RAJRAMBHA AND PANCH CHULI V
A. V. SAUNDERS
THE PANCH CHULI expedition was the third in a distinguished series, the Indo-British excursions organised largely by Harish Kapadia of Bombay. The first was the 1985 Rimo expedition, which accomplished a large number of firsts including that classic exploration, the first ascent of Rimo III (Fotheringham and Wilkinson). The second excursion, to Chong Kumdan, took place in 1991 and placed four climbers on the highest unclimbed massif in India, including Church, Porter, MacAdie and that Wilkinson person again. Both the above expeditions visited the Eastern Karakoram via Ladakh. For 1992 Kapadia chose the Kumaon Himalaya, that part of Uttar Pradesh just west of the Nepalese border, the general target being the Panch Chuli massif. This is a historically interesting area, with visits from Hugh Ruttkdge in 1929, and Bill Murray and Heinrich Harrer in the early 50's. Several Indian expeditions have visited Panch Chuli, and the first ascent of Panch Chuli II was achieved in 1973 by the Indo Tibetan Border Police. All parties commented on the bad weather endemic to this region.
In recent years the border regions of India have been closed to foreigners, the dreaded 'inner line' marking off a corridor of some of the finest mountains in the Himalaya. The inner line was, of course, a British invention. For us, the way into this corridor is the joint Indo-British expedition. There is some sort of just Karma in that.
I was going to say that Bombay seemed an odd place for a concentration of Himalayan mountaineers, but on reflection, it seems no odder than London, Bath, Cardiff, Edinburgh or Calbeck, our homes. Bombay is much closer after all. Harish Kapadia, co-leader of our expedition, editor of the Himalayan Journal, and walking Himalayan encyclopedia, practices his family trade as a doth merchant in what spare time he can muster from his duties to the journal and the Bombay Mountaineers. With him he brought Vijay Kothari, Monesh Devjani, Bhupesh Ashar, and Muslim Contractor. For our part, there was co-leader Chris Bonington, Graham Little, Stephen Venables, Dick Renshaw, Stephen Sustad and
myself. We had then, Gujratis, a Sindhi, an American, a Scot, a token Welshman from Yorkshire, and a couple of English if you include me. Or to look at it another way, 3 Hindus of various castes, a Jain, a Muslim, a Lutheran, an athiest Catholic, and few agnostic Protestants. Looking over the lists from Harish early in the year, Chris commented on the name Muslim Contractor;
'That is a person, not a job, isn't it?'
'Yes Chris, he was with us on Rimo. Good company too.'
'Funny sort of name that, Muslim, don't you think?'
On the mountain we were to split up into three teams working from the same ABC at 4840 m. Harish's team would attempt Panch Chuli II via the SW ridge, first climbed in 1973 by the ITBP. The original ascent involved fixing almost the entire route with fixed rope by a very large team. Harish was going to try a light weight ascent. With him he took his Manali porters, Pasang Bodh, our Sirdar, Prakash, Khubram and Yograj. Chris and Graham would try a new route on the same mountain, the west ridge, and the rest of us were going to kick off with Rajrambha.
In Hindu mythology the fairy Rajrambha protects the Devas from the interfering mortals. Rajrambha was the most beautiful of the guardian fairies. The mountain which takes this name is correspondingly the most beautiful of the western outliers to the Panch Chuli, protecting the place of the last meal of the Pandavas. (Panch = five; chuli = cooking hearths). It's all in the Mahabharata, the Hindi version of which has been running on C4 for seemingly years.
Walking up the tortuous Uttari Balati glacier, the view was dominated by, and we had been originally attracted to, the unclimbed south face of Rajrambha (6537 m). But exploratory excursions on the neighbouring peaks suggested that this would consist largely of sunsoaked deep snow on steep mixed ground, and it was Dick who first suggested the Intregral Traverse, a journey of some 10 kilometres, about half of which would be over 6.000 m. A sort of giant Peutery Ridge I suppose. (Note: Mt Blanc 4807, ABC 4840).
