Home | Editorial Home Base | Little Wonders | Snail Mail | Reminder   

A camp at high altitude on Panch Chuli II
Accident on Panch Chuli
By Harish Kapadia

Chris was watching the climbers descending. In the darkness he could see four lights moving down the slopes. Suddenly, he saw one light tumbling and falling past the others. “Oh my God, someone has fallen,?he thought.

We had finished climbing Panch Chuli II, the highest peak of the group. But with a few days
in hand we changed track and decided to climb peaks in the Pyunshani valley. It was agreed that Muslim, Monesh and I would return to Munsiary and tie up all the formalities for our return. Five Britishers who were to attempt Panch Chuli V were to join us in three days?time. Three porters and provisions were left behind for the rest of the team.

On the last morning at base camp we relaxed, enjoying a leisurely breakfast. Harsinh Sr. was boiling water for tea. Suddenly the pan fell off the fire and doused the flames. Harsinh was horrified, as according to local superstition this meant bad luck.

“A bad sign,?he told Muslim who was sitting opposite him. Muslim did not react.

Over the next three days we returned to Munsiary and settled down in the resthouse. We were finalising the expedition accounts on the afternoon of 23 June 1992, when we heard someone running towards our room.

“There is a phonecall for you. It is Chris from Madkot. He says there has been an accident.?/font>

We ran to the office below.

“Harish, Stephen Venables has fallen, breaking his left knee and right ankle,?Chris?voice was choked with emotion.

“The only way to rescue him is by helicopter. They could all perish. Their camp is in the line of the avalanche slope.?/font>

We exchanged grid references and other details. Our efficient liaison officer, Wing Commander Anil K. Srivastava, started sending out messages. Luckily he was from the same air base, Bareilly, which was responsible for a rescue in our area. He knew the procedures and the officers well.

Muslim ran down to gather our porters who all readily volunteered to go back to the mountain to help. Whether a helicopter was able to fly there or not we were prepared for an immediate ground rescue. The army and Indo-Tibet Border Police forces were alerted to be with us when we went in. Monesh made hurried purchases for the ground party to start off in an hour’s time. We drove down to Madkot, 22 km away.

A look at Chris told us half the story. He was shaken, disturbed and choked with emotion as he narrated the details of the accident. With a big gash on his cheek, due to his own fall, he looked ghastly.

The climb
Chris Bonington, Victor Saunders, Dick Renshaw, Stephen Sustad and Stephen Venables formed a strong team. After careful consideration they felt that Panch Chuli V was their best bet for a grand finale to the expedition. They had five days to complete the climb and return to the base camp where they would meet the porters. The first two days went well, with good climbing, as they overcame difficulties to reach the summit ridge. It snowed on the third day. They dithered and debated and finally settled early and camped on a col at the foot of the final ridge. On the same day some ropes were fixed ahead.

Crossing dangerous crevasses in the Balati Glacier icefall.

That evening Chris announced that he would not join in the climb ahead ?a premonition of things to come perhaps? But he did not suggest that they should stop. “This is how climbing standards progress. These leading mountaineers know what they are doing and no leader should stop them,?was his reaction.

On 20 June four climbers left the high camp at 3.30 a.m. leaving Chris behind at the camp. At 3 p.m. (nearly 12 hours after starting) Panch Chuli V was climbed by a remote and difficult route. The descent would be just a matter of patient hard work; then they could all go home, they thought. They took turns to lead and set up abseils and traverses. Matters were under control and everything went like clockwork. Soon it was nightfall and they continued abseiling by the light of their head torches. By 2.30 a.m. Dick set off down on what would have been their penultimate rappel.

The accident
Chris was watching the climbers descending. In the darkness he could see four lights moving down the slopes. Suddenly, he saw one light tumbling and falling past the others. “Oh my God, someone has fallen,?he thought. It was Stephen Venables who had fallen. Steve described his moments of destiny as follows:

I took out the back-ups to abseil anchor ?a half-inch angle peg, hammered to the hilt into a horizontal crack. It had been tested thoroughly, not shifting a millimetre during three people’s descent. After an hour’s wait it was good to be moving again. I clipped my friction brake into the ropes, checked it carefully, unclipped my safety sling from the anchor, then stepped off the ledge, leaning out to walk backwards down a steep chimney.

