Great Tales in Mountaineering History: Panch Chuli, 1992

In the summer of 1992, an Indian-British expedition headed for the Kumaon region of the Indian Himalaya. It’s a place suitable for mountaineers looking for real adventure on highly technical peaks.

The Panch Chuli peaks at sunset, near Munsiyari, Uttarakhand, India.

The Panch Chuli peaks at sunset, near Munsiyari, Uttarakhand, India. Photo: Wikimedia



Kumaon lies west of Nepal and consists of three valleys, according to Indian mountaineer Harish Kapadia in his detailed book, Trekking and Climbing in The Indian Himalaya.



The first valley, Darma Ganga, is in the east and features several peaks above 6,000m. The second, western valley is called Pindari and is flanked by beautiful yet difficult 6,000’ers, such as 6,663m Panwali Dwar and 6,611m Nanda Khat. A subsidiary valley called Sunderhunga branches off from Pindari and leads to the southern foot of Nanda Devi Sanctuary.

The third valley, the Milam Glacier Valley, is the central valley of Kumaon and contains the Kalabaland Glacier. Southeast of the Milam Glacier stand the five peaks of the Panch Chuli group.

The Panch Chuli group on the map.

The Panch Chuli group on the map. Photo: Ghummakad Harsh


The Panch Chuli massif

The Panch Chuli massif is between Nanda Devi in Garhwal and Api in Nepal. You can approach from the east via the Sona and Meola Glaciers.

The five peaks are numbered from northwest to southeast: Panch Chuli I (6,355m), Panch Chuli II (at 6,904m, the highest in the group), Panch Chuli III (6,312m), Panch Chuli IV (6,334m), and Panch Chuli V (6,437m).

As British mountaineer Victor Saunders points out in his book No Place To Fall, the massif has other striking peaks too. These include 6,537m Rajrambha, 6,410m Nagalaphu, 5,782m Shadev, 6,102m Telkot, 6,071m Bainti, and 6,041m Nagling.

The peaks of the Panch Chuli massif.

The peaks of the Panch Chuli massif. Photo: Manju M Nath


Local people have long worshipped Panch Chuli. The massif is named after the five Pandava brothers: Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva. They are the central characters of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. They were the sons of Pandu, the king of Kuru.

The Panch Chuli peaks represent the hearths on the five peaks where they cooked their last meal before ascending to heaven. At sunrise, the peaks reflect the sun’s rays into the sky. The hearth-like glow repeats shortly after sunset. This magical view indicates the way to Nirvana.

The five Pandava brothers: Yudhishthira (centre), Bhima (bottom left), Arjuna (bottom right), Nakula and Sahadeva (both standing beside the throne), with their common consort, Draupadi. Author: Raja Ravi Varma, Indian painter. Dated circa 1910.

The five Pandava brothers: Yudhishthira (center), Bhima (bottom left), Arjuna (bottom right), Nakula, and Sahadeva (both standing beside the throne), with their common consort, Draupadi. Illustration: Raja Ravi Varma, circa 1910


Attempts from the east

Before his two Mount Everest expeditions in 1933 and 1936, English mountaineer Hugh Ruttledge had made a reconnaissance of the Panch Chuli peaks in 1929.

Approaching from the east and examining possible climbing routes, Ruttledge concluded that the sharp ridge of the north arete might be climbable. However, it would be decades before anyone climbed any of the Panch Chuli peaks.

In 1950, a Scottish expedition led by W. H. Murray attempted a climb from the east. They tried to reach the north col and follow the northeast ridge. Because of the tricky terrain, they did not progress far.

Twenty days later that same season, British climber Kenneth Snelson and South African J. de V. Graaff targeted the northeast summit ridge of the massif, but huge cliffs blocked their route. Snelson and Graaff then considered the south ridge but finally abandoned their attempt on the southeast face after just 122m.

In 1970 and 1988, there were two other unsuccessful attempts from the east of the massif.

The Panch Chuli massif and the surrounding glaciers.

The Panch Chuli massif and surrounding glaciers. Photo: Alpine Journal


Attempts from the west

One year after Murray, in 1951, Austrians Heinrich Harrer and Frank Thomas approached the massif with two sherpas and a botanist. They approached through the Uttari Balati Glacier, bypassing three icefalls. For the time, it was a pioneering adventure.