From ABC our western skyline formed the route. There was a low col at the head of the glacier due north of us, we'd start there, then follow the skyline from right to left. We could see a mixed entry buttress to the ridge, then a summit of about 600 m, (Menaka, yet another of those fairies, of course), then a long and possibly corniced ridge, three more mixed buttresses, the last of which was undoubtedly very steep, more heavily corniced ridges, and a giant summit cornice. The descent looked deceptively straightforward. Amble down a sort of mixed buttress with bulging • seracs, find a narrow col and a final six hundred meters of front pointing down to the glacier should see us walking home. No ? Well almost. There were a couple of cards that nature had played that were not in our favour. First there was the weather. Violent storms clouds with towering black anvils blossomed every day, usually by lunchtime. Thunder, lightning and thrashing hailstorms followed in the afternoon. By early night the energy driving these microcosms had been drained, and clear skies would return for another twelve hours. The second card was the sheer spiteful ferocity of the sun. By 8 a.m. every day the snow had softened till it was thigh deep. Our window of opportunity was midnight to 9 a.m.
Oh yes, and one more thing, nature had imbued us with the propensity to underestimate almost everything. It was obvious, then, that we would have to climb quite a lot of the ridge and all the lower buttresses at night. We planned to stop by 8.30, perhaps 9 a.m. at the latest, and somehow thought that, unacclimatised as we were, we would still be able to do it inside three days. This would be a straightforward, quick and above all, safe climb. Perhaps.
The idea was simplicity itself. Stephen Sustad and I would take a tent and one rope, Dick and the other Stephen would do the same. Each pair would take three days food. We'd be able to cut down on hardware, and share ropes for the abseils.
It was a minor nuisance that when either Dick or I asked for Steve, the answer always came back in stereo, and while packing for the traverse, Harish or Muslim noticed that Venables with his Young Fogey felt homberg bore an uncanny resemblence to Freddy Kruger. The best bit was that Stephen had never heard of Nightmare on Elm Street. With careful training we were able to get Venables to answer to his new name. That only left Sustad to deal with, and he's a Lutheran, though exactly what Martin Luther would have made of him, I am not too sure.
The Hindu calendar, said Harish, predicted 10 days of good weather from the beginning of the month, and so we set off during the night of 1 June; Freddy and the Lutheran stomping across the expanse of glacier to the start of the climb, preceded by small pools of torchlight. Soon Dick would take over, leaving me plodding asthmatically in their steps. Warnings floated out of the dark, 'slot here!' or 'Watch the rope a second!' The back marker would take in a few coils. Being extremely cowardly, we always took the utmost care with crevasses.
There was a moment, early in the approach, when the Lutheran
said 'Stop Victor.... listen.' There was nothing to be heard. Not a breath of wind. No crunch of serac fall. No rumble of avalanche...nothing. It was silent as the night surrounding us was black. It was so still that the air, though well below freezing, felt warm. Later there was a slight breeze, enough to strip the layer of warmed air from the body. That's normal, the predawn breeze seems as much a feature of mountain meteorology as the katabatic wind. The breeze died away with the growing light. We crossed the schrund, where we unroped, and began soloing up the easy buttresses.
There was a small but beautiful coincidence, we reached the watershed at the same moment as the thin early morning sun. The view was new to us. The silver ridge unfolded above us in rolled volumes, serried ranks of pale ridges and peaks marched away into the Tibetan mists. We could clearly see Harrer's route to Peak II which Chris and Harish would be following. Not long afterwards, the sun grew stronger and the snow softer. Soon we were panting for air under the heavy press of the rucksacks and the sweltering heat, and looking for the first possible tent site.
That afternoon we lay exhausted, making desultory brews and trying to sleep. The biological clock makes this difficult. The Lutheran had surprised us by bringing a book, 'The Good Terrorist'. We tried to get him to read us passages, he wouldn't, but did give us a one line precis: 'It's about people with cockney accents, who start speaking BBC English when they get angry.' The tent poles froze solid the next morning and I broke one. Speaking gently to it in BBC English I packed it away leaving bits of pole sticking out. For the rest of the trip my sack sported a long whippy antennae. This was to become significant.
