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Fires on the Mountain
Mountaineer Harish Kapadia looks back on the highs and lows of an Indo-British expedition in 1992, sponsored by the Godrej Enterprise, in the Panch Chuli mountain group.
According to ancient legend, the Panch Chuli mountain peaks are named after the five Pandava brothers from the Indian epic Mahabharata. The peaks are believed to represent the Pandavas?cooking hearths (or chulis) at which they cooked their last meal before proceeding to heaven. At sunrise and sunset, the sun’s rays fall directly on the peaks, reflecting the light upwards to the sky, giving the impression of embers glowing on a hearth. Thus, the legend is firmly established in folklore.
“A mountaineer never retires. In a sense he never hangs up his boots or calls it a day. As he grows in years he continues with trekking and loving the hills . . .?/font>
“This has to be Chris.?/font>
“Yes, it is.?/font>
“Is he lecturing Graham so early in the morning??/font>
I peeped out of my tent and heard Chris snoring loudly. It was the radio. The BBC was broadcasting an interview with Chris Bonington. We were at Advance base camp (4,840 m). This must surely be a record of sorts, listening to an interview at this height, with the interviewee snoring in the next tent!
Our expedition had come a long way already. When Bonington and the others arrived in Mumbai on 7 May 1992, we had made all the preparations. Our team was sponsored by Godrej Industries. S. P. Godrej, Chairman, was interested in nature and was a great supporter of outdoor sports. At a party hosted at Godrej Bhavan for members of the Panch Chuli expedition, S. P. Godrej and K. N. Naoroji wished us luck and said: “Enjoy yourselves and come back safely.?Little did we realise that these were prophetic words.
A superfast train took us to Delhi. A two-day bus ride with half a day’s rest at Ranikhet followed. Finally everything was in place at Munsiary, the roadhead.
“How are we going to go through this??we exclaimed on seeing the three icefalls of the glacier. We got past the first one and the Glacier camp (3,900 m) was set up. Victor Saunders opened a route on the left of the glacier. It was a maze of collapsing crevasses, and falling stones bombarded the fixed ropes. We christened it “Victor’s Terror?and reluctantly moved in.
“Surely the Pandavas did not go this way.?/font>
“Why, this is the surest way to heaven.?/font>
“But we have to reach the peak and cook a meal before that is ensured. These peaks symbolise the Pandavas?cooking fires on the mountain.?/font>
We all certainly intended to return, and not go the Pandavas?celestial way. “Forget the fires on the mountain, run, run, run,?someone said, reminding us of a childhood rhyme, warning us about the falling stones.
There was a loud sound. As we looked up Chris was hanging on a jumar on the fixed rope. The entire ground beneath him had collapsed.
“Chris, do you still think we should follow this route with loaded porters??/font>
“If I were you, I would not follow this route,?Chris replied, with British understatement.
“I am certainly not you. We will try a route on the right hand edge.?I pointed to it and started descending. Chris and Graham continued upwards.
We found two gullies, leading up and passing by the second and third icefall. This was the route followed by all the earlier teams. It was completely exposed to the elements. All the difficulties we had faced on the left route on snow and ice were present here on scree and rocks. We fixed a rope and on the first run I almost lost my rucksack. After crossing it once, Victor got even with me.
“I heard all about it Harish. If the left route was ‘Victor’s Terror?then this is ‘Harish’s Horror??/font>
He was proved right. Later on in the expedition Vijay Kothari slipped in one of these gullies and almost fell down the rocks. Sundersingh literally slid after him and stopped him at the last bump. Vijay broke an ankle and a helicopter flew in to pick him up.
Above it we climbed another ice gully and reached Advance base camp. Chris and Graham were there, having climbed Sahadev East (5,750 m).
Panch Chuli II (6,904
m), southwest ridge
Camp 1 (5,750 m) was established at the edge of the Balati plateau. We were to take on the southwest ridge, while Chris and Graham were to climb the west ridge. Both ridges were separated by a short distance. We were to open a main route to the foot of the peak as four Britons were traversing Rajrambha (6,537 m) from Advance base camp. On 3 June with Chris, Graham Little and Monesh Devjani, I joined Muslim and Bhupesh Ashar who had already done a recce of the Balati plateau. The next day we crossed the maze of crevasses to Camp 2 (6,120 m) on the col at the foot of the southwest ridge. Chris and Graham bifurcated off halfway through for the west ridge.
“Pasang and I will fix some rope ahead to move the camp. We will surely be up in two days?time,?Monesh said with enthusiasm as we embraced, wishing each other good luck. The next day as Bhupesh and I returned to Camp 2, Muslim, Monesh and Pasang were on the ridge, establishing Camp 3.
It was a little cloudy on 7 June. From Camp 2 we could not see a thing at first. “I can see three dots moving up the final ridge,?I shouted at about 10 a.m. Slowly the dots moved up and disappeared from view. From our ringside seat we could see two dots moving up the west ridge, too.
