Sir Chris Bonington
The bag pipe skirled, the drums rattled, the dancers swirled swing their swords and a crowd of youngsters thronged around us. It was a real red carpet welcome. We were walking up the path leading to the little village of Harkot in the Kumaun Himalaya. It was the beginning of our trek and climb and we were passing through the home village of the porters and guides who have helped Harish Kapadia over the last twenty years. We were bringing with us medical supplies for the village and Harish was also with us on his way to start another trek with my old friend Jim Fotheringham and his daughter Nell. It was a privilege to receive such a welcome. That night we were given a wonderful demonstration of dancing and singing by the village children and then the next morning set out on our journey to the Sunderdhunga valley.
Our team numbered ten and we were planning to trek and climb at the head of the Sunderdhunga valley a popular objective for mountaineers because of its beauty and accessibility. The principal peaks were Tharkot, first climbed by Wilfred Noyce in 1944, Maiktoli and Panwali Dwar. With a trekking permit we were allowed to reach 5500 metres and there were several attractive peaks of this height.
Our two parties went their separate ways on the col, Harish following the ridge line to the north while we were dropping down into the Sunderdhunga valley, stopping that night at Dhakuri, from where we had a superb view of the Kumaun peaks. It took us four days to reach our base camp at 3860 m just below the Sukhram cave. We decided to start with an acclimatisation climb up Baluni and established a camp on a pleasant grassy alp just below the peak. It was only midday and Graham Ettle, a talented mountain guide from Scotland on his first Himalayan trip, said to me 'It can't be more than a couple of thousand feet to the top - how about going for it'
And so we did - a delightful scramble up rock and snow to a shapely little summit, which sadly was in the cloud so we didn't get a view. It started to snow on our way down and continued to do so throughout the night so that next morning there were several inches but it was a fine, clear and very cold morning. Winter had arrived.
Some of the team climbed Baluni that morning, whilst Graham Ettle, with Lewis and Jane Grundy attempted a rocky point but were stopped by a sheer step in the ridge, since they hadn't brought a rope with them.
We now split the team. Nick and Ann Webster, Derek and Hilary Walker and Diana Hassal set off on a trek up the Pindari valley, whilst the Grundys, Richard Haszko, Graham Ettle and I hoped to snatch a peak. We recced a campsite on the crest of what had been a grassy ridge at 4570 m and moved in on the 2 November with our trusted cook and his assistant. It snowed than afternoon and night and every successive night. It was bitterly cold. We made a recce but were stopped by thigh deep snow. At this point we very nearly packed it in, but decided to have one last try to climb a peak, choosing point 5123 m, which might well have been unclimbed. On the 4th, Graham and I made a recce, traversing and climbing a series of spurs to reach a point where we could see what appeared to be a safe and straightforward route.
The following morning we set out and at last the weather had changed. We had a cloudless sky and it stayed like that all day and for the rest of our trip, but the snow was appalling and we were sinking up to our
thighs in it. Graham broke trail initially, handing over to Richard and then on to Lewis, who did a magnificent push up onto the col just below our peak. We only had a few hundred feet to go up a straightforward, corniced snow ridge. Graham was out in front again, but he began encountering wind slab and after a short consultation we decided it wasn't worth the risk and so, just three hundred feet below the top, we turned back.
We weren't depressed for we had given it our best shot and it had been a superb trip. We had some superb views on our return journey, joined up with the trekking group who also had a great time, and finished our expedition by driving to Kausani and enjoying two nights in a hotel with superb views of the entire range.
Trek and climbs in the Sunderdhunga valley, Kumaun.