Gyan Singh Duktolia – Child of the Himalaya:
The Panchyat Ghar (village level administrative building) of Duktu village, a village in deepHimalaya on the way to Panchchuli Base Camp, has been built strategically. Perched on a high ground, it looked down upon the whole village, as far as Dantu– the next village across the Dhauli Ganga gorge, two kilometers away. Dhauli Ganga issues forth from the junction of Sona and Meola glaciers at the foot of the Panchachuli group of peaks, about five kilometers away from Duktu village where I am going next morning.
Duktu is a small village in the Darma valley, deep into the Kumaon Himalayas, surrounded by lofty peaks, on which fresh snowy has been deposited, a sign of coming winter when the whole valley will be buried deep under the snow and its inhabitants will migrate, within a day or two, to a lower village for the entire winter months.
I was lying flat on my mat on the grassy courtyard of the Panchyat Ghar, looking idly up the deep azure blue cloudless sky and eventually dozing off to a slumber.
High above my head, a yellow-billed cough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) was gliding incessantly in circles using the upward lift of the hot mountain air and calling its mate. The sun was directly above my head and its fierce rays were cutting into my skin; but the cool fragrant & gentle breeze that wafted towards me from the surrounding snow peaks, was cooling me off to doze.
It was one of those perfect days.
As I was drifting slowly to view a technicolour-dream, Gyan Sing, village-head, came rushing in and woke me up from my reverie with an urgent plea, “Saab, aapko aabhi ekbar mere ghar jana hoga” (Sir, you must come to my house at once).
I have planned to languish there in Shabasan (dead mans’ posture) till the sun goes down behind the mountains and naturally most reluctant to leave my heaven.
We were trekking for the last three days on an average of ten hours per day and certainly, had earned a rest. But by the expression of Gyan Sing, the matter appears to be serious.
So reluctantly & languidly I asked him, “Lekin, kyun?” (But why?).
Gyan Sing replied, “Mera ghar me do saheb aaye hnyay. O log mujhe biswas nehi kar raha. Ghar se nikal ne ka time ghar tala bandh kar ke nikal raha hyay.” (Two foreigners have come to stay in my house. They do not trust me. When going out, they are locking up their room).
He continued to pour out his anguish, “Mnyay unpad aadmi. Aap angreji me unko samjha dijiye ki o mujhe biswas kar sakte.” (I am illiterate. You please tell them in English that they can trust me).
It would seem very insignificant to us – the city bred modern man. Who cares a hoot about some foreigners not trusting me !
But Gyan Sing was in great pain, literally.
These children of theHimalayaare illiterate and very poor; their life is tough beyond the imagination of most of us but they simply cannot bear the thought that somebody, that too a foreigner does not trust him. Mr. Traill, the British Commissioner of Garhwal acknowledged that and certified them as, ‘an honest, industrious, orderly race, patience and good humoured’. (Statistical Report on the Bhotia Mahala of Kumaon: Traill, G.W).
I am in Bhotia Mahal – thelandofBhotiaswho does not lock their house – ever and value their honesty above everything.
Early in an autumn morning we started from Dharchula in jeep for Panchchuli base camp. Dharchula, the sub divisional head-quarter on the Indo-Nepal border on the bank of Kali Ganga in the Pithorgarh district of Uttarakhanda, is a bustling town. Our jeep ride will end at a village called Sobla—the road-head and our trek to the Panchchuli base camp starts. It’s a gentle trek of three days.
After negotiating few land-slides on the way our jeep reached Sobla in the late morning and we started our trek. We had our breakfast in a road-side Chati(restaurant) with cold paratha and potato curry and soon we were on our road under the blazing sun. Our destination Sela, is a small village, 16 kms away.
I always enjoy the initial trek of first day. Its gives me a feeling of utter freedom. Nap-sack on by back, not a care for the world, free like a soaring bird, all I have to do is walk & walk.
We took a short cut through a steep ascent and midway everything went blank for me. I just collapsed on the narrow path and somehow managed to hang on. My companion – my friend and porter, Umed Sing, who was a little ahead, came rushing down through the steep descent.
Well, it’s must be the cold paratha that was doing its trick. A few drop of homeopathic medicine and after a few seep of water; I could stand again and complete the steep ascent to reach a roadside chati.
By late noon we reached Bugling village, 8 kms away and had our lunch with rice, dal and boiled local creeper in Sher Sings’ chati.
Sher Sing is using red plastic chairs in his dining room. Now a day, these ubiquitous plastic chairs can be found in even inaccessible villages in the deepHimalaya. The juggernaut of development has reached the remote Himalayan villages and along with it brought pollution.
As we start for Sela — the next village, the path became relatively steep but the natural beauty around us is worth the labour. By the time we reached ITBP camp of Sela, the sun has gone behind the mountain and the temperature dropped dramatically. We took shelter in the “five-star” chati of Dev Sing and had our dinner with rice-dal and fried egg—a delicacy rarely found in this route. Dev Sings’ chati , called a five star Chati for the facilities it proved, is on the true right bank of river Dhauli Ganga, the village is on the other side of the river.
As we drifted in to the slumber that will drive away the pain and the labour, the constant gurgling sound of the fast moving stream kept us entertained.
