Chaukhamba — The Mountain On The Far Horizon

Colonel Ashok Abbey

On a wet rainy day in February 2004, from my office window in the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) Uttarkashi, I looked up the picturesque Indravati valley. Low clouds had engulfed the mountains and the rain gods were at their generous best. Suddenly there was a break in the clouds and the nameless, wooded feature towering above Manpur at the head of Indravati valley unveiled itself. To me it seemed as if it was extending an invitation or perhaps a challenge. Immediately my mind switched to an auto mode, searching for an appropriate objective for our forthcoming refresher training in July that year. Images of Thalay Sagar, Meru, Shivling, all viable objectives, flashed through my mind! No, it had to be an unclimbed mountain, a technically difficult mountain that would test the nerves and skills of the intrepid NIM staff. As I closed my eyes thinking ... thunder and lightening rent the air with a deafening roar. Then as if suddenly enlightened, I opened my eyes - it was Chaukhamba the mountain divine, where my thoughts came to rest and so it was to be our mountain in the summer of 2004!

Standing as an impregnable fortress wedge with high ramparts and towering above the Gangotri, Bhagirath Kharak and Satopanth glaciers, stands one the most formidable massifs of the Himalaya - Chaukhamba, which literally means four pillars. The four major pillars or the khambs support a 10 km long serrated, horse shoe shaped ridgeline, seldom dipping below 6800 m. As deputy leader of the 1995 NIM Instructors expedition (Colonel MP Yadav), I had vivid memories of the awesome west face of the mountain, when we made the first ascent from the west face of Chaukhamba I, and the first ascents of Chaukhamba II and Pt. 6736 m. But this time, I chose to attempt the unclimbed and perhaps unattemped Chaukhamba III (6974 m) and Chaukhamba IV (6854 m), the highest unclimbed peaks in the Gangotri region of the Garhwal Himalaya.

Chaukhamba massif from the west is one of the most daunting, yet one of the least frequented of the big mountains of the Garhwal Himalaya.

The mountain has a chequered history1. Chaukhamba I was first climbed in 1952 by a French expedition (E. Frendo) from the northeast face. NIM expedition in 1995 2 was the first to climb Chaukhamba I, from the west face. In 1995, a British expedition (Simon Yearsley) attempting to reach the mountain from the Bhagirath Kharak Bank from northwest ridge, failed to reach Pt. 6736 m. They reached a high point of 6400 m and the Meade's Col (6053 m)3 on 27 September and 3 October. In 1996, the crack team of Garhwal Rifles (Lt. Col. A.P. Singh) of the Indian Army scaled Chaukhamba I from the southwest face, doing a variation of the NIM route. In 1998, an Indian expedition (Basanta Singha Roy) reportedly climbed the mountain approaching it from Badrinath. In 2001, an Indian expedition (Brijes Dey) failed to climb the mountain after approaching it from Bhagirath Kharak Bank. In the same year, another Indian expedition (Ujawal Ganguly) approaching it from Badrinath, lost two members after their Camp 3 was hit by an avalanche at 6350 m.

Chaukhamba II, after it was first climbed from the northeast ridge by NIM Instructors, received its second ascent by a Korean team (Nam Ki Chang) of Changju University on 14 May 1996, via the northwest ridge. The mountain in 1995 and 1996 thwarted attempts by a Korean team (Jeong Jae Young) and a Malaysian team (Teoh Le) respectively. In 2002, a reported little known ascent of the mountain was made by a French team (Wagon Patrick). In 2002, another Korean expedition (Man Jae Lim), which attempted Chaukhamba I and II, failed to climb both the mountains. Chaukhamba III and IV, prior to our attempt, were yet to be attempted by any team. These then were the highest unclimbed mountains in the Gangotri region, and were thus a befitting objective for refresher training of NIM Instructors.

As always, the time slotted for attempting the mountain by NIM, was between the pre and the post monsoon series of courses, which more or less perfectly coincided with the monsoons in the region. This inevitable race between NIM, and the monsoons could not be helped, as instructors who where busy with training commitments till 20 June, were only available after that. Initially, I was keen to approach the mountain from the south via Madhmaheswar, however the impending monsoons and the long approach to the mountain from the south, with uncertainties of road conditions, coerced us into approaching the mountain from the Gangotri glacier.