For the next two days Freddy, the Lutheran, Dick and I travelled slowly as snails over Menaka and down to the long col before the last steep buttress. Sometimes there were delightfully steep pitches on barely frozen shale, more often we were creeping sideways on ice, covered thinly with a faithless film of powder, and trying to stay below the cornice line; at the end of each day the sun deepening the snow. Usually the climbing was brittle and insecure and needed a lot of care and some pitching.
By late morning on day four we could look back with some satisfaction on the ridge, winding like a country road above the deep shadowed valleys. We'd had a couple of exhilarating sections of very Scottish climbing, 'tip toeing' in crampons, fist jams, rock-overs on snow covered rock and unbalanced bridging. The pro was interesting too. The cracks in the shale forced unusual nut placements. It was like chess; you had to think. Almost as enjoyable* as bouldering. Earlier Freddy had had a pitch of the most unlikely laybacking up massive frozen-in (we hoped) jugs.
'It's actually quite rare to get that sort of dimbing on big mountains', he enthused, even from 50 m we could see- his grin, 'and look, my first nuts in opposition belay!'
'Sounds painful', said the Lutheran. 'Better not fall off on them'.
The summit looked close, though how close we could not tell. There was no scale to judge by. A narrow ridge ran up to a small ice wall then a whale back to the apparent top. Large cornices on the right, endless ice slopes to the left. The valleys had long since filled with the diurnal mists, the wind blew wreaths from left to right making a ghostly broken spectre of Freddy over the vast and empty space over the east face. Dick and the Lutheran joined him, disappearing intermittently in the mist.
The sky flickered over Panch Chuli II. Sheets of lightning etched the outline of Naglaphu on the eyeball. The thunder exploded like surf, all round us. I followed the rope up to the others wondering about it all. I had already felt that familiar and dreadful itching at the ears, the buzz of static, and knew the elemental forces were building up for something unusual. 1 had almost reached the others when the unusual happened.
The sky ignited overhead. A momentary, almost subliminal whitening of the sky. I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder and side. Someone was trying to electrocute me. Like with a cattle prod. I heard the scream as the electrons tore the air "apart over our heads. And I still had those antennae sticking out. 1 tried to bury the sack in the ice before me, but not before another banshee shrieked across the sky, bringing on more fear and pain. The other three had been quite unaffected, but then they weren't carrying lightning conductors. The wind had risen, and we were now engulfed in a full storm.
There was no possibility of a bivouac on the ice, but the summit, we thought, might be even more exciting. I feel that at this point in the story I should explain something about lee slopes, cornices and windslab formations, but I shan't. It's too complicated. I'll just say that in the Himalaya they are often east facing, and the snow is usually soft, and often unstable, and may form interestingly baroque shapes. Somewhere behind us the cornice overhung several large blobs, one of which looked like a tent sized ledge. Being on the lee side of the slope it would be out of the wind. The problem was one
of access, how to bypass the cornice. The team moved down the ridge.
The storm ripped the words from our mouths, we had to communicate in gestures. Freddy, belayed to an ice screw, held the rope while I looked for a safe way down to the enticing ledge. There was a very clear line marking the danger zone, a plating of hard ice on the windward side and softer snow over the cornice. I chose a slight dip in the ridge, perhaps the cornice would be smaller here, and crossed the line. There was a small crevasse on the line. I stepped in the soft snow, nothing happened. I took another step, and leant over to see past the edge. There was a loud report, a thunderous clap, the world collapsed around me, and suddenly I found myself slowly spinning at the end of the rope looking down two thousand feet of fluted snow slopes down the east face. A crescent showed the break in the cornice above, and half our prospective ledge had been carried away too. Life really is a bitch, as they say in BBC English. We eventually excavated a platform on the windward side of the cornice. The storm blew itself out, as usual, by late evening.
The summit came on day 5, Freddy had formed the opinion that the easiest way to make progress was to follow the fracture line of the cornices, it was too hard and icy below the line. It was inevitable that he should eventually step through. When he did, he just appeared to slowly settle in a cloud of snow dust. Dick was holding his rope, and turned to me, 'he's fallen through the cornice' he said incredulously. Freddy reappeared at the edge mouthing impeccable BBC.
