Chaukhamba : A peak on four pillars and it is not our democracy!

7:35 pm | | Comments 2

I couldn’t have missed the satire in the present context as all the four pillars of our democracy are currently on terribly shaky ground. Having said that, this post is definitely not about our democracy but about one of the most beautiful peaks on Uttarakhand Himalayas. It is the World Environment day and what else can we talk about than the most precious gift our nature has given to us!

Sunrise on Chaukhamba peak as seen from Almora town in Kumaon

The inspiration for this post came from an impromptu comment on one of my Facebook post couple of days back by a renowned photographer friend Jaimitra Singh Bisht, based in Almora. Post was a photo of sunrise on Chaukhamba peak, which I captured a few years ago from Almora. While appreciating the photograph, Jaimitra said that, “Chaukhamba’s perspective remains almost the same from many places including Kumaon and Garhwal which also makes it very unique Himalayan peak.”

Also read: World Environment Day – Where even the source is threatened

Chaukhamba peak (extreme right) and the adjoining peaks waiting to bask in glory of morning sunlight (as seen from Badshah Thaul near Chamba in Garhwal)

I almost immediately connected to this comment. In all these, almost three decades of travel and trekking in Uttarakhand, I have seen this amazing peak  a number of times and always found its perspective to be same. This is one of the main mountain massifs in the Gangotri cluster of mountains in the Garhwal Himalayas. And, quite contrary to almost all the peaks in its vicinity with mythological connections, this peak is known for its physical structure. ‘Chaukhamba’ literally means ‘four pillars’ which refer to four peaks on the top of an almost rectangular mountain. Its four impressive peaks rise up to an elevation of 7,138 metres (23,419 ft), 7,070 metres (23,196 ft), 6,995 metres (22,949 ft) and 6,854 metres (22,487 ft) respectively.

As glorious view as you can have, Chaukhamba peak as seen from Kausani in Kumaon

The highest peak in the group is Chaukhamba I that lies precisely on top of the Gangotri Glacier and forms the eastern connection of the group. It is the highest point in the Gangotri region. The Gangotri Glacier begins on its western slopes and is one of the largest in the Himalayas. This is the glacier from which originates the Bhagirathi river. Gangotri is actually not a single valley glacier but a combination of several other glaciers that are fed to it and form a huge mass of ice. The Shivling Peak is also an important part of this group. Badrinath is towards the east of this massif.

In a good winter snow covered Chaukhamba and adjoining peaks as seen from Surkanda Devi temple (alt 9996 ft) near Dhanaulti

While Nanda Devi and Trishul are also among the peaks of Uttarakhand Himalayas, which have been fascinating me a lot all these years from various locations in the region, but Chaukhamba has a very special place among its admirers. Its perspective has a lot to do with this. It has for decades delighted photographers with its mesmerising sunrises and sunsets. The changing colours on its four peaks are a sight to behold. Thus, for normal trekkers and travellers watching Chaukhamba massif along the way or from a destination in a clear weather has been a thrilling experience and many people just wait for this opportunity. 

A distant view of Chaukhamba peak from Sitlakhet in Kumaon, known for a panoramic view of Uttarakhand Himalayas from Yamunotri to Panchachuli, and even further in Nepal

Actually, many popular treks in the Garhwal region have been giving some extraordinary close sights to the trekkers of the peak, which is not possible for normal leisure travellers to have. Treks to various places in Garhwal like Guptakashi, Vasuki Tal, Satopanth Lake, Deoria Tal, Nag Tibba, Kuari Pass, Tungnath, Chandrashila and Boodha Madyamaheshwar have been giving some excellent sights of Chaukhamba massif and its adjoining peaks. Most of them are easy to moderate treks. Besides treks, normal leisure travellers can also have beautiful views of Chaukhamba peak from towns like Chamba in Garhwal to Almora in Kumaon and almost every hill station in between as well as around. All of them are well connected by good roads. Incidentally, photographs of Chaukhamba massif in this post have been taken by me from as many as five different places in Garhwal and Kumaon. 

