A Pilgrimage to the Famous Five

Exploring the Panch Chuli
  |  Gorp.com

It all started with an exploratory visit to the wee town of Munsiyari, 7,000 feet up in the middle Himalayas, at the end of a long and very narrow winding road up from the hot Indian plains, to discover how to trek to the famous peaks beyond.

Located in a remote corner of the Himalayas in India, close to the border with Tibet, stand five prominent snow peaks in a row rising more than 20,000 feet into the deep blue sky.

Their profiles are perfectly triangular and, being symmetrical in shape and size, they look rather like a child's drawing of a mountain range. The peaks are called Panch Chuli by the villagers and shepherds who inhabit the densely forested valleys at its base—in the local mountain dialect, Panch Chuli means the five hearths.

These five peaks have been accorded meaning by Hindu legend as the five hearths on which the Pandavas—principal characters of the Hindu epic Mahabharata—cooked their last meal before ascending to heaven. The Himalayas, long considered sacred ground by the Hindus, was where the five brothers sought refuge after having lost their kingdom and their families to their warring cousins.

This region, called Kumaon, is little known to people outside the region, perhaps having been visited by as few as half a dozen explorers in the last hundred years. The area was briefly explored by the British climber, Hugh Ruttledge, in 1927. And attempts were made to climb the peaks in 1950 by teams led by W H Murray and by Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years in Tibet, two years later.

For many years, the government of India restricted travel to many mountain areas close to sensitive international borders, effectively stopping further forays. Finally, one of the Panch Chuli peaks was climbed by an Indian Army team in 1973.

In 1992, a team led by legendary mountaineer Chris Bonnington came close to disaster when Bonnington and another well known climber, Stephen Venables, were seriously injured in a fall on the mountain. The helicopter rescue was to go down in mountaineering lore as one of the most daredevil rescue efforts ever.

Having considerable experience of walking and exploring the Himalayan regions since the 1970s, my interest was aroused when the restrictions were eased in 1994. To explore the thick forests of the lower slopes and the meadows and glaciers of the higher reaches of the Panch Chulis now seemed within reach.

Munsiyari marks the end of the tarmac road into this region and from here begins the gorge trail through the narrow Johar valley, tracing one of the major trading routes into Tibet. Grain from the valley and factory-made goods from the Indian plains were carried on the backs of yaks in exchange for salt, turquoise and borax from Tibet until 1962. The Indo-Chinese war effectively closed the high pass through which the trail ran, devastating the local economy.

However, even though official permission was now in hand, the mountains stayed tantalizingly out of view on that first visit. Unseasonal rains kept the Panch Chulis veiled from view for our entire stay; the narrow trails turned to slithery rivers of mud and our plans to get closer to the mountains finally cancelled when the chilly rain turned to snow.

We were an unhappy trio seeking some cheer with the local brew, rakshi, in a thatched roadside shack grandly called the Panch Chuli Bar when Pangtey, the local village headman, walked in. Introductions and a long discourse on the fickle local weather followed. We learnt that Munsiyari was one of the wettest places in the western Himalayas because of its unique topography.

The following day, we were invited to Pangtey's house, reached by climbing a very narrow and nearly vertical ladder, to be introduced to his wife who sat behind a loom weaving a colorful wool carpet. We learned that most homes had a loom on which the lady of the house wove these carpets with motifs of dragons, lions and snowy peaks on them, all designs inspired by Tibetan mythology, a legacy of Munsiary's old links with Tibet.

I returned the following year with a mixed team of climbers and mountain walkers, all looking to visit an unexplored and unknown new region. Victor Saunders, a senior member of the 1992 Bonnington expedition, led the team. A retired English family doctor with his wife, a nervous Scot and assorted adventurers ranging from 25 to 55 years in age, made up the party of nine.

Our first task was to plan a route through territory for which no decent maps existed. Very obviously, to hire an experienced local guide was important. My old friend, Pangtey, the headman, recommended Mahesh, a 25-year-old smartly dressed local, who professed to know the route into this mysterious area.

Mahesh was a part-time primary school teacher, a small-time carpet broker and an occasional labor contractor, who arranged porters to carry down carpets from the higher villages for the rare buyer that ventured into this remote corner of Kumaon. Only later did we suspect that Mahesh had acquired some of his knowledge of the local trails as a small time poacher of blue sheep and musk deer that inhabit this high country.

For all his talents, Mahesh had only a tenuous hold over his more mature porters. We discovered this at the end of the first day. After three hours of patient waiting at the end of a six-hour uphill walk, we realized that a third of the porters had not reached camp. "On their way, Sir," said Mahesh, after the first hour when it began to get dark. "Any minute now," he insisted another hour later when Farook, our cook, began to threaten him with unspeakable consequences if his precious loads of fuel and food, all lovingly chosen and bought, did not arrive.

