brief foray revealed that the obstacles were considerable: steep rocky ridges barred the way. Our little expedition was just not geared to tackle terrain of that nature. We spent 12 days in increasingly cold and unpredictable weather and finally had to accept the fact that this approach was not practical for us. Time, and our supplies, was also running out. The last of the summer inhabitants of the Darma valley would soon be heading down to more amenable environments and we would be hard pressed to find pack animals for the trek down to Tawaghat.

Upper Meola icefall leading to the col below Panch Chuli III ( left) and II (south ridge just visible)

Ravish and I set off on one last sortie, climbing above our Camp II to see if we could traverse the steep rock  and find a viable route so we could drop down on to the relatively flat ground of the saddle between Panch Chuli II and III where a camp site looked feasible. After a couple of hours we were convinced that the climbing would be too technical for our modest talents and the route would be very strung out. As if to compensate for our disappointment, the day brought us some fantastic photo opportunities and I was glad to keep turning the film advance lever of my trusty Olympus OM1 SLR camera.

Ravish poses with the icy splendour of Panch Chuli III serving as a gorgeous backdrop

The col between the south ridge (right) of Panch Chuli II and Panch Chuli III (left)

Panch Chuli IV

Panch Chuli V

With a mixture of relief and sadness, we turned back and hurried down to camp. Our minds were now focused on the business of getting down safely to Base Camp with all our stuff. A lammergeier spotted our small and futile human movements and swooped down low, gliding a few feet above us. The wind rushing through its feathers sounded surreal. It was a magnificent bird, and the bright cold sunlight split into shafts of dynamic rays as it filtered through the massive wingspan. I think it was telling us that we did not belong, that our fragile existence was better served if we stayed down in the valleys and the plains!

Above Camp II

The view east

We were back in Duktu on the 12th October. The whole village was bustling with activity, families packing up to go down the valley, making sure their houses were locked for the winter, their harvests of millet stored in deep excavations in the ground and covered with branches and leaves and straw. Winter would soon descend onto this small hamlet and everything would be buried under the snow. When the families returned after the spring thaw they would uncover their precious cargo. By tradition, one family would stay back and keep an eye on things during the cold winter months. And the next year another family would stay behind and so the responsibility would be passed on...It was wonderful to witness this age old custom of community co-operation high in the Himalaya.

Autumn creeps down the slopes to Duktu

Because demand for pack animals was now so high, we barely managed to get some for our own move back to Tawaghat. In the end, though, everything worked out and we joined the caravan of Bhotia families: men, women, children, goats all walking down the mountain trails with ceaseless chatter and the tinkling of the bells round the necks of the mules and donkeys carrying the luggage. With our little transistor radio, we caught up with happenings in the rest of the world. The bad weather that had plagued us was not exclusive to our little area; rain and snow storms had swept all across the Himalaya that September, from east to west. One unfortunate party of 6 trekkers had even perished on a pass in the Lahul / Zanskar region. We were lucky to have been out of harm's way during that period.

The elegant form of Panch Chuli V bids us adieu as we descend down the Darmaganga

When the shadows in the steep valleys lengthened, the caravan would halt and wood smoke from the many fires would waft around the camp. The glow from the little hearths had a warm, human touch reflected in the weather beaten faces of the mountain folk huddled around them. Even though the light could not compare with the ethereal luminescence of the Pandavas' fires on the Chulis, it was a timely reminder that as mere mortals we had been privileged to spend a few weeks in some of the most gorgeous mountain landscapes in the world. And for that we were grateful.


  1. It is always a pleasure reading your blogs. You are truly an inspiration sir :)

  2. Thank you for the excellent writing and pictures. Interestingly Mrs. Kumkum Khadalia was the doctor on a Youth Hostel Association cycling trip I did in 2009. Had no idea about the climbing she had done.

    Also I wonder if you could tell me how far it's possible to go up this route without ropes/equipment ie. just basic trekking?

  3. Kum Kum has a long list of mountaineering and trekking accomplishments to her credit, including participating in the first Indian Women's expedition to Nanda Devi and the first Indian expedition to Everest!

    Re your trekking inquiry, it is possible for anyone with reasonable fitness to climb up to the top of the grass shelf above our Base Camp....we ascended on traditional shepherd's tracks all the way to the base of the rocky section. We found traces of sheep/goat droppings in many places as well as a rudimentary stone enclosure where the animals could be herded in for the night. The top of the shelf is a stupendous viewpoint and well worth the effort!

  4. Re Everest, I meant the first Indian Women's expedition to Everest....

  5. Alok you are misinformed. I was called for the said Everest expedition but I did not go for various reasons.
    regards kum

    1. My apologies,Kum. Thank you for correcting the record.