I think I had gone about 20 ft when the noise started. It was loud, metallic and brutal, but I only realised gradually that it was happening to me. It took me a while to understand that it was my body that was subjected to this vicious battering, punched and pummelled as I swooped, bounced and somersaulted down the mountain. And then suddenly I felt the connection: “Ah yes, of course ?I am on Panch Chuli. The peg came out. What a mean trick.?Looking back now, I still cannot remember the initial swoop ?the sudden awful lurch into the void. Nor can I remember the end ?only the extended battering in between, when time stopped. It was similar to the incident, when as a small child, I was electrocuted by an overhead cable ?the same helpless passive acceptance of hideous violence, distorted outside normal time and space. But this time I realised more precisely what was happening and knew that I was dying.1

Steve fell past the waiting climbers, about 150 feet down. Suddenly someone said “the anchor pulled? The ropes were whipping past them. They saw the long dark shape crashing past them with sparks from crampons and ice axe as they brushed against rocks. Dick and Victor grabbed the ropes instinctively and when the weight came they felt the jerk but stopped the fall.

Soon Victor was down and reached Steve. His first reaction was, “Thank God he is alive and in one piece.?But after the initial shock and some first aid, came the problem: “how on earth do we get him out of here??It was out of the question to get him to the camp where Chris was waiting. The traverse would be too risky. So they did the only possible thing; lowered him by a variety of techniques to the snow debris at the bottom of the slope, where the tents were pitched.

Dick and Victor took turns to lower Steve down the 400 m slope to the schrund. Stephen Sustad soloed off to tell Chris the news. The two of them packed the tents and started climbing down. About 150 m above the schrund Chris fell in a cartwheel. His crampons must have balled up, he slid, tried to brake, caught his front points in the ice and lost it completely. He shot over the schrund trying to curl up into a ball, with the idea that he was less likely to break his limbs if they weren’t sticking out. He stopped and sat quietly for a while. He was lucky to be alive and unhurt. Sustad soon joined him and both of them erected tents for the others. After a great effort Steve was lowered to this tent, almost 36 hours after they had left the bivvy on the south col.

Next morning Chris and Sustad went down to organise a rescue. They reached the base camp the same afternoon. Chris went on the next day and walked with Harsinh Sr. (who now knew his tea pan had not lied) in a blistering nine hours. It would normally have been a three-day effort. At Madkot, Chris telephoned me and the rescue was under way.

The rescue
A party of eight left for the base camp with plenty of food and supplies. They were to reach it (which they did) in a day and thus supply the climbers higher up. We came up to Munsiary, feeling cut off without much communication with the outside world. For the next two days and nights no one slept well, particularly Chris. He kept tossing about.

Bloodstains on the snow mark the point at which Stephen Venables was first rescued.

Stephen Venables is lowered by rope after his fall. This photograph was taken at 21,000 feet.

Stephen Venables receives medical attention for his injuries after his rescue.

Chris Bonington, left, greets Stephen Venables as he arrives by helicopter in Munsiary.

We waited for two days on open ground, scanning the skies with binoculars. Every morning we had the same routine: to go to the nearest police base, stay glued to the wireless and scan the skies for any signs of a helicopter. No one spoke much and the tension in the air was evident.

The helicopter went into the Pyunshani valley twice and came out. The lack of communication was killing. We did not know what was happening. In fact as we learnt later, the chopper had flown a sortie on 24 June itself. Due to the clouds and the height the pilots could not locate the tent. The climbers heard the chopper but there was nothing they could do to attract attention. It added to their frustration and they realised the danger they were in.

We prepared a complete ground plan. If the chopper was not able to pick up Venables on the third day we would go in with a 20-strong army party with a doctor and all the support required. But before that eventuality we had another plan too. Chris knew the exact location of the tent where the party was stranded. As he was well-acclimatised it was thought that he could accompany the pilot in the chopper and point out the exact location. He would carry extra food and equipment which could be supplied to the climbers, in case the chopper was unable to land to pick up Steve. At least this would give the climbers some hope. We requested that the helicopter should land at Munsiary and take Chris in it to show them the exact spot.