After a hurried breakfast with noodles, we started early next morning for village Duktu, 10 kms away but the path became so difficult that only by late afternoon we reached Baling, a prosperous village 6 kms away from Sela after a frugal lunch at Nagling, a small village on the way. My companion, a young of 65 years with a bypass heart surgery only two years back, was so exhausted that I had to stop at Baling in the house of the local postmaster.
Astha, the daughter of the postmaster, a young modern girl with high-school certificate, took our care so nicely that we felt like we were in our home. The dinner with hot chapatti on top of which ghee was spread lavishly and sabji in their kitchen in front of the flaming oven was a treat and I slept like a log.
Since we had to trek only 4kms next day, we started late with a leisurely breakfast. Leaving the village we entered a enormous level field and met a precession of humans, cows and horses going down. The residents of village Dantu & Bon were leaving their village in seasonal winter migration.
I was thinking how this field will look during July-August when it will be full of alpine flowers. Somebody behind me said “ August-me aiye, bahut phool milega”( Come in August, You will find lots of flower). Astha came-up from behind. She coming with us to visit a relative in Duktu.
We reached Duktu in the early morning and lodged in the Panchayat house of the village. I immediately took to the green lawn in front of the house under the blazing sun and started “Shabasan” on my mat. That’s when Gyan Sing came to bring down me from my heaven & day dream.
I had to accompany Gyan Sing to his house where I met Katrina & Christoff an Austrian couple. They are traveling in Indiafor the last two months and came to visit Panchachulli base camp. We had an extended adda session till evening and Gyan Sing was suitably impressed by my English speaking power!
Very early in the next morning we were on the rough route to the Panchchuli base camp. It is still dark and dawn was breaking slowly behind us. As we reached a strategic point in front of the Panchchuli group of peaks, I sat down on a big boulder to wait for the sun-rise. Cool fragrant breeze, carrying the chill of the snow crested mountain, wafted towards us from the east. All around us silence reigned.
The five peaks of Panchchuli are still dark. The darkness started to lift very slowly and my thoughts wandered to the early expeditions of these peaks.
The mountaineering history of Panchchuli began with Hugh Ruttledge. He saw the group at close quarters reaching high up on the Sona glacier. He examined the routes and thought that the north arête may be possible. After 21 years two teams examined the eastern approaches again. W.H. Murray and his Scottish team followed the Ruttledge route. They intended to reach the north col and follow the northeast ridge. They found the terrain too difficult.
Later Murray and Douglas Scott went up the Meola glacier. From its junction with the Sona glacier they climbed ‘till 16,000 ft by way of the central diff and found the only way to Meola’.
Just 20 days after them came Kenneth Snelson and J. de V. Graaff. By early September they reached the upper Sona glacier and ‘found that its head was a cradle of 600 foot cliffs offering no route to the northeast summit ridge’.
They then followedMurray’s route to upper Meola and reached the south col to examine the west side.
They thought of the south ridge but wrote: ‘The ridge towards south col has a rather easier gradient but it is very broken, heavily corniced’. They gave up the southeast face also after 400 ft.
With such verdicts, the eastern approaches were left alone. Only a team each in 1970 and 1988 tried them unsuccessfully.
The western approaches were tried one year after Murray, in 1951. Heinrich Harrer and Frank Thomas 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, by passing three icefalls. Harrer with Sherpas 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 had spent only 16 days on the mountains but pioneered the route which was followed by all subsequent expeditions from this side.
In 1952, P.N. Nikore followed the Harrer route and his attempt in June almost coincided with an attempt by another team led by D.D. Joshi which included Maj. John Dias. Both the teams reached the Balati plateau. Nikore returned in 1953 and claimed a solo ascent of the peak without any conviction or proof to corroborate his claim. He was disbelieved and the claim ignored.
The first Border Police team in 1972 was led by Hukam Singh. They powered their way to the Balati plateau via the Harrer route and made the first ascent of peak I. The first of the Panchchuli had fallen.
Repeating their route, Mahendra Singh led another team in 1973. They fixed almost 3000 m of rope. The entire route on the southwest ridge was fixed. On 26th May 1973, 18 people reached the summit.
The mountain was left alone for 18 years.
In 1991 two routes were climbed by the eastern approaches. Both teams were 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. Thus the route suggested by Ruttledge in 1929 was completed after 61 years.
The second army team followedMurray’s route to the upper Meola glacier. They pitched a high camp following the southeast slopes to theEast Ridge. The summit team broke the cornice to reach the top. Thus the route suggested by Snelson-Graaff was completed after 41 years.
The scene finally shifted back to the west.
The Indian-British expedition 1992 followed the route along the Uttari Balati glacier to the Balati plateau. 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. This was the second ascent of the southwest ridge, now 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.
The first ascent of Panchchuli IV peak was made by a New Zealandexpedition on 1st October 1995. The team was led by John Nankervis. (see H.J., Vol. 52, p. 247).
Peak III and the direct south ridge on peak II still remain un-attempted.
I was lost in thought and could not notice the moment when the sun came out from behind the mountain. The first tangential sun rays fell on the deathly-icy peaks of Panchchuli. Slowly, like a slow motion movie, all the five peaks came alive one by one. As if some unknown giant hand has just poured molten gold on the crest of those peaks. The reflected light from the peaks lighted the valley in golden hue; it started to laugh in sheer joy.