The summit came early in the morning, with tremendous views across to Api and Nampa under the sun. Turning west we gazed as the morning light picked out Nanda Devi, Changabang and Dunagiri. Dunagiri. The mountain where it all began. Dick and Joe Tasker. Hard alpine style climbing. 11 days. 15 years ago. It makes you feel rather humble. Freddy was still taking photographs when the Lutheran started down, and we reached our ABC, 33 m above Mont Blanc, in the drifting afternoon mists.
Panch Chuli II1
We'd been away five days. Chris and Graham had gone up Panch Chuli II with Harish's team. Two days later Muslim Contractor, Monesh Devjani and Pasang Bodh reached their summit having made the second ascent of the south west ridge of Panch Chuli II. The next day Chris and Graham completed thei* new route on the west ridge of Panch Chuli II. Both teams had kicked off from a camp at 6000 m and had two bivouacs above the bergschrund.
1. For full details of the climbs here and on other peaks on this expedition, see article 'Fires on the Mountain' in this issue. - Ed.
There had been an accident while we were on Rajrambha, Vijay, our Jain, had taken a monster fall in a snow gully, his crampons must have balled up. He rolled and somersaulted about 300 m coming to rest on a slight knoli above a deep schrund. I came to rest by the help of.... Vijay pointed at the heavens. It may also have had something to do with one of Harish's Manali men, Sundersingh, who ran to Vijay and fielded him at the last moment. Then again it may have been the Ganesh medallions which Geeta, Harish's wife had given to all members of the expedition. Ganesh, the elephant god, is also the deity of new enterprises. Venables had been given one before his ascent of Everest, and still had that one. The medallions seemed to work, so when Freddy sent the new one home to his son Oliver, it may have been a mistake. Ganesh is, after all, the guardian of new enterprises, and should be signified with new medallions.
It was already looking like a successful expedition when the others returned safely to base. But we decided to push our luck. We'd have a look at the unclimbed group of Panch Chulis. May be this was a mistake too.
Panch Chuli V
From Madkot, the road head to the range, there is a spectacular view of the Panch Chuli wall. The view is from southwest, and in the evening the peaks catch the Alpenglow. The peaks are ranged in numerical order from II to V , and though II is the highest at 6904 m, the other peaks attract the mountaineer's ambition. These are steep mixed faces, falling some 2000 m to the south flowing Panch Chuli glacier. This glacier had not been visited by mankind, though the valley, the Pyunshani gadhera, had seen the occasional hunter from Madkot. From this select group we hired a guide who said he knew the Pyunshani valley, though he didn't tell us till much later that his last visit was more than nine years earlier. The man's name was Dhansinh.
Dhansinh had one property that was extremely disconcerting for those of us following. The Lutheran summed it up neatly; If there's a lone bush in the middle of an open field, he'll walk through it. It was commonplace over the three days it took us to trek to Pyunshani to find Dhansinh clambering into dense bamboo bushes, while everyone else walked round to meet him.
The trek was also notable for the astronomic number of flowers that Freddy recognized, usually, with orgasmic enthusiasm. He saw dozens of species of Primula. 'This maxiflora, look at it, the tiniest Primuia you'll ever see.' 1 couldn't: he appeared to be staring at a patch < of dirt He pointed out the megacarpea, which is a tall
leafy plant with a taste like bitter chicory and pepper. 'It's edible___'
1 tried and had to spit it out. 'But first you have to boil it and throw away the water.' Oh thanks, now that I've poisoned myself, he tells me. There was wiid gariic, two species of strawberries and a blood red potentilla which he described as being like strawberry, but not fruiting. 'Pretty useless then, isn't it?' said the Lutheran, which seemed to sum up something, but I am not sure what. And nobody got very excited by the evil looking Cobra Lilies lurking in the shade.
On the third day Dhansinh's route took us down a section of vertical jungle. With the rucksacks catching on every creeper and vine, we slid down wet cliffs, dangling from bamboo and climbing down a greasy scaffold of rhododendron. Then suddenly out into the open, and blinking in the light. Looking back we could see the canopy ripple as the rest of the team made their way down the vegetated cliff. Look! the Lutheran pointed. There was a particularly rapid green wave, a howl, (anguish?) and great deal of shouting in Hindi, BBC Hindi. Monesh had fallen out of the forest and landed on Harish. A little later the entire team was watching with interest as a lone ripple followed the peregrinations of Dhansinh as he looked for an alternative and bushier way out of the jungle.
