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Asia, India, Kumaon, Panch Chuli II, Ascents and Tragedies

Panch Chuli II (6,904m), ascents and tragedies. In one of the worst avalanche tragedies in the history of Himalayan mountaineering nine members of an Indo-Tibet Border Police team to Panch Chuli II (the highest of the Panch Chuli Group at 6,904m) in the Kumaon region of the Indian Himalaya were killed while descending the mountain on September 20 after a successful summit attempt. While exact details are not known, the team appears to have climbed the southwest ridge, the route of the 1973 first ascent by 18 climbers from another ITBP expedition led by Mahindra Singh and repeated in 1992 by three Indian members of an Indo-British expedition jointly led by Chris Bonington and Harish Kapadia. The 1992 party found the approach through the icefall to the upper Balati Plateau below the ridge objectively dangerous.

The 2003 ITBP team was attempting the mountain before the end of the monsoon, reported to be comparatively heavy last year. The members reached the top early in the morning of the 20th and were involved in the accident at around 12:30 p.m. the same day. A series of helicopter searches eventually discovered the bodies, which were brought down to base camp. All the climbers involved were very experienced mountaineers and several had been to Everest. Among them Sunil Dutt Sharma had climbed Kangchenjunga by the northeast ridge (1991) and Everest (1993), while Sange Sherpa was one of only two people (the other being his brother Kusang) to have climbed Everest from all three sides: from the south via the South Col and southeast ridge; from the north via the North Col and north ridge; from the east via the Kangshung Face. Four of the victims are reported to have been Everest summiteers.

The ITBP has produced many accomplished climbers over the years and has been responsible for a great many significant first ascents in the Indian Himalaya, so it is truly unfortunate that the two worst avalanche incidents in India have involved its members. In 1995 an ITBP expedition to Saser Kangri lost 13 of its climbers in an avalanche when they were descending in bad weather from the summit camp.

Within a month of this accident the peak was climbed again by the Indian Army, this time from the eastern side (exact route unknown but the peak was climbed via the northeast ridge by an Indian Gorka Regiment in August 1991 and again the following month via the east face by members of the Kumaon and Naga Regiment). During the descent from the successful summit bid on October 4, a fixed rope snapped, leaving one member killed and four injured. All were from the Kumaon Regiment.

Lindsay Griffin and Harish Kapadia