Closer early morning look of Chaukhamba massif from Badshah Thaul near Chamba
Another view of Chaukhamba from Badshah Thaul with sun bit higher up on the horizon

But besides trekkers and travellers, Chaukhamba peak has lured mountaineers as well. Slopes of Chaukhamba are considered ideal for major mountaineering expeditions. June to September are considered to be the  best months for climbing. Chaukhamba I is considered as an ultra-prominent peak, with a prominence of more than 1,500 metres. It makes for a tricky climb, the climb accessible through four approaches. The routes include the north-east Face being the main summit – through the Bhagirathi-Kharak Glacier, the west face, the northwest ridge & the southwest face. Mana Pass is the key col for Chaukhamba I. Amongst its four possible climbing roots the south-face has never been achieved and it is extremely difficult to peak. 

Kausani in Kumaon is also famous for majestic sunrise on its peaks and this is how Chaukhamba looks from there

Many early explorers usually turned back in despair seeing the complex sea of peaks and glaciers in front of them. But then there were some legends whose explorations in the Himalaya seemed as smooth as silk. One of them was CF Meade. On 10 July 1912, Meade along with Bhotia porters hiked from a high camp of Bhagirath Kharak glacier and reached the col between Chaukhamba I and Januhut. The team didn’t cross the col. Instead, they got back in the afternoon after having a glimpse of the Gangotri glacier. It is said that after unsuccessful attempts in 1938 and 1939, Chaukhamba I was first climbed on 13 June 1952, by Lucien George and Victor Russenberger who were Swiss members of an otherwise French expedition. They ascended the northeast face of peak, from the Bhagirathi-Kharak Glacier. The other members of the expedition were the French alpinist and traveler Marie-Louise Plovier Chapelle and the renown French alpinist and climber Edouard Frendo. 

On clear winter mornings Surkanda Temple top is also considered to be one of the best places to have grand view of Uttarakhand Himalayas

The second ascent was by an Indian team (Commodore S.N. Goyal) also from the Bhagirathi Kharak, then up the north face and northwest ridge. The team also attempted Nilkanth, without success. Since then Chaukhamba I has been climbed three times by Indian expeditions. Chaukhamba II (7068 m) received first ascent in 1995, from the instructors of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (leader Col. M.P. Yadav). They traversed the entire length of the Gangotri glacier to reach the foot of the peak. After a complicated approach to the higher reaches they climbed the northeast ridge to the summit. They also climbed Chaukhamba I by a new route-southwest face. Around same time Simon Yearsley led a British attempt to climb Chaukhamba I from the col to its north. This col links Gangotri glacier to Bhagirath Kharak glacier and was last reached by C.F. Meade in 1912 as we mentioned earlier. The British team camped on the col but the route ahead proved too difficult for them. 

Perspective of Chaukhamba peak remains almost the same in all images, this one from Sitlakhet in Kumaon
A further closer look fro Sitlakhet of the Chaukhamba peak

And, as beautiful the peak is; as thrilling the ascent is, it also had its share of accidents for the climbers and among the most recent one to happen on this peak was almost 15 years back when in September 2005 six army climbers were killed when they were swept off by an avalanche after they scaled the Chaukhamba I peak. Tragedy stuck the group of air gunners when they were returning after scaling the central Himalayas’ most challenging peak on August 29. The team was on its way back to its third high-altitude camp when it fell victim to the high speed winds in the area.

A perspective not to be missed even from distance, Chaukhamba peak as seen from Kausani

Chaukhamba III and IV still await first ascents. There are no recored summits so far. Magic of Chaukhamba massif never fades and keeps everyone hooked from trekkers to photographers and mountaineers. I am already planning my next sight of this magnificent mountain and a bit closer one this time.

Clouds hovering over Chaukhamba and Neelkanth peaks as seen from Surkanda Devi temple

Have you been lucky to have a glimpse of the Chaukhamba peak or trekked close to it? Share your experience with us in the comments section below.

Photograph of a range of snowy peaks above the Gangotri Glacier from the ‘Strachey Collection of Indian Views’, taken by Samuel Bourne in 1866. Samuel Bourne, the bank clerk and amateur photographer arrived in India in 1863 during the early years of commercial photography. Photographs taken during three expeditions to Kashmir and the Himalayas between 1863 and 1866 demonstrate his ability to combine technical skill and artistic vision. These views display a compositional elegance which appealed to Victorian notions of the ‘picturesque’; strategically framed landscapes of rugged mountain scenery, forests, rivers, lakes and rural dwellings.

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  1. Missed the best season this year. I wonder whether we’ll be able to go in early winter.

    1. swamiupendra says:

      I am also pinning my hopes on that, keeping myself ready for that

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