The next day Chris and the four of us were surveying Panch Chuli V from a bivouac at 4200 m. We were tired, having brought up large bads 1000 m from the new BC. We were going to be short of time, we'd have to be back inside five days from base. We needed a straightforward route. Simple route finding, and moderate technical difficulties. Preferably with little traversing on brittle ice. And we could see our route. It was to be Panch Chuli V from the south col. There was an easy summit ridge, and below it a rock buttress that could obviously be turned; we couldn't quite see how, but that didn't worry us. Below the rock was an easy and pleasant looking cwm. High above the entrance to the cwm there was a lone serac. The Tower. We did not suppose it posed any great danger. The only niggling doubt was that below the cwm, all was hidden from view. We could only guess at what the dead ground might contain, but again chose not to fret about it.
24 hours later we knew we should have fretted. The two Stephens broke trail while Chris, Dick and I followed them across the icefall we had not been able to see. It was ugly, tortured, ground. First the tracks led across The Splits, an unstable arch of iceblocks, which needed wide bridging to avoid overloading the central span. (Avert eyes from chasm below). Next the footprints wandered very slowly under the Venus Fly Trap, a weird overhang fringed with ice fangs, Then there was the Long Jump, slightly downhill, we'd not be able to reverse that. The Maze followed. In bad weather this section could be impossible without millions of marker wands. Later there was the Double Snowbridge, a traverse over that most unstable of structures, two bridges holding each other up, then a final section under innocuous looking ice ramparts, whose detritus belied their looks. That night we bivouacked at 5200 m in the mouth of our cwm. Above us the Tower began to look a little threatening. Fresh avalanche tracks swept down from the slopes under it and through the cwm over the ice cliffs below. Freddy and the Lutheran had chosen a site by a wide mouthed crevasse where the avalanche tracks bifurcated. The whole cwm was tilted at 30°, perfect slab avalanche country. I was beginning to get bad feelings about the valley. We all were.
The following day we pushed on through thigh deep snow, Dick making a deep trench, and though he was breaking trail we found it hard to keep up with the man. On this sort of ground he is phenomenal. That night we excavated a platform from the side of a cornice. We were on the south col at about 5850 m. That should leave us with just 600 m for the day trip to the summit. We reckoned we'd be back the next morning by 9 a.m. It was true that we'd be out of food the next day, but that didn't matter, we'd be on the way down. It was more worrying that the Tower had begun to lose material. We were finishing our lunch, a soup brew and a packet of instant mash, when the noise of an express train attracted our attention. A spectacular climax avalanche was sweeping our tracks out of the cwm. Another followed it five minutes later. 'There goes last night's bivi.' said Freddy, wiping a minute blob of instant mash from his beard and back into his mouth. I wondered who bought the stuff in England. It's vile, I just could not imagine giving up real potatoes for this. Perhaps people buy it for wall paper paste. Tastes the same. Not only were we almost out of food, the two vegetarians were also down to their last tobacco. The Lutheran said 'Dick, If we get up this mountain, can I have one of your Gitanes ?'
'Hmmm, only got one left.'
What about a couple of drags? He was looking forward to the next day. Two or three hundred metres of steep mixed climbing should take us on to a gentle summit ridge. Given reasonable weather it should be enjoyable. Short day.
He was wrong. When the alarm went off at 2 a.m. Chris announced his decision to stay put and wait for us. He was unusually tired, and felt he'd only hold us up. Perhaps though, there was more to this decision than rational explanation allows. Perhaps it was the survival instinct which has served Chris so well over the years. Always listen to yotlr instinct. It's what keeps mountaineers alive. Back at base, Muslim watched Harsinh Sr making a pan of tea, which fell from the fire, dousing the flames. Harsinh looked up horrified. Bad sign___ he said, backing off. They are in great danger.
