Last time I was this close to the stunning slopes of Panwali Dwar was in 2012 during my Sunderdhunga Trek. Today I looked down into that closed valley floor from nearly 2000 meters above. The natural pedestal that afforded this view was summit of Mt. Baljuri, sitting at 5922 mtrs on the ridge forming natural boundary between Sunderdhunga and Pindar valleys.
The chance discovery of Baljuri as a potential first peak attempt happened couple of years ago during a discussion in an online community. All the armchair research, however was only academic at the time as I had no intent of attempting a peak. It was but bound to happen in due time, and so when we decided to go for a summit in 2017, Mt. Baljuri was the obvious choice.
The usual approach to Baljuri follows same route as much more frequented Pindari glacier trek up until a few km up from Phurkiya. Two more camps above base camp are employed to negotiate the steep climb from base camp through grassy hill leading to moraines and further to summit through Baljuri Col.
Our team initially made up of Sunil, Adil, Nitin and I but at the last moment Sunil had to return due to dengue. We were joined by Girish who was to accompany us for some distance in the mountain. We had planned to get porters and a local guide from Khati. We started from Bageshwar on 25th Sep, which marked end of 4 days of heavy downpour. Couple of teams that had left for Pindari and Traills Pass faced the full brunt of rains including washing away of the Pindar bridge. We however crossed the under construction bridge on the way to Dwali and apart from few instances of broken trails there was no major trouble from the rains of previous week. The trail between Khati and Dwali had however changed considerably compared to what it was 16 years ago during my first foray into Pindar Valley. This unwanted change was brought about by heavy rains of 2013 which was considerably less in Kumaon but still catastrophic enough to cause major landslides.
The trail breaks off once Pindar River is crossed leading to lush green meadows. The base camp sits little higher on this meadow at an elevation of 3600 mtrs. Baljuri is veiled by the mountain which rises steeply from the banks of Pindar River. Across the river Nanda Kot and Changuch peaks tower over small flat area leading to Baba’s hut and Zero Point. The gradient up until the BC is pretty gentle and Khati to BC can be easily done in 2 days. Climb from BC to camp 1 is up through steep grassy hill without laid out trail. Groups usually ferry loads up to Camp 1 and return, we decided to take porters all the way to camp 1 as there was no snow and water was available.
Camp 1 sits at the start of moraines at 4600 mtrs perched at the end of the ridge leading to common massif of Panwali Dwar and Baljuri. The peak almost directly over head from here is Nanda Khat which looks menacingly difficult from the face towards us. Slopes from Changuch and Nanda Khat converge in shape of Pindari glacier visible on the other side of the camp. Camp 2, although not on snow, was still not the most comfortable place as water was a fair distance away and we could find just enough flat space to pitch our tents. (Photo Camp 1)
Climb from C1 continues on moraines for some distance and passes through a narrow passage not more than few feet wide. Hard ice block at the mouth of the passage made for a tricky crossing as we had not strapped our crampons yet. However it was not exposed and we were able to cross it without much risk through debris accumulated on it. Further up slope was not very steep. Snow however was very soft and we were plodding in the snow much earlier than we expected. Plastic double boots made their weights felt and with our sacks heavy with rope, food, tents and crampons as additional load, we were walking slower than we would have liked. Since we were on the mountain now, there was no stream and we had to make a stop for melting snow for water. Visible crevasses and some seemingly hazardous depressions forced us to take detours around them leading to a lengthy haul to Camp 2. We reached C2 when sun had receded from that face and we made our camp in bitter cold.
C2 was established below Baljuri Col and closer to visible Panwali Dwar. We could sense the high elevation through visible cues like proximity to Panwali Dwar and relative position of the mountain that had towered over us across the river- Nanda Kot. GPS confirmed the altitude to be 5200 mtrs leaving some 700 mtrs climb for summit from C2. A large crevasse separates a flat clearing from the steep wall leading to the col connecting Panwali Dwar and Baljuri. It was last day of September and bitterly cold in the camp. Snow had set to hard ice making hard work of chopping ice through ice axe to melt and prepare