Reaching the Balati Plateau and examining the north and west ridges, Harrer decided to attempt the west ridge. But the team gave up after one of the sherpas fell and injured himself. Nevertheless, their 16-day expedition showed subsequent parties the best way to approach.

From left to right: Panch Chuli IV, III, II, and the Meola glacier at their feet.

From left to right: Panch Chuli IV, III, II, and the Meola glacier at their feet. Photo: Srabanto Poddar


One year later, more attempts came from the west when two parties reached the Balati Plateau. In 1953, Indian mountaineer P. N. Nikore claimed a solo ascent but could not provide any evidence of his climb.

Another Indian attempt came more than 10 years later. A party led by Captain AK Chowdhury attempted Panch Chuli II, the highest peak in the massif. They then claimed to have ascended Panch Chuli III, IV, and V within two days.

But their claim is not logical, as these peaks are unapproachable from the Balati Plateau. Instead, they mistakenly climbed three humps near Panch Chuli II.

Golden light hits the Panch Chuli Peaks.

Golden light on the Panch Chuli Peaks. Photo: In Munsyari


The first ascents

The first ascent of a Panch Chuli peak was 6,355m Panch Chuli I. In 1972, an Indian party led by Hukam Singh ascended through the Balati Plateau via the Harrer route and successfully topped out.

Repeating the same route, an Indian team led by Mahendra Singh managed to summit the highest peak of the group, 6,904m Panch Chuli II, in 1973. The 18 members of this team topped out on May 26 after fixing almost 3,000m of rope on the southwest ridge.

Panch Chuli III remains unclimbed, despite a few attempts. Four members of a New Zealand team led by John Nankervis first climbed Panch Chuli IV in 1995.

Unclimbed Panch Chuli III.

Unclimbed Panch Chuli III. Photo: Juthika Maity

The Indo-British Panch Chuli Expedition of 1992

In May 1992, some of the best mountaineers in the world headed from Great Britain to India. There, they joined the elite Indian mountaineer and explorer Harish Kapadia and his team on a joint Indian-British expedition to the Panch Chulis. The third expedition of Kapadia’s Indo-British ventures, it took place between May 10 and June 29.

The party consisted of: Harish Kapadia (co-leader), Monesh Devjani, Bhupesh Ashar, Vijay Kothari, Muslim Contractor (his name, not religion and profession!), Anil Srivastava (liaison officer), Chris Bonington (co-leader), Graham Little, Richard Renshaw, Victor Saunders, Stephen Venables, and Stephen Sustad (an American living in Britain). Their porters were Pasang Bodh, Yograj, Kubram, Prakash Chand, Suratram, Sundersingh, Revatram (cook), Harsinh Senior, and Harsinh Junior.

Team members (from left to right): Muslim Contractor, Bhupesh Ashar, Wing Cdr Anil Srivastava, Stephen Venables, Chris Bonington, Harish Kapadia, Graham Little (behind), Monesh Devjani, Dick Renshaw, Vijay Kothari, Stephen Sustad, Victor Saunders.

Team members, left to right: Muslim Contractor, Bhupesh Ashar, Anil Srivastava, Stephen Venables, Chris Bonington, Harish Kapadia, Graham Little (behind), Monesh Devjani, Dick Renshaw, Vijay Kothari, Stephen Sustad, and Victor Saunders. Photo: Graham Little for the Alpine Journal


The team was stacked with experience and natural talent: Bonington with his high-level first ascents and new routes; Kapadia with more than 20 first ascents; Saunders, the hesitant architect who made some amazing climbs and first ascents (and who wrote about them with such humor in his books); and Venables, who, after ascending Everest without supplementary oxygen via a new route, decided not to take part in 8,000m peak collecting.

Chris Bonington near the summit of Panch Chuli II.

Chris Bonington near the summit of Panch Chuli II. Photo: Graham Little for the Alpine Journal


The party left Bombay on May 10, 1992, with 84 porters handling the expedition’s baggage. They followed the route along the Uttari Balati Glacier to the Balati Plateau. On May 18, they reached their base camp at 3,270m, below the snout of the Uttari Balati Glacier. It is one of the lowest base camps in the Himalaya.