'It's going to be a long day.' said Dick. The steep mixed ground between the pillars had already taken us much longer than we'd allowed. It was now 10.30 a.m. That's not snow, it's ice. Where we hoped to stroll, we now knew we'd have to traverse on front points. It would be almost half a kilometre. A night descent began to seem increasingly likely as we slowly crept along the ice, staying well clear of the cornice. We reached the top at 3.00 p.m. on 20 June. The afternoon clouds shrouded us and the mountain. We knew Chris would have expected us back by now. It was not till midnight that he saw our head torches. He had been desperately worried, and now he was able to relax. He put on a giant brew.
Freddy and I watched the others go down. We'd had no food or water for the last 23 hours. It was 2.00 a.m., but after this abseil there would only be one more to the tent and that brew we felt sure Chris would be making. Freddy said; 'I am really pleased we pulled this one off, Victor.' 'We're not down yet.' Not intended as any kind of put down, more a form of neurosis on my part. Abseils have always terrified me. Gingerly I stepped off the ledge and loaded the ropes. The anchor was a good looking short angle, driven to the hilt in a horizontal crack. There were two back-up nuts. Nothing to worry about there. I turned the torch down into the void and began to dangle.
Freddy had seen two of us safely down, and began to remove the back-up while I was still on the rope. It was obviously safe. Dick and the Lutheran were not too sure about the next anchor, and were still adding to it when I arrived. Dick threaded a rope end through the abseil sling. The Lutheran was groping about in the dark for yet another nut placement. It was 2.30 a.m. Chris'd turned the gas off, he'd reheat the brew when we got down.
Freddy stepped off his ledge and began down. He'd been a little violent in loading the rope, but it was ok. for about twenty feet. Then he entered the dream sequence.
'Look!' Dick, Sustad and I turned towards the crashing sound. A large squarish black shadow skidded past trailing a shower of sparks. It looked like stonefall.
'His anchor's gone!' In that instant we all knew it was true. That was no stonefall, those sparks wer% made by crampons. Silence for a moment, for an eternity. The ropes! I grabbed the tangle of ropes before me just as they began to whip through in pursuit of Venables, they shredded trousers and my gloves, but it was Dick who stopped them leaving the belay. Dick held the 240 foot fall in his gloved hands, with just one turn of the rope through our anchor.
Chris heard noise, and watched the falling head torch, as it bounced down to the glacier. Tears filled his eyes. One of them's gone, he thought. Venables thought so too;
I hadn't connected the dream sequence with the abseil. It was only afterwards ^ thought Ah Yes, the anchor's come out. I think that was on the way down. So many thoughts as I somersaulted and cartwheeled. I felt, Ah God, how can my body put up with this violence, so loud and crashing. He fell through a vertical 80 foot section, across a slab, and down another 80 foot wall.
'I am holding his whole weight, can't do it much longer.' said Dick. I fumbled for my prusik loops and put a klemheist on both ropes which Sustad connected to the anchor. The ends could now be freed to tie into the belay. We were shouting to Venables all the while, no answer. I'd begun think the worst when a distant shout could be heard. Is any one there? He too had been shouting. I wondered if we had been synchronised, and waiting for replies during the same interval.
Sustad had added to the belay, and we felt confident that it would take the weight of two at least. I prusiked down the tight rope till I could see the huddled shadow at the end of the rope.
'I think I've broken my legs.' Dick heard that, and wondered if that really meant he couldn't feel his legs, and had in fact broken his back. Venables had hit the knot at the end of the rope at the same time as reaching the icefield above the bergschrund. His head and back were, miraculously, untouched. There was a lot of blood, spreading like a halo into the snow around him. A sort of red chromatograph. A quick examination suggested he had a broken left ankle, an open fracture near the right knee, and chest injuries. But the main thing was to get him off the mountain, a proper assessment would have to wait.
1 fixed up a belay and dug out a large ledge for the Venables legs. The others started down, showering us with ice chips and gravel. The chief problem was the right leg, which I splinted with the Karrimat from our Macsacs, then inserted the splinted leg into the rucksack which was attached to the rope above Venables' head with a jumar. It would allow him to control the amount of support to the limb. This was important as my trusty Gregson pack only had Paracetamol, and the best way to control the pain was not to introduce unnecessary movement to his legs. I have to say, distasteful as it is to commend one's friends, that for a hypochondriac, Venables was incredibly brave. The pain of the next 12 hours must have been excruciating. Dick and I took turns to lower him down the 400 m slope to the schrund. Sustad soloed off to tell Chris the news. The two of them packed up the tents and started climbing .flown. About 150 m above the schrund Chris chose to cartwheel. His crampons must have balled up, he slid, tried to brake, caught his frontpoints in the ice and lost it completely. He shot over the schrund trying to curl up into a ball, with the idea that he'd less likely to break his limbs if they weren't sticking out.