Things were tense on the mountain too. They did not know what was happening below. As Steve later wrote: “We waited four days, in strange limbo, isolated in the bowl under Panch Chuli V, cut off from the world by a great barrier of tumbling below, confident that Chris and Harish, with all their combined prestige and diplomatic skill, would ensure that we eventually returned to that world.?/font>

In the meantime, the ground rescue party had reached the base camp. Sustad who was at the base, left with Harsinh Jr. carrying food up, for there was none to sustain the injured climber and his companions. This was a heroic effort too. Sustad was tired, drained, but nothing would stop him from going up. Harsinh Jr., generally scared on snow, put on oversized shoes and jumared behind Sustad to carry a large load, leaving it halfway up. Victor and Dick, at great risk to themselves from avalanches, climbed at night to carry these back to the tent. There were many heroes of this rescue. But as Chris told me later: “Harish, if you ever plan to fall ensure that four such experts are with you. Steve owes a lot to them.?/font>

Tension was mounting at Munsiary. Almost the entire town and bureaucracy were now geared up for the rescue. We were always on stand-by and talking to the local commanders and officials on wireless. There were offers to go in, help and support us in any way possible. It was gratifying to find humanity all around us. Of course there were those who grumbled. A few questioned the wisdom of going for a difficult and dangerous climb, when the leader (Chris) with his experience had backed out. Why should such a major rescue effort, at great risk to the lives of the pilots and others be organised to save a foolhardy climber, they asked. But we were not going to abandon Steve on the mountain, even if that meant moving a mountain.

On 26 June we were waiting at the helipad again. Chris, in full mountain gear, was ready to go aboard, as per our plan.

We saw the helicopter going into the Pyunshani valley and returning after half an hour. Chris was ready and we waved to the pilots. They came towards us, and turned to land. Suddenly we saw a red duvet jacket with Stephen Venables smiling in it! There was much hugging and celebrating ?our joy knew no bounds. The pilots, Sqd. Ldr. P. Jaiswal and Flt. Lt. P. K. Sharma, had done a magnificent job and picked up Venables on the last attempt at great risk to themselves.

The pilots had decided to take one more chance to complete the rescue before picking up Chris as a last resort. What happened on the mountain was best described by Victor Saunders who participated in the action.

The helicopter flew in that afternoon. We were at 5,600 m, which is pretty damn close to the flying ceiling for Alouettes. There was no winch, presumably to save weight, and so the pilots had to attempt a half landing. They hovered 20 feet from us and motioned their requirements. It was like trying to communicate with gods in a maelstrom. Dick lay on the collapsed tents to stop them blowing away. I clutched at Venables to stop him tobogganing down the cwm in his sleeping bag. Now that would have been embarrassing. The chopper put one skid down on the outside edge of the tent platform, the rotor tops inches from the snow, and not much more above our heads. One mistake from the pilots, and Venables and I would be salamied. A door opened, the co-pilot motioned, I pushed and Venables pulled, he landed his torso on the floor behind the pilots. The aircraft wandered slightly, the co-pilot gestured violently. In desperation Venables put his broken ankle on the skid and pushed off on it, I heaved the other leg. With a howl of pain he was in. I collapsed exhausted. The chopper wobbled uncertainly and moved off. The leg withdrew, the Perspex door shut. The pilots waved and turned for home.2

The entire village had gathered around the landing ground. The door was flung open and we saw a tired, haggard and relieved Stephen Venables.

“Harish, I did not put mother’s petals, given to me by Nawang, on the summit. That’s why I fell,?were Stephen’s first words on being brought out on the stretcher. He was referring to the votive petals from the samadhi of the Mother of Pondicherry. He had carried a similar packet to the summit of Everest in 1988 during his solo ascent. He had put it on the summit, photographed it and survived a night alone above the South Col.

‘‘You have survived because you had her blessings with you,?I consoled him.

Steve wanted to stay with us, talk, share and perhaps cry. But there was no time for any emotion. It was sad that such a reunion was a prelude to further administrative action. Steve needed urgent medical aid. So we waved him off in the same chopper to the Bareilly hospital.3

Muslim, accompanied by two porters, left by taxi, travelling all night. They met Steve at the Bareilly hospital. Muslim with quiet efficiency arranged for a transfer to Delhi by an ambulance. Driving through the hot plains of Uttar Pradesh and then making arrangements at Delhi required as much expertise as climbing a mountain. But shamelessly using contacts Muslim managed within the next 48 hours to put Venables on a flight to London.4

That evening in Munsiary, Chris, Monesh and I sat quietly at a small temple of Shiva, in a Hindu gesture of thanksgiving for Venables?rescue. I was surprised to receive a letter from Chris months later, recalling that sojourn and the strange peace we all experienced then.

