First Crossing of Chaukhamba Col

A Historical Pilgrimage1

Debabrata Mukherjee

101 years ago, in July 1912, the legendary climber C. F. Meade reached the col between Chaukhamba I and Januhut, hiking from a high camp on Bhagirath Kharak glacier. He did not cross the col. He stood there for a while, got a glimpse of the Gangotri glacier on the other side, and then returned the way he came. In May 2013, 101 years later, Debabrata Mukherjee and his team climbed up the Bhagirath Kharak glacier to the Chaukhamba col and descended to the Gangotri glacier – a journey that began in Badrinath and culminated in Gangotri.

The first known crossing from Badrinath to Kedarnath was attempted by the legendary duo of Shipton and Tilman in 1934. Starting from Badrinath they followed the Satopanth Bamak to climb up the icefall of Chaukhamba I to reach the Satopanth col. Thereafter they were lost in the forest of Gondharpongi for ten days and couldn’t find the way to Kedarnath.

Sixty-four years later, in 1998, Martin Moran completed the epic crossing2 following Shipton’s dream route, and reached Kedarnath following the upper reaches of the mountain.

In 2009 our team made the first opposite crossing - from Kedarnath to Badrinath - following the Mahapanth col, Vishali col and Yeonbuk col and completing the first encircling of Nilkantha and Parvati. However, it left me with a desire to complete the circle, crossing Chaukhamba col and Gangotri col, to reach Kedarnath.

It was towards the end of 2012 that I began my research on Chaukhamba col in earnest, which revealed many interesting facts. The first mention of the col is found in the well-known book Kamet Conquered by Frank Smythe, in which he writes about C.F. Meade and his 1912 exploration of Bhagat (Bhagirath) Kharak gap at the head of the glacier with the same name. The exclusive pass is also written about in the book Approach to the Hills by C. F. Meade in 1932. Eric Shipton, in his book Nanda Devi (1936), wrote about his exploration of these watersheds before climbing Nanda Devi, and alludes to the pass.

Chaukhamba col from Badrinath side. (Debabrata Mukherjee)

Chaukhamba col from Badrinath side. (Debabrata Mukherjee)

It was surprising that despite its mention in three epic books, nobody had tried to climb or cross the Chaukhamba col during the 60 years following Shipton’s failure on that route. The Kolkata section of the Himalayan Club reconnoitred the lower icefall below Chaukhamba I during their traverse of the Gangotri glacier in 1984. Later, a British team, under the leadership of Simon Yearsley reached the Chaukhamba col from the Gangotri side and camped there on 3 October, 1995 on their way to attempt Chaukhamba I, but found the next part of the route too dangerous to continue. The only attempt made to reach the col from the Badrinath side was by Harish Kapadia’s team in June 19973, when two members and three Sherpas failed to reach the main glacier below the north face of Chaukhamba I.

The significance of the Chaukhamba massif in the geography of India is unparalleled. It is the main donor to the Gangotri glacial complex which supports the water supply to the three main resources of the Ganga viz. Bhagirathi, Alakananda and Mandakini.

After some effort I got a determined team of four mountaineers - Biman Biswas (29), a combat commando of ITBP; Partha Sarathi Moulik (40), Biplob Baidya (42), and Ritabrata Saha (33). My trusted supporters Kamal Singh (40) and Devram (22) brought along two fellow villagers Kirtan (22) and Raghubeer (25) from Agoda (the second village on the trekking route to Dodital from Uttarkashi).

After several months of researching, we left Kolkata on 12 May, 2013 for Joshimath, where we spent two days getting our permits and shopping for provisions, and then reached Mana - the roadhead - on 16 May noon, bypassing Badrinath which had just opened its doors that day to pilgrims.

Camp I - Bagua Nala

We hit the trail on 18 May. The initial five km stretch, which leads to Vasudhara falls, is well-marked. After crossing the Bhagnyu nala (a stream coming down from the north), we reached our campsite (3528 m) in three and half hours.