Dick saw it all. Chris coming to rest, sitting up, and holding his head in his hands for ages. When Dick joined me he was looking pale and climbing very very carefully. Sustad reached the cwm and helped Chris cut out a platform and erected the tents. Chris tried again with the waiting brew scenario. This time it worked, though we were not to reach the tents till 3 p.m. Almost 36" hours after we'd left our bivi on the south col.
The next morning Chris and Sustad went down leaving us three and a half cylinders of gas, three packets of the dreaded instant mash and a few packets of soup. They reached base the same afternoon. Chris went on the next day, and using kukris to cut their way out of the jungle, walked out with Harsinh Sr (who now knew his tea pan had not lied) in a blistering 9 hours. It would normally have been a three day effort. At Munsiary, Chris and Harish would telephone for the helicopter. The Lutheran rested a day, then with Harsinh Jr carried a load of food and gas 1800 m up to a broad ridge at c 5000 m. This operation took 2 days. My friend was exhausted, and had to solo the last 400 m gully at night. But he was driven by an intolerable round of fears and anxieties. Dick and I collected the food four days after the accident. We had shared the last dreadful little packet of dehydrated potato, and were down to a quarter cylinder of gas. Although we only had to climb 600 m back to the tent, we thought we might not have the strength to do this without food.
In addition to the vertical interval there was the sheer fright we felt everytime we passed under the Tower. Some instinct had made us go down for the food a few hours earlier than seemed sensible. This meant that we'd be climbing back up to the tent at 3 a.m. rather than 7 a.m. The whole operation would have to take place In the dark. But some small voice had told us to go, and go soon. On the way back, Dick had broken trail at heartbursting pace in order to pass through the danger zone under the Tower, when the whole face of the serac began to break up. With a roar the avalanche swept across the cwm, up the other side of the valley, and on into the glacier beyond. Horrified I looked at how much of our track was left. About five minutes worth. The Tower continued to disintegrate for the next four hours. As I followed Dick up the rest of the cwm, I fancied I could hear him muttering to himself, something about .ilways listening to your instincts_
The helicopter flew in that afternoon. We were at 5600 m, which is pretty damn close to the flying ceiling for Alouettes. There was no winch, presumably to save weight, and and so the pilots had to attempt a half landing. They hovered twenty 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 Freddy 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 tips inches from the snow, and not much more above our heads. One mistake from the pilots, and Venables and 1 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. The door wouldn't close, but he was mostly inside the bubble. I collapsed exhausted. The chopper wobbled uncertainly and moved off. The leg withdrew, the perspex door shut. The pilots waved and turned for home.
At home, Freddy underwent operations in Bath Hospital. His left ankle had been pinned, I think he had a fracture of the lateral maleolus. The right tibia had a bit knocked off its head; that was the open fracture producing all the blood. The knee cap was shattered, and was wired together again, and they said that his chest was undamaged, just bruised. The Lutheran is back at his carpentry workshop in Shropshire
and Dick will be supporting his vocation as a sculptor with abseil work again. Chris had planned to take up canoeing in France with Wendy. Unfortunately the lorry drivers had blocked all major routes through the country. Judging by the television coverage, France was one enormous stationary traffic jam then. I think their best hope of using the canoe was to put it on the top of the Volvo and sit in it, admiring the French countryside from the peaceful silence of the motionless motorway.
A personal account of the Indian British Panch Chuli expedition, May-June 1992. Peak Menaka (6000 m) was traversed, second ascent of Rajrambha (6537 m) by a new route, the first ascent of Panch Chuli V (6437 m) and the accident and rescue of Stephen Venables after a fall, were achieved. (Further details in article 'Fires on the Mountain' in the present issue).