On 24 June, Team One comprising of Colonel A Abbey, Rattan Singh, SS Negi and JS Negi left the sprawling NIM campus at Uttarkashi. Team Two comprising of Major Neeraj Rana, Ranveer Singh, C Norbu, SS Bhandari, Sub Vijender Singh, Nb Shanti Prasad and Nb Sub Karamjeet Singh, Khushal Singh, Dashrath Singh followed on 26 June. Jagmohan Singh and Digamber Singh had earlier departed on 16 June to facilitate induction of loads on the glacier. Moving up the famous pilgrim route from Gangotri to Gaumukh, the expedition entered the Gangotri National Park at Khankhu. As we crossed Gaumukh, the snout of the Gangotri glacier was in the form of a slit, very unlike a Gaumukh! The trail to Gaumukh from Gangotri was choked with Kawarias - Lord Shiva's devotees carrying the sacred Ganga Jal (water) down to the plains for Maha Shivaratri. Unbelievingly, there were human traffic jams on this famous pilgrim trail!

with the Kirti Bamak. The route to IMC II moved, on the medial moraine of the Gangotri glacier and the camp was established at 4760 m on 30 June, before the junction of the Ganohim Bamak and the Gangotri glacier, with the impressive Kharchakund massif towering behind.

Base camp was finally established on 1 July at the junction of Swachand and the Gangotri glaciers at 4900 m. The grand spectacle of the Gangotri glacier with spectacular views of Mandani Parvat, Yeonbuk, Sumeru, Kharchakund, Shivling and Meru were viewed, as also to the northeast where Satopanth massif loomed large and inviting.

The 25 km long Gangotri glacier is one of the longest glaciers of the Himalaya. To Indians it is a sacred river of ice. The glacier, which originates from the northwestern slopes of Chaukhamba flows in a northwesterly direction, terminating at Gaumukh. J.A. Hodgson and Herbert were in all probabilities, the first Europeans to visit the Gangotri glacier as early as 1817. In 1933, a reconnaissance by Marco Pallis reconnoitered the lower eight miles of the Gangotri glacier. In 1935, J.B. Auden of the Geological Survey of India surveyed the area of the snout and sketched the area. But it was only in 1936, under directions of Major Gordon Osmaston and his team of dedicated officers and surveyors, that a detailed survey of this difficult area was carried out, which was indeed a notable achievement.4 As we moved up the glacier in June 2004, I could not help but notice the effect of global warming in the form of intense rate of melting, which was very disturbing. Due to little precipitation and a virtually dry winter, crevasses were opening up almost everywhere. The entire glacier seemed to be cracking up. Even at Tapovan it was disturbing to see dry stream beds, which otherwise should have been flowing with running water at the time of the year.

On 2 July, Colonel A Abbey, Rattan Singh, Jagmohan Singh, Dashrath and J.S. Negi carried out a reconnaissance of Camp 1. Our route from base camp moved along the Gangotri glacier and skirted the junction of Maiandi and Gangotri glaciers. The route further moved northeast, parallel to the western flank unveiling the mighty Chaukhamba massif.

As one moves in a southeasterly manner on the Gangotri glacier, the shapely Pt. 6639 m completely dominates the horizon. Towering above Pt. 6639 m, in the background and rising from behind like a hallowed angel god is the mighty summit of Chaukhamba IV. The southeast ridge from Pt. 6639 m joins Chaukhamba IV. From Chaukhamba IV, the connecting ridge moves east over a vast snowfield for about 500 m before turning in a northeasterly manner to Chaukhamba III, which is located almost 2 kms to the east of Chaukhamba IV. From Chaukhamba III, the ridgeline moves in a north-northeasterly direction for another 2 kms, before reaching Chaukhamba II. The view of the four summits of Chaukhamba, rising sheer from the floor of Gangotri glacier at 5600 m to its mighty summits, is awe inspiring.

As I tried to make myself familiar with the surroundings, which I had visited earlier in 1995, I noticed that our big boulder, which had been our watch tower in 1995, had alarmingly moved some 500 m below. I was simply astounded, because it was not as if the boulder had tumbled down the glacier, but it was the rate at which the glacier seemed to be flowing down the valley. Camp 1 at 5205 m was finally occupied on 1 July. The camp afforded a full view of the northern face of Chaukhamba IV and the north western face of Chaukhamba III.