Camp II - Chaukhamba I Base Camp

We had two options for our trek the next day: 1) a lower route - to follow the river bed initially over the dead moraine and then on the terminal moraine of the Bhagirath Kharak or 2) an upper route - go up to our right and follow the broken ridge created by the true left lateral moraine. We took the upper route. Crossing the boulder zone and once atop the lateral moraine, we found a pleasant trail between the moraine ridge and the northern wall. It took us three and half hours to reach the next campsite (Chaukhamba I base camp) at 3898 m. A small improvised temple indicated that we were indeed at a place used by the expeditions to Chaukhamba I.

Glacier Camp 1

On 20 May we started down a boulder gully, which was more difficult than we thought. The loose boulders on sand and scree were perched so precariously that each of us created a landslide towards the Bhagirath Kharak glacier. We followed an imaginary line to cross the glacier to its true right and soon found ourselves in a sea of boulders. However we managed to keep our sense of direction and reached the snowfield below the north face of Balakun in an hour or so. After a six hour trek we found a relatively flat place and lowered our rucksacks to set up our glacier Camp 1 at 4302 m.

L to R: Chaukhamba III and IV from Gangotri glacier. (Ritabrata Saha)

L to R: Chaukhamba III and IV from Gangotri glacier. (Ritabrata Saha)

Glacier Camp 2

The following day the gradient was constant at 35° - 40°. With the rising sun we started sinking in the melting snow. As we crossed a turning on the glacier, the view of Chaukhamba I opened before us. The avalanche-prone north face of Chaukhamba was awe-inspiring, but the icefall below seemed a nightmare. Our goal - Chaukhamba col - was somewhere up and above that icefall. After a continuous trek of six hours on the crevasse ridden snowfield with knee-deep snow, we reached below the hidden gully which leads to the side glacier used by Meade’s team in 1912 but was not found by Shipton in 1934. The low altitude supporters were sent back from here together with the stove, big utensils and other extra loads.

After setting up the camp we walked up to the base of the rock wall to assess the route ahead. Our first obstacle would be to climb the first 80 m of that 80°-90° wall to reach the base of the snow couloirs. Snow avalanches were coming down every five minutes. We hoped there would be fewer avalanches in the early morning. Biman started fixing rope on the wall with pitons. A huge boulder on the top of the rock wall provided a safe anchor.

Phase II

The morning of 22 May ushered the second phase of our expedition - with three main variations from the earlier phase. Firstly, we would now be climbing, not walking. Secondly there were no longer any LAPs accompanying us, so we would have to carry and ferry the loads. And lastly, we would now be on a diet of soup and noodles!

Biman was the first to move out of the camp towards the base of the rock-wall. The subsequent critical part was to cross a snow-bridge over the funnel. The thin layer of snow over the waterfall was also the runnel for all the loose snow coming down every five minutes from the upper valley as mini avalanches. We couldn’t fix any rope here. Instead, we belayed for a distance of 30 m. Biman fixed rope on the following 200 m - a 70° mixed patch of rock and snow. It was about 01.00 p.m., and the weather was at its best. So I decided to continue. Though we had run out of rope, I had a six mm 30 m line which we doubled and tied to our harness. After about two hours we reached the brim of the funnel and found a place which seemed safe from avalanches. Meanwhile, the other three members climbed up the fixed rope to the point where Kamal and others had left the first set of load. They were waiting for the HAS to get there with more ropes etc. It was already 03.00 p.m. and the snow was fast turning soft under the scorching sun. Tired and without any climbing rope, it could have been dangerous to continue on that slippery slope. I asked them over the walkie-talkie to stop and set up their tent. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to place a tent on that 55° slope. Still it was a better option than continuing for another two hours in those conditions. They somehow dug out a spot for the tent and bivouacked for the night. Kamal and his team arrived there with the ropes after one and half hours but did not want to stay the night in the half-hanging position, so continued upwards leaving a climbing rope for the team members. Biman and I slowly unpacked, put up our small tent, brewed some soup and watched a fantastic sunset. We were soon joined by our HAS. The GPS reading showed the height as 5131 m.