Starting from Camp 3 (6,400 m) three of our men had reached the foot of the upper rock band at 6.45 a.m. An hour later they reached the point where the southwest and southern ridges met at 6,800 m. But the “fun?had just begun. The cornices hanging on the east were very thin (“so thin that we could see sunshine through them,?Bill Murray had written about this ridge, observing it from the east). They carefully crept up, without any chance of fixing protection. Finally, they were on the top at 10.15 a.m. There was no time to waste. They started to descend immediately. A little below the top Monesh fell through the cornice almost up to his chest. As he was pulled out he realised how close to heaven he had come. He left a scarf there to mark the spot. Having lost their way in a white-out they abseiled the upper rock band and with difficulty reached Camp 3. This was only the second ascent by this ridge. Whereas the earlier team had fixed the entire route, now only about 60 m of fixed rope had been used. Carefully, they retreated to Camp 2 where Bhupesh and I were waiting with hot mugs of tea.
After about two hours, two other figures made their way to us for their cups of tea: Chris and Graham, after their ascent by the west ridge and descent by the southwest ridge, had reached our camp.
Panch Chuli II (6,904
m), west ridge
Starting out the next day with the Indian team, we carried heavy loads to the head of the icefall guarding the Balati plateau. The camp was on the shoulder of the ridge between the Uttari Balati and Dakshini Balati glaciers. From there, the following morning (4 June) we reconnoitered a route to the foot of the west ridge and moved up the next day to pitch our little Gemini tent at 6,120 m within easy reach of the bottom of the ridge.
At 3.30 a.m. on 6 June we began ferrying all our tentage and gear. It was a moonless but starlit night. A steep little bergschrund, climbed by the light of the head torches, led onto the ridge itself. It was only 45 degrees in angle but was hard ice with only the occasional thin smear of név?clinging to it. We were climbing one at a time and, feeling the altitude, had slowed down. Dawn came and the sun crept up and over the crest of the southwest ridge. The view was magnificent; the two peaks of Sahadev were far below us, across the valley sprawled Rajrambha, whose long serpentine ridges the other four were climbing, while out to the west towered the steep pyramid of Nanda Devi, surely one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
The angle steepened and the crest of the ridge was barred by a serac, forcing us onto the west face up steep, poorly consolidated snow. Our progress became even slower and the day was beginning to slide away. We had been on the go for ten hours and reached around 6,500 m but there was no sign of a bivvy site. Graham led up a steep ice-gully and pulled out on a little vertical ice-wall leading back onto the crest of the ridge. I panted slowly up behind him and was happy to let him lead the next pitch. He was hunting for somewhere to camp, but to no avail. It was late after noon and the cloud was swirling around us. The occasional lump of ice or slurry of snow came tumbling down, but he could find nowhere large enough for our tent. The rope came tight between us. I abandoned the belay and started moving up behind him. At last, I heard a tired shout of triumph. He had found a camp site.
I joined him on the crest of the ridge. Just above was a small ledge below a serac wall. We were able to dig out a camp site with minimum of work and pitched our little Gemini at 6,610 m. It feels very secure, can stand up almost to any weather, but it is small. It would make a reasonable one-man tent but is cramped for two, specially if one of the occupants (Graham) is six feet two inches tall. Fortunately I had a modification made of a commodious sleeve entrance in one end. Graham was able to put either his head or feet into that extra space to stretch out.
It started snowing almost immediately, but what was more serious was that Graham had a savage headache, something that is always worrying at altitude. Inevitably I thought of cerebral oedema, but Graham told me that he had fractured his skull as a child and suffered from time to time with debilitating headaches. There was none of the puffiness associated with oedema around his eyes and they weren’t unduly bloodshot, so I was slightly reassured.
We were slow in getting away the next morning. We were both tired from the previous long day, and anyway there was not too much urgency. We wanted to reach the summit very early in the morning to be sure of being rewarded with a view. We only had 400 m to go to reach the top, and therefore decided to push our camp a short way up and closer to the southwest ridge which we planned to descend once we had completed our climb.
Fortunately Graham’s headache became more bearable once he started moving, and we took alternate leads, progressing slowly over the crevassed upper face in the direction of the southwest ridge. Just after midday we saw three small figures moving down the crest of the ridge. It was the Indian team descending after a successful ascent. We shouted, but got no reply.
By this time the cloud had rolled in once more and we stopped on the lip of a bergschrund at around 6,730 m. It was snowing again by the time we pitched the tent and once Graham got into his sleeping bag, his headache returned with renewed fury. I could almost feel the pain he was obviously experiencing. Neither of us slept that night. The snow pressed in on the tent, making it even smaller. Had the weather finally broken? Would Graham be able to go for the summit if it was fine in the morning? Could I go for it on my own? Perfectly feasible, but how could I justify leaving Graham alone? The snow stopped just before the dawn. I started melting some in the gas stove hanging from the roof of the tent, asked Graham what he wanted to do, and to my immense relief he said he’d have a go for the summit.