As I studied the face of Chaukhamba III and IV, I realised that there was no direct route up the face on both the mountains. The northern slopes of Chaukhamba IV and the northwestern slope of Chaukhamba III, are fortified with a multitiered defence system of threatening hanging glaciers and formidable serac barriers. A direct face attempt on Chaukhamba III and IV would be suicidal and involved a very high degree of exposure to objective dangers of falling rock and ice avalanches. Also a safe attempt on Chaukhamba III was seemingly only possible from the ridge connecting it from Chaukhamba IV, for which it was imperative to first make an ascent of Chaukhamba IV. The north face of Chaukhamba IV, also very formidable, is prone to massive ice avalanches. We therefore decided to first gain the ridge between Pt. 6639 m and an unnamed icy peak on the ridge connecting Pt. 6639 m to Chaukhamba IV and then traverse over the icy peak to gain the summit ridge of Chaukhamba IV. Frankly both the mountains showed no signs of weakness.

The south - southwest ridge of Chaukhamba III and the south ridge of Chaukhamba IV and the mighty south and east face of the mountain towards Badrinath, is also a very formidable proposition. In 1934, Eric Shipton described his stay under the southern face of Chaukhamba thus: the accompaniment of an almost continuous roar of ice avalanche from the great cliffs of Chaukhamba above us. Several times during the night, I was brought to a sitting position, trembling as some particularly large avalanche fell close at hand.5

In 1998, Martin Moran, following the 1934 route of Shipton-Tilman, 'sheltered close under the massif hulk of the 7138 m Chaukhamba'. Crossing a very unstable icefall en route to the col under the south face of Chaukhamba he recorded :

The icefall looked as though it had recently emerged from an underground nuclear test, its center being caved in and ruptured from the flanks. The left side was severely fractured and sported a slim leaning tower some 60m high that looked ripe for collapse, whilst the right side would be menaced by any avalanches from Chaukhamba's 1600 m south face.6

On 5 July, at 0545 hours, a team comprising of Ranveer Singh, Shanti Prasad, Kushal Singh and Jitender Singh moved up from Camp 1 to open the route on the northeast face of Pt. 6639 m to Camp 2. Major Neeraj Rana, C Norbu, Jagmohan Singh, Karamjeet, Vijender, Soban and Dashrath supported them. A bergschrund was negotiated to gain the northeast face of the west flank of the mountain. A narrow gully between the rocky face and the first icefall was then negotiated. However, as the sun rose, this gully virtually became a death trap for loose rocks, which were dislodged from the rock band on the upper broken portion of the east face, with regular consistency. The 50 m narrow gully took almost an hour to negotiate after which a gradient of 60-65° was negotiated to reach a high point of 5891 m at 1330 hrs. 10 rope lengths of 60 m each were fixed. As members descended the gully on their way down, to their horror they found that the rope in the gully was cut at a number of places by falling rocks. Hereafter, this gully was nicknamed as the 'death trap'. The team finally returned to Camp 1 at 1700 hrs, that evening.

On 6 July, C Norbu, Jagmohan, Karamjeet, Vijender, Soban Singh, Dashrath, Shanti and Khushal left Camp 1 at 0500 hrs and reached the previous days high point of 5891 m at 0730 hrs. From here the route was mixed climbing on rock, snow and ice, on a very weathered, broken rock face. It took half an hour of an initial struggle to progress the route further on this face. After traversing the rock face, another ice ridge on the face was negotiated, which was followed by a 15 m of mixed climbing. The ice and snow conditions were unstable and the leading team triggered three minor avalanches. At 6100 m, a massive ice chunk narrowly missed Soban as it ripped his rucksack hurtling it down towards and beyond the second icefall. At 6200 m, the snowfield above the icefall could be seen but a big bergschrund separated the narrow snow field from the mountain face. The weather soon packed up and a thick cloud cover enveloped the mountain restricting visibility. The team finally commenced its descent as late as 1600 hrs, reaching Camp 1 at 1930 hrs. Loose rocks, down the face had again cut the safety ropes at a number of sections.