Things began to look grim after we finished the leftover lunch scraps for dinner. Even Mahesh looked worried and decided to walk down the trail. It all became clear at two in the morning when our visibly deflated expert guide announced that a third of the porters had abandoned their loads on the trail side and returned to their villages. They had apparently decided that the wages were simply not worth the danger of venturing into this unknown and potentially dangerous territory.

A passing shepherd with his flock of sheep and goats would have been pleasantly surprised to have found a neatly packed cache of tinned tuna, canned pasta sauces and a large selection of tinned pineapple and assorted fruit salads conveniently stored beside the trail.

To his credit, however, Mahesh was able to persuade eight of the stronger porters to go down the trail at three in the morning to retrieve the precious loads of food and fuel.

Most of the group went to their tents hungry that first night, but were soon asleep, comforted by the warmth of their sleeping bags. Victor and I sat around a tiny fire watching shooting stars streak across the black sky, rich with a million stars shining clear in the mountain air. It was daybreak before we heard the welcome sound of the porters returning with their loads.

Soon, Farook had steaming hot porridge, fried eggs and chappatis ready for breakfast within the hour and the team set off before the sun had touched the valley floor.

A serious and purposeful mood prevailed the next two days as we cut through dense thickets of seven-foot-high thorn nettles with dinner plate sized leaves. We clung to trails that were barely scratched into sheer cliff faces and leapt over torrents, where a slip would have meant being carried down to serious injury or death.

On the third night, an enormous cave warmed by Farook's three hissing kerosene stoves provided welcome change from the cold nights under nylon tents. Memories of the dangers overcome and the uncertainties about what lay ahead were anxiously discussed at dinner. Victor's vivid account of the 1992 Panch Chuli expedition and how close it had come to disaster made the mood somber. The air was thick with thoughts of what dangers and difficulties the next day would bring.

Our major challenge the next day lay in crossing the Pyunshani river. A good two hours were spent dragging a fallen log down a steep slope and positioning it across the fast flowing torrent to serve as a basic bridge. While the team put on protective harnesses to clip onto a safety line, we were not able to persuade the porters to put on this fancy piece of gear. They insisted on walking across that moss-covered log barefoot—that was how it had been done for centuries and a bunch of visiting outsiders were certainly not going to convince them otherwise.

And then it happened—the porter carrying a dozen tents slipped and fell into the river. A whirlpool stopped him from being carried over a waterfall to certain death. As the rest of us watched paralyzed, Victor pulled a roll of climbing rope out of his rucksack, anchored one end to a boulder and jumped in to grab the half-drowned man and pull him out of the freezing water.

The next two hours were spent in warming up two very cold men. Mutterings of discontent and whispers of a mutiny could be heard from the porters, who saw good reason in the abandonment of the journey by some of their colleagues earlier.

It was another long and tiring day before we climbed out of the dense nettle and rhododendron forest into more open rocky country at the foot of the Panch Chuli peaks. Marmots popped up all around looking curiously at the intruders. And fresh deer tracks along the sandy riverbank held promise.

Mahesh had found his place within the team and managed to retrieve some of his reputation now that we had succeeded in getting to the base of the Panch Chulis without getting lost. The porters were in a lighter mood with most of the hard work done. We could hear them singing boisterously, joking and exchanging gossip around the evening fires.

I suppose it is a spiritual thing, the feeling that overwhelms you as you sit at the door of your tent looking up at a 21,000 feet high mountain at the end of a week-long trek through unknown territory. From our camp at 16,000 feet, the five Panch Chuli peaks inspired awe with their forbidding, steep flanks lined with fluted ice. A combination of sunny days (that we used to walk up the Panch Chuli glaciers and explore new approaches to the mountain) and brilliant moonlit nights (when the peaks glowed as if floodlit) made up for the hardships that we had faced. A deep bond of friendship now cemented members of the group with Farook, our cook, Salim, his able assistant, and Mahesh, our guide of many talents, now all belonging to one harmonious team.

There are some memories that remain. The memories of lying awake till one in the morning watching frost coat the inside of your tent, unable to sleep with adrenaline pumping through your veins after the day's excitement. Memories of the porters shuffling and coughing restlessly in the next tent as they try and stay warm in temperatures that dip to 12 degrees C (10 degrees F). And memories of listening to the not too distant rumble of avalanches, making you very aware of your mortality.

But it all seems worthwhile at the end—we are some of the very few people who have ventured into this unknown land. A group of people who barely knew each other, united by this experience, have now become good, lifelong friends.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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