We left the tent in place, and cut across towards the crest of the southwest ridge. It was easy-angled but hard ice. Just below the summit we came across a red cloth (Monesh’s scarf) left by the others the previous day. Graham had rallied once he got going, took his turn in the lead, and suddenly we were almost there. Graham led the last few feet towards the summit of Panch Chuli II. We had our reward for our high camp and early start, for the sky was still clear, the view magnificent, with fresh vistas to the north of mountains in Tibet, of Gurla Mandhata, massive, majestic to the northeast, and further to the north, a distant pyramid, Kailash, most holy of all mountains in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Looking to the east we could see Api and the mountains of west Nepal, shapely snow peaks in the distance, while in the immediate foreground, much lower but still dramatic, were the peaks of Panch Chuli IV and V (III was hidden by the lip of a huge cornice), Telkot and Nagling, all of them unclimbed, all steep and challenging.
We spent half an hour on the summit before returning to our camp, where we stuffed the frozen tent and all the gear into our packs and started the long descent of the southwest ridge to rejoin Harish and others who were still encamped on the col at the foot of it. It was wonderful to enjoy their hospitality, crammed three to a two-man tent, to have endless cups of hot tea and to share with each other the stories of our two ascents. It had been an immensely satisfying climb snatched in the teeth of deteriorating weather.
To Pyunshani valley
“Venables and co. are coming up to climb Panch Chuli II.?/font>
Chris and I were discussing our plans as we descended together after ascents of Panch Chuli II. We met the others on the glacier below. Congratulations to each other and lots of laughter followed.
“What are your plans??Chris inquired.
“We will try another ridge on Panch Chuli II.?/font>
“Harish and I are going to the Pyunshani valley, a little to the south.?/font>
“Graham is up at Advance base camp, waiting for us.?/font>
“Good luck then. We will tell you about those unclimbed peaks. No one has been to the Pyunshani before us. It will be a wonderful exploration for us.?Chris started walking down. Soon the entire party was moving to the Pyunshani valley.
There was no record of any party visiting this valley which drained the Panch Chuli peaks III, IV and V. After some persuasion we found a guide, Dhansingh, who as we discovered later, had been up here years before. He promised us fresh meat from the shepherd in the valley. All went well to begin with. We retreated to Phunga Gair (2,920 m), a gem of a place as the name implied. On 15 June we climbed a steep incline through dense forest to cross Bagarthora col (3,800 m) and camped at Shyama Gwar (3,600 m). Ahead the route traversed up and down numerous ridges. Dhansingh stopped every five minutes. Ultimately it was too much for Britain’s best mountaineers.
“Harish, there is no meat here, shall we eat Dhansingh??They started descending to the river wanting to follow it to the base camp in the upper valley. Dhansingh shook his head in disapproval to say that no route was possible from here.
“We have a rebellion on our hands. What shall we do, Chris??I asked helplessly.
“If I were you, I would follow Dhansingh,?Chris replied in his characteristic style. He had dealt with many such restless climbers. After a while as others descended, Chris called out: “Follow the river, camp in the open and in rain. Remember we have the tents. See you at the base camp in two to three days.?/font>
The four cursing Britons climbed back in line behind Dhansingh!
On 16 June we established our second base camp (3,320 m). We had five days. Two plans were made. Muslim, Monesh and I were to climb in a side valley and explore the adjoining Rula and Bainti glaciers. The five Britons were to try one of the Panch Chulis and meet us back at Munsiary. We were to leave some food and three porters for them and go back early to wind up the expedition at Munsiary. Accordingly both teams left on 17 June.
These were the most delightful days for us. We had already achieved the main objective, Panch Chuli II. Where most teams would have gone back, here we were in a valley never visited before. Totally relaxed we moved two camps to reach the Bainti Col (5,100 m) on 20 June. Two peaks rose to the northeast and southwest of the col. We climbed both, Panchali Chuli (5,220 m) and Draupadi (5,250 m).
We came down in rain, and returned to Munsiary on 23 June leaving the Britons to follow.
Little did we realise the drama that was being unfolded on Panch Chuli V. The expedition was not over as yet!
(This article first appeared in The Himalayan Journal, Vol. 49 (1993), published by the Himalayan Club)
Members of the
British team: Chris Bonington (co-leader), Graham Little, Dick Renshaw, Victor Saunders, Stephen Sustad and Stephen Venables.
Supported by: Pasang Bodh, Yograj, Khubram, Prakash Chand, Suratram, Sundersingh, Revatram (cook), Harsinh Sr. and Harsinh Jr.
Sponsored by: Godrej.