With time already running out on 8 July, the leading team comprising of Ranveer, C Norbu, Dashrath and Khushal commended climbing at 0500 hrs with the aim of pushing the route further and establishing the summit camp for an attempt on Chaukhamba IV. At 0700 hrs, high cloud began to engulf the massif, this time much earlier in the day, indicating that the weather was on the verge of change. The team of instructors moved fast and made excellent progress. In the death trap (gully) and the traverse, new safety ropes had to be fixed as falling rocks at a number of places had cut the earlier ones. Ice pitons which were almost dangling due to high temperatures of the previous day, were screwed in again. Heavy rock fall from the rock band continued unabated and loosed rock narrowly missed members, who had to tread with great caution. At 1300 hours C Norbu, Ranveer, Dashrath and Khushal reached their previous high point of 6200 m. The massive bergschrund spanning almost 15 - 20 feet, foiled all attempts of the team, (which was not carrying any ladders) to gain the snowfield. The team then pushed on head long into the icefall under the north east ridge of Pt. 6639 m. Getting to the narrow snowfield was critical as the summit camp was to be located on this field.

The glacier leading to Mead's Col (extreme left) on shoulder of Chaukhamba I.

30. The glacier leading to Mead's Col (extreme left) on shoulder of Chaukhamba I. (Col. Ashok Abbey)

Chaukhamba I (small point on left) and Chaukhmaba II (centre right) from the Gangotri glacier.

31. Chaukhamba I (small point on left) and Chaukhmaba II (centre right) from the Gangotri glacier. (Col. Ashok Abbey)

Chaukhamba III, Peak 6639 m and Chaukhamba IV from the Gangotri glacier.

32. Chaukhamba III, Peak 6639 m and Chaukhamba IV from the Gangotri glacier. (Col. Ashok Abbey)

As the team was working their way through the icefall, a massive ice avalanche triggered from the ridge connecting Pt. 6639 m and the unnamed ice peak, engulfed the entire snowfield and the area of the proposed summit camp. Luckily, for the team the summit camp had not been established, but without a doubt the only possible site was dangerous. Meanwhile as the team reached the high point of 6300 m, heavy snowfall commenced which started restricting visibility. Seeing the objective dangers of ice avalanches, rock fall, snowfall and poor visibility conditions, the attempt was called off. In the fast deteriorating weather conditions and heavy snowfall, the team descended with great caution. Five new safety ropes in the exposed section had to be replaced. The team was lucky to descend the 'death trap' virtually unscathed. The last party, which experienced the heaviest rock fall narrowly escaped, with minor injuries and bruises.

The weather packed up and heavy snowfall announced the arrival of monsoon in the area. In fact it was on the 8 and 9 July, in one of the heaviest downpours of the season that a complete segment of the road between Vishnuprayag and Badrinath was washed away, leaving thousands of pilgrims stranded at Badrinath. Further attempts on the mountain were called off and the team congregated at base camp on 12 July, finally reaching Gangotri on 19 July.

In retrospect, the NIM refresher training on Chaukhamba III and IV was one of the shortest climbing attempts on any mountain. Although the summit of Chaukhamba III and IV eluded us, yet many of the terminal objectives for which I had chosen these mountains were achieved in good measure. Above all, we could manage to unveil some of the climbing mysteries of one of the most formidable massifs of the Himalaya.

As I looked back to get a glimpse of the mountain for one more time from the junction of Gangotri and Swachand valley, the spectrum of light broke through the dark monsoon clouds and Chaukhamba, the mountain, on the far horizon stood illuminated, radiating its divine presence as the omnipresent Badrinath. God willing and with blessings of the almighty Badrinath, we hope to return to this mountain some time, some day!


Colonel Ashok Abbey (leader), Major Neeraj Rana, Rattan Singh, Ranveer Singh, Sub Vijender Singh, SM, C Norbu, Nb Sub Karamjeet Singh, Nb Sub Shanti Prasad, SS Negi, Khushal Singh, Jagmohan Singh, Digamber Singh, Soban Singh, Dashrath Singh and J.S. Negi.


The first attempt on Chaukhamba III and IV, by instructors of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi. The team reached a high point of 6300 m on the western flank on 08 July 2004, in inclement weather conditions.


  1. HJ Volume XI, p 140 and HJ Volume XII, p 30.
  2. HJ Volume 52, p 227.
  3. Reached by C.F. Meade in 1919.
  4. HJ Volume XI, p. 128.
  5. See H. W. Tilman, HJ Vol. 35, p. 71.
  6. HJ Vol. 55, p. 63.


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