Panch Chuli
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Panch Chuli Peaks

The most visible symbol in the Munsyari valley are the peaks of Panch Chuli, named after the five Pandava brothers from the Indian epic Mahabharata. The peaks represent their cooking hearths (chulis) where they cooked their last meal before ascending to heaven. From the Wayfarer Mountain Resort at sunrise, you can get to watch a spectacular sunrise. In the evening, a little after sunset, at times you can be witness to a magnificent moon rise as well.
The Panch Chuli peaks lie in Eastern Kumaun and form the watershed between the Gori and the Darma Ganga valleys. The eastern approaches are through Sona and Meola Glaciers. The Uttari and Dakshini Balati glaciers guard the western approaches. The peaks are numbered NW to SE, I (6355m/20851ft), II (6904m/22652ft) , III (6312m/2071 Oft), IV (6334m/20782ft) and V (6437m/21120ft). Naming the peaks from west to east breaks with the tradition of giving the highest peak the lowest number, but the nomenclature has become too well established to be changed now.
Early Expeditions from the East
The mountaineering history of these peaks began with the British mountaineer Hugh Ruttledge (1929). He saw the group at close quarters from high up on the Sona Glacier. He examined the routes and thought that the north arete (sharp ridge) might be possible. After 21 years two teams examined the eastern approaches. WH Murray (1950) and his Scottish team followed the Ruttledge route. They intended to reach the north col and follow the northeast ridge; however, they found the terrain too difficult. Just 20 days later came Kenneth Snelson (British) and J de V Graaff (South African). They reached the upper Sona Glacier by early September and found that its head was a cradle of 182m (600 ft) cliffs blocking the route to the northeast summit's ridge.
They considered the south ridge, but wrote: 'The ridge towards south col has a rather easier gradient but it is very broken, and heavily corniced.' They too abandoned their attempt on the south-east face after 122m (400ft).
After these attempts, the eastern approaches were left alone. Two more teams in 1970 and 1988 also tried them unsuccessfully.
Attempts from the West
The western approaches were tried one year after Murray. In 1951 Heinrich Harrer and Frank Thomas (Austrians) were joined by two Sherpas and a botanist. Though their account in the Himalayan Journal is not very explicit, their photographs in the archives clearly indicate that they pioneered the route through the Uttari Balati Glacier, bypassing three ice-falls. Together with the Sherpas, Harrer reached the Balati plateau and examined the north and west ridges. They tried the west ridge but a Sherpa fell off on hard blue ice. Harrer gave up. They spent only 16 days on the mountains but during that time they pioneered the route which was followed by all subsequent expeditions from this side.
Wrong claims
In 1952, the Indian climber PN Nikore followed the Harrer route and his attempt in June almost coincided with an attempt by another team led by DO Joshi which included Major John Dias. Both teams reached the Balati Plateau. Nikore returned in 1953 and claimed a solo ascent of the peak. Without any convincing proof, he was disbelieved and the claim ignored.
Group Captain AK Chowdhury led a team sponsored by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation to this group in 1964. Following the Uttari Balati Glacier, they reached the Balati Plateau. Their cursory attempt on peak II failed. They then claimed ascents of Peaks III, IV and V in two days (and two peaks on the same day).
These peaks stand above the southern valley of Pyunshani and are completely unapproachable from the Balati Plateau. To climb these peaks, as claimed, the party would have had to climb over very difficult terrain covering almost 10km (6 miles) in one day, above 6300m (20670ft) crossing low cols. The party had mistakenly climbed three distinct humps situated near their camps and running east-west from peak II instead of peaks III, IV and V, which broadly run north-south. The records were corrected after 28 years, when the mistake was pointed out by the 1992 Indian-British expedition.
First Ascents
The history of the Panch Chuli group continued with two large expeditions from the Indo-Tibet Border Police. The first team in 1972 was led by Hukam Singh. They powered their way to the Balati Plateau via the Harrer route and made the first-ever ascent of peak I. Repeating their route, Mahendra Singh led another team in 1973. The entire route on the southwest ridge was fixed with almost 3000m (9843ft) of rope. On 26th May 1973, 18 people climbed the summit of Panch Chuli II, the highest peak of the group.
The mountain was then left alone for some 18 years. In 1991 two routes were climbed via the eastern approaches by teams from the Indian Army. The first team followed the Sona Glacier, climbed the northeast slopes to reach above the north col and established a camp on the north ridge. The ridge was followed to the top, and thus the route suggested by Ruttledge in 1929 was finally completed after 61 years. The second army team followed Murray's route to the upper Meola Glacier. They pitched a high camp following the southeast slopes to the east ridge. The summit team broke the cornice to reach the top, and thus the route suggested by Snelson-Graaff was also completed, after 41 years.
Last Climbs
The scene finally shifted back to the west. The Indian-British expedition 1992 (jointly led by Sir Chris Bonington and Harish Kapadia) followed the route along the Uttari Balati Glacier to the Balati Plateau. On the way the team divided into groups to climb Sahadev East (5757m/18889ft), Menaka (6000m/19686ft) and Rajrambha (6537m/21448ft). On peak II, a team of three climbed the southwest ridge. It was a hard climb on ice, keeping well away from the hanging cornices. Compared to the earlier ascent, only 60m (197ft) of rope was fixed on the ridge. This was only the second ascent of the southwest ridge, made after 19 years.
Another team of two pioneered a new route up the steep and icy west ridge, with bivouacs. They descended the southwest ridge completing the traverse. Thus the route tried by Harrer was completed after 41 years.
The 1992 expedition later made the first ascent of peak V. On this peak Stephen Venables, a leading English mountaineer, fell while returning from the peak. He survived despite serious injuries and was airlifted in a daring helicopter rescue from the high camp. Peak IV was climbed in 1995 by a team from New Zealand. Peak III still remains unscaled, though it was attempted by two expeditions from Bombay in 1996 and 1998, both of which resulted in accidents.
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