On 27 June, tired and emotionally drained, Renshaw, Saunders and Sustad returned. We had a lot to talk about. The narrow escape, the hard work by our porters, dangerous avalanches and of course the incredible rescue.

They were full of praise for Harsinh Jr. In boots four sizes too large, without any technical know-how, he had carried loads high up the icefall to feed the stranded climbers. The British wanted to sponsor him for a training course at a mountaineering institute in India. I pointed out that these courses are generally undertaken by the educated and by army officers. Harsinh Jr., a shepherd by profession, would be a misfit there.

“We will get him over to England. He can do the course at Plas-y-Brenin. Ask him if he would go.?/font>

“I just want to go back to my goats. My flock has been unattended for a long time now,?Harsinh murmured.

We sat in a wayside hotel and Chris typed out the expedition report on a laptop computer, taking the place a generation ahead in technology. Around him there was no electricity and ladies were carrying wood as fuel for cooking. We were packing up for the final bus ride home after a most satisfying expedition.

“We are one up on the Pandavas. We came back from the Panch Chulis.?/font>

“We lit enough fires on the mountain though.?/font>

“Venables almost reached heaven, didn’t he??/font>

“In a way we all reached ‘heaven? It’s the spirit that counts, isn’t it??/font>

“I am in heaven now.?We were on our way back and Victor was feasting on the first of the hundred mangoes we were to polish off that evening.

As Chris Bonington wrote in the expedition report, after 30 years of mountaineering, “In spite of everything it was one of the best and most enjoyable expeditions that the team members had ever taken part in.?We all agreed!

Notes & References

  1. From the Alpine Journal, 1993, ?Panch Chuli V? by Stephen Venables.

  2. From The Himalayan Journal, Vol. 49, ‘Rajrambha and Panch Chuli V? by Victor Saunders. See his book, No Place to Fall for a full account of the expedition and the accident.

  3. This hospital will be remembered by many mountaineers who have been flown here after accidents in Kumaon or Garhwal. I vividly remember how I was brought here by helicopter after dislocating a hip-joint in 1974. See ‘Rescue on Devtoli?in my book High Himalaya Unknown Valleys.

  4. Steve had to undergo surgery and many months of physiotherapy. He took some time to climb again. He was back in the Himalaya in 1997 on a trek to Kinnaur. I was happy to be accompanying him.



Tourists? Prayer

Our Father who is in heaven look down on us Your humble obedient tourists who are condemned to travel this earth, taking photographs, sending postcards and walking around in drenched clothes.

We implore You, Oh God, to ensure that our plane is not turned back and that our overloaded luggage gets neither lost nor noticed at customs.

Give us this day divine help in our hotel selection, that we find our reservations honoured, our rooms ready and hot water flowing from the taps (if all this is possible).

We pray that the telephones work and that the operators speak our language and that there will be no messages from our children obliging us to cut short our holidays.

Lead us, Oh God, to good and reasonable restaurants where the food is superb, the waiters nice and the wine included in the price of the meal.

Give us the wisdom to tip correctly with money that we don’t understand. Forgive us for not giving enough through ignorance or too much through fear.

Give us the strength to visit the museums, the cathedrals, the palaces and the castles and if by chance we miss an historic monument because of a nap after lunch, have pity on us for our flesh is weak.

Husbands: My God, save our wives from the folly of shopping and protect them from “bargains?they neither need nor can afford. Lead them not into temptation for they know not what they do.

Wives: All powerful Father, restrain our husbands from looking at foreign women and comparing them with us. Stop them making fools of themselves in the bars and discos. Above all, we would ask You not to forgive them for they know exactly what they are doing.

Everyone: And when at last our trip is over and we have returned home, please do us a favour in finding someone who will look at our photos and listen to our stories so that our lives as tourists won’t have been in vain.

July 1998, The Irish Experience by Ms. Agnes