“The height difference from base camp to Panch Chuli II was 3,700m, more than on most high mountains, including Everest,” Kapadia told The Himalayan Club.

Crevasses on "Victor's Terror" in the Uttari Balati icefall.

Crevasses on ‘Victor’s Terror’ in the Uttari Balati icefall. Photo: Graham Little for The Himalayan Club


From Victor’s Terror to Harish’s Horror

Four days later, the group established a glacier camp above the first icefall at 3,900m. The problems started just after, as the terrain became more and more complicated. There were still two very dangerous icefalls to get through.

Victor Saunders was opening the left side of the glacier. The party named this section “Victor’s Terror.”

As Saunders worked, there was suddenly a loud sound, and Bonington was hanging by a jumar on the fixed rope. Everything beneath him had collapsed.

Fortunately, Harish Kapadia found another route through the icefalls, via the right side. That way wasn’t easy either, and they named it “Harish’s Horror.” This right bank route was probably chosen by Harrer previously and avoided the second icefall.

Finally, on May 26, after passing the third icefall, they established an advanced base camp below a small rock buttress at 4,840m.

Fixed ropes on the right of the Uttari Balati icefall: "Harish's Horror".

Fixed ropes on the right of the Uttari Balati icefall, called ‘Harish’s Horror.’ Photo: Harish Kapadia for the Himalayan Club


Not content with one new route

From here, the team divided into groups to try several new routes.

On May 28, Bonington and Little made the first ascent of 5,750m Sahadev East by the northwest snow rib.

Then on June 4, while descending the steep gully known as Harish’s Horror, Indian Vijay Kothari slipped. He gathered speed as he fell towards a giant bergschrund at the bottom. Sundersinh ran after Kothari and managed to catch him at the last moment. Kothari’s ankle was broken, but two Indian climbers carried him to the glacier camp. Here, a helicopter flew him to the hospital.

On June 5, Renshaw, Saunders, Sustad, and Venables climbed 6,537m Rajrambha via a new route, traversing the east ridge over 6,000m Menaka Peak (It was Menaka’s first ascent.) They descended by the west ridge and the south face.

Two days later, on June 7, Contractor, Devjani, and Pasang Bodh made the fourth ascent of Panch Chuli II.

On June 8, Bonington and Little opened a new route on Panch Chuli II by the west spur.

On June 20, Kapadia, Contractor, Devjani, Kubram, and Prakash Chand made the first ascents of 5,220m Panchali Chuli and 5,250m Draupadi via the Panchali Glacier.

After all the difficulties, Kothari’s accident, and several great ascents, the expedition could have finished. However, some members of the group were still busy with another goal.

The traverse of 6,537m Rajrambha. Crossing Menaka summit.

The traverse of 6,537m Rajrambha, crossing Menaka’s summit. Photo: Stephen Venables for the Alpine Journal


The first ascent of Panch Chuli V

Venables, Saunders, Renshaw, and Sustad decided to go for unclimbed 6,437m Panch Chuli V. Accompanied by Bonington, they set off up the Panch Chuli Glacier on June 17, carrying food for four days.

“We had chosen Panch Chuli V because it was the highest and most remote of the unclimbed peaks, a beautiful pyramid rising behind a barrier of icefalls,” recalled Venables in his report for the Alpine Journal.

The four men wanted to ascend the difficult south ridge. According to Bonington, the approach to the ridge was complex and dangerous. After bypassing the third icefall via a different gully, the small group stopped at 5,400m on a col at the foot of the final ridge because of snowfall. The col was precariously situated on a corniced crest.

Panch Chuli V.

Panch Chuli V. Photo: Vs Raghavan


The buttress above camp was 200m of steep rock broken by snow and ice slopes. Their map showed that it was a kilometer from the top of the buttress to the top of the peak. Bonington, who eventually decided not to push for the summit, promised to wait for the others at this precarious camp.

But every day, the weather worsened while the team waited for a short weather window.

Summit rodie of Panch Chuli V on the first ascent on June 20, 1992.

Summit ridge of Panch Chuli V during the first ascent on June 20, 1992. Photo: Stephen Venables


Sustad described the upper part of the buttress as some of the best and hardest mixed climbing he had ever experienced in the Himalaya. On June 20, Venables, Saunders, Sustad, and Renshaw reached the summit.