Early next morning, while three HAS - Devram, Kirtan and Raghuveer - went down to bring the loads from the last bivouac, Biman and I, together with Kamal, moved forward. We crossed the avalanche debris and continued traversing upwards on the north face of the intermediate ridge towards the col some two km ahead and some 370 m higher. At about 11.30 a.m. we reached the intermediate col at 5490 m. Around that time the team members and supporters from the hanging bivouac arrived at our last night’s campsite. While they stopped to repack and rest, we got our first view of our goal – Chaukhamba col. Facing south, from left to right we could see some of the stunning peaks - Mukut Parvat, Kamet, Mana Parvat, Nar Parvat, Narayan Parvat, Balakun and then Chaukhamba I (7138 m) with its crevasses and hanging glaciers and the continuous avalanches all along its north face. The summit looked so close yet so far with its two rock-slabs known as charan- paduka (slippers of Lord Vishnu). The northwest ridge continued from the summit to our right and suddenly dropped at the heavily corniced Chaukhamba col at 6053 m before rising again to meet the summit ridge of Januhut. Behind us were the Arwa group of peaks and many other known and unknown giants of Garhwal. The mere sight of the col sent a shiver down my spine. The glistening, curved icewall with the cornice on the top looked unachievable. Biman and I exchanged a glance and smiled. We went down about 60 m – or rather rolled over a crevasse to negotiate it and reach a flat spot. The walkie buzzed - only to deliver an undesirable message from the team below. Partha and other team members, sunk to their waist in the melting snow, were unable to move up with their already tired legs from the morning’s climb plus lack of sleep , and were therefore returning to our last night’s bivouac. So for the second consecutive night the team was in separate camp sites. We sent the four HAS to the lower camp. Biman and I sat at our camp site enjoying the view of Chaukhamba col and planning the route. The GPS registered this point as 5420 m.

We had a lazy morning at the upper camp on 24 May. When the rest of the team finally joined us at about 09.30 a.m. we had already anchored the only 220 m polypropylene rope we had, above a gap to the right of our campsite. We had to go down a couloir of 70° to reach the glacier under the north face of Chaukhamba I. By taking this route we could avoid the main icefall and the most avalanche-prone area but we would have to cross another two km of crevasse-filled glacier and risk avalanches from both north face of Chaukhamba I and south face of Januhut. Moreover we would have to cross the bergschrund of the Januhut-side several times - and reach a safe site before dark. Where, when and how - we still had to figure out.

The 250 m descent was uneventful except for Partha slipping and somersaulting. Once on the glacier, we roped up in three groups. We tried to stay away from the already melted snow, keeping close to the south face of Januhut - a perilous task with hidden crevasses every five steps, and avalanches of different dimensions every five minutes. It was an unbroken upward movement for the next four hours, without any substantial rest. At about 03.00 p.m, I reached the last section of the glacier, 500 m before the final wall of Chaukhamba col. Devoid of sunlight, it suddenly felt very cold. We called it a day and started pitching our tents. We slept to the music of avalanches at a height of 5623 m.

The next day we started towards the col keeping close to the northern wall. There were two lines of bergschrund to cross in the beginning of the climb. We climbed the first one over a thin snow-bridge and avoided the second by climbing up a small rock projection. Continuing to climb an even steeper slope after those crevasses, we stopped near the next rock island. We had already climbed for two and half hours from camp. Dumping our equipment in a snow-hole, we returned.

26 May – our D-Day! So far we had enjoyed unbelievably good weather. But on the morning of 26 May, the sun rose behind a curtain of heavy mist. We left our tents at 06.30 a.m., laden with heavy loads, to make the historic climb to the col. Charles Francis Meade climbed it with his Swiss guides, Pierre Blanc and Justin Blanc (two brothers) and three Bhotia porters, on 10 July, 1912. They had perhaps less snow cover over the rocks and more snow on the glacier and ice wall – it was a less warmed up planet. A few lines from his book must be quoted here to understand the condition of the wall 101 years ago.

Above this bergschrund the angle steepened so that in some seasons the snow might be avalanchy and dangerous, perhaps forcing a climbing-party to take to some rock-cliffs on the right. As usual in the Himalaya, the angle turned out to be much steeper than a distant view of it had led us to suppose, but with increasing eagerness to see the unknown country ahead, we raced panting up the final slope. Suddenly we found ourselves on the top of the pass, and a thrilling spectacle was revealed.