The climbers ascending the rock pillar on Panch Chuli V.

The rock pillar on Panch Chuli V. It was from just above this point that Venables fell nearly 20 hours later. Photo: Chris Bonington


The accident

After topping out, the four-man team immediately started to descend. Bonington realized that the group’s descent was desperately slow over the technically difficult terrain. The onset of thunder and lightning made the descent even more dangerous.

At 3:30 am, Sustad, Saunders, and Renshaw had rappelled down and Venables removed the backup anchors, which might be needed later on. At that moment, he was relying on a piton driven into a horizontal crack of rock. The piton pulled out, and Venables hurtled down almost 100m.

Stephen Venables' fall.

Stephen Venables’ fall. Photo: Dick Renshaw


“I think I had gone about 20ft [6m] when the noise started. It was loud, metallic, and brutal, but I only realized gradually that it was happening to me. It took me a while to understand that it was my body that was being subjected to this vicious battering, punched and pummeled as I swooped, bounced, and somersaulted down the mountain,” Venables said.

His partners were convinced that this was the end for Venables. After the fall, there was a terrible silence, but a few minutes later, they heard Venables’ voice from 80m below.

Stephen Venables was reached by his friends who took him lower to safety.

Stephen Venables after the fall. Photo: Dick Renshaw


A difficult rescue

Venables was lucky to be alive. He severely damaged his right knee, broke his left ankle, and injured his chest. The team started to assist him down the mountain to a tent, but from there they needed a helicopter.

Kapadia and his colleagues were finalizing the expedition account on the afternoon of June 23. Suddenly, they heard someone running toward them to say that Bonington was on the phone from Madkot, with news of Venables’ accident. The Indians drove to Madkot, met up with Bonington, and started to organize a rescue. All knew that if a helicopter could not reach the small party on the mountain, they would all perish.

“Why did this have to happen on the last day? Why always on my expeditions? They are all happily married,” Bonington said.

The team waited for two days in the open, scanning the sky with binoculars. The helicopter went in twice but came out again because of clouds. The pilots could not locate Venables’ tent.

Kapadia and the others formed a Plan B. If the chopper could not pick Venables up on the third day, they would go up with a 20-person party, including a doctor and all the support required to get him down safely.

Stephen Venables (left) on the rescue helicopter and the two bold pilots.

Stephen Venables (left) in the rescue helicopter with the two pilots. Photo: Dick Renshaw


Rescue at last

Finally, four days after the fall, the helicopter managed to pick him up. The pilots, P. Jaiswal and P.K. Sharma, did a magnificent job. On June 27, Renshaw, Saunders, and Sustad also returned.

“It had been a close thing. Not just Stephen Venables, but all five of us were lucky to come back alive,” Bonington wrote. “Yet this is the very nature of climbing. Without that element of boldness, very few Himalayan climbs, certainly ones tackled alpine-style, would be completed…In spite of everything, it was one of the best trips I have ever had in the mountains.”

Legendary expedition leader Sir Chris Bonington (on the right), who himself suffered a 150m fall but was more worried about the rescue of his partners.

Chris Bonington, right, also suffered a 150m fall but was more worried about the rescue of his teammate. Photo: Stephen Venables


The Indo-British Panch Chuli Expedition 1992.

The Indo-British Panch Chuli Expedition, 1992. Photo: Stephen Venables


One final note. We highly recommend the exciting books written by the team about their experience on Pancha Chuli during that impressive summer of 1992.

  • A Slender Thread: Escaping Disaster in the Himalaya by Stephen Venables
  • No Place to Fall: Superalpinism in the High Himalaya by Victor Saunders
  • Trekking and Climbing in The Indian Himalaya by Harish Kapadia

Kris Annapurna

KrisAnnapurna is a writer with ExplorersWeb.

Kris has been writing about history and tales in alpinism, news, mountaineering, and news updates in the Himalaya, Karakoram, etc., for the past year with ExplorersWeb. Prior to that, Kris worked as a real estate agent, interpreter, and translator in criminal law. Now based in Madrid, Spain, she was born and raised in Hungary.