There was no mention of the cornice on the top. While before us was an overhanging 50 m icewall with a three m hanging cornice! And it was very avalanchy in May. We began climbing the rock-cliff, but the thin snow cover over this 800 rock wall made it difficult to keep our feet stable. We were moving in our usual groups, and reached the spot where we had dumped our load the previous day. After picking up the load we started to crampon up the steep slope. Every step was a series of actions; first to determine the safety, then stability of the snow / ice, then balance of the body, then decide the direction of the next step and finally raise one foot to place it a little higher up and start panting for some oxygen. We forgot how long we moved in this manner. Suddenly I found that I could see the unnamed peak attached to Chaukhamba IV. The cornice of Chaukhamba col was about 70 m below. We crossed the ridge and entered the saddle connecting Chaukhamba I and Januhut. We were at Chaukhamba col!!! Biman and I quickly congratulated the supporters, before trying to shelter ourselves, behind some rocks, from the high winds from the Gangotri glacier. Before we could unbuckle our rucksacks, Biplab’s SOS came through the radio. Partha had slipped and was somehow arrested by Ritabrata and Biplab from going down 300 m into the gaping bergschrund. Still shaken from the fall, he couldn’t stand up and place his steps properly. They needed help with Partha’s load. We rushed towards the edge of the col to find, about 100 m below us, Ritabrata and Biplab waiting, anchored with their ice-axes while Partha was hanging between them. Our three HAS rappelled down to help Partha. Kamal took Partha’s rucksack and tried to clip his jumar to the fixed rope. Suddenly Kamal started to skid - first slipping down, then rolling and soon bouncing. We shouted out to him, ‘Throw the rucksack away!’ After 150 m or so, the rucksack released, and Kamal managed to dig his crampon and hands into the snow and stopped his fall. Partha’s rucksack continued bouncing for another 150 m and luckily stopped just before an open crevasse. Kirtan and Raghuveer went down all the way to the crevasse with the short climbing rope, recovered the rucksack and came up after about two hours.

Finally when they came up we took photographs and had a small ritual. I tried to locate the cairn placed by Meade but couldn’t find anything after 101 years. At about 02.30 p.m. we started to move down the other side. The weather felt strange. A dark cloud over Chaukhamba massif was trying to spread over Gangotri glacier but the strong wind (over 140 km/hr) was pushing it back, keeping the sky clear along the glacier. It was an amazing view. Once we got down to the saddle, we had to make a human chain, because of the strong wind, to cross a 40 m open passage leading to the other side of the gap. After traversing the saddle towards southwest we began our descent, relying on the contour map and Google Satellite images. We subsequently found that GE images were not correct for this part.

After some 100 m downward walk, we found that the snow slope had suddenly changed to rock cliffs on all sides. We couldn’t see anything below. After a discussion, we anchored two snow-stakes and Biman started to descend through a snow-rock couloir. Devram, Kamal, and Ritabrata went down to help him fix the two climbing ropes. The rope already had two knots, so it was difficult to change the descender twice in the middle. Partha, still very much shaken from the fall, took about an hour to go down that first stretch.

With sunset approaching, the wind started to blow powdery snow. It became increasingly difficult to stand with the heavy rucksack over the anchor and wait for the last man to reach the next anchor. Once everybody was down, it was my turn to descend. I had supposed that all the knots were on the same side of the doubled rope and therefore I wouldn’t have any problem to pull it down from the other side. But to my bad luck I found they were on either side of the strands. So I had no other option than to untie the knot and climb down unprotected on a steep ice slope. I was just about 30 m from the next anchor when I slipped. However, I kicked with all my strength while skidding and somehow my crampons got stuck

Darkness fell over Gangotri glacier and soon over Chaukhamba massif. We continued our downward journey in the glow of light from our headlamps. At about 08.30 p.m., Biman reached a flat spot and started pitching tents. I could see the distant light of the tents when I heard Partha moaning in pain, fighting to come out of the last bergschrund. He had torn his ligament when he fell in the first bergschrund and twisted his legs. However, he managed to come out and started towards the campsite. When I reached the campsite it was 11.00 p.m. Seventeen hours of continuous climbing on an unknown route got us mentally and physically tired. It was impossible to sleep that night with five of us crammed up in one tent. However, we had crossed the Chaukhamba col and were now at 5563 m.

Route of descent through the ice-rock gulley. (Debabrata Mukherjee)

Route of descent through the ice-rock gulley. (Debabrata Mukherjee)

The Descent

We began our descent on the morning of 27 May, with Partha in pain. He couldn’t stand properly. Not long after we were on the top of the Chaukhamba I icefall of Gangotri glacier. To our right was a rock wall dropping straight into the glacier and to our left were the menacing seracs of the icefall. We had no option other than taking the chute to go down. We went down some 50 m on easier gradient and placed the anchor for the last possible abseil to reach the Gangotri glacier. Meanwhile the weather packed up and it started to snow amidst high winds. Biman continued to rappel down and found there was no straight route downwards, so he zigzagged and after two intermediate anchors hit the glacier floor after more than one hour. By this time the blizzard had gained strength. The superfine powdery snow was lashing at great speed through the one metre narrow chute and entering our nose, eyes, and ears. The numbing cold wind was freezing our joints and limbs. One by one the members started to go down. After about six hours it was my turn to descend, followed by Devram. When I finally stood on Gangotri glacier, golden sunrays were just touching the tip of Chaukhamba I. I took some hurried photos of Devram coming down the last few metres before setting up my tent (5245 m) with an uneasy feeling of uncomfortable closeness to the hanging seracs of Chaukhamba I icefall and the continuous small avalanches from Chaukhamba IV. We made some tea and had barely had a sip when an unusually big boom of an avalanche sounded and Devram shouted, “It’s a big one coming down - it’s coming to our tent.” We ran out and saw a greyish white 100 m high wall of clouds thundering towards us. Biman shouted, “Get into the tent and put your back to the tent wall towards the avalanche.” We followed his command like puppets. For thirty long seconds there was violent pushing and shaking and then suddenly everything quietened. We came out of our tent and saw how lucky we were - the snow and ice debris had stopped about some 100 meters before the camp site - what we felt was the wind-thrust and snow-blast.

Once again a bright morning welcomed us. I wanted to leave as soon as possible from the dangerous seracs around us. But Partha reported that he couldn’t raise his leg more than six inches; Biplab informed us that the butane gas we were carrying would not last longer than two days. Our planned route would take us at least five days to reach Kedarnath via Gangotri col on the western boundary of Gangotri glacier. We, therefore, decided not to try the Gangotri col. Instead, we started walking on Gangotri glacier towards Gangotri. After walking for five hours we stood facing the Kharcha Kund peak and stopped for the day at 4691 m. Partha arrived, escorted by Raghuveer, two hours later.

Chaukhamba col from Gangotri side. (Debabrata Mukherjee)

Chaukhamba col from Gangotri side. (Debabrata Mukherjee)

View towards Gaumukh. Mandani Parvat and Yeonbuk in the background. (Debabrata Mukherjee)

View towards Gaumukh. Mandani Parvat and Yeonbuk in the background. (Debabrata Mukherjee)

Our planned route would take us at least five days to reach Kedarnath via Gangotri col on the western boundary of Gangotri glacier. We, therefore, decided not to try the Gangotri col. Instead, we started walking on Gangotri glacier towards Gangotri. After walking for five hours we stood facing the Kharcha Kund peak and stopped for the day at 4691 m. Partha arrived, escorted by Raghuveer, two hours later.

The next day we got down to 4412 m at the junction of Kirti and Gangotri glaciers near the turning for Kedardome base camp. It took us four hours to get there.

We left the following day for Tapovan. With all the known peaks around us - Kedardome, Kedarnath, Shivling and Bhagirathi - it felt like a familiar neighbourhood.

On 31 May, we completed our pilgrimage at Gangotri temple.

First crossing of the Chaukhamba col (6053 m) linking Bhagirath Kharak and Gangotri glaciers in May 2013.


  1. This expedition was awarded the ‘Jagadish Nanavati Award for Excellence in Mountaineering’ for the year 2013. This award is instituted by the Himalayan Club in association with the Nanavati family to encourage quality climbing, exploration and reporting by Indian mountaineers. - ed.
  2. ‘Shipton’s Lost Valley’ by Martin Moran, HJ Vol. 55, p. 63.
  3. ‘Lost in the Legends’ by Harish Kapadia, HJ Vol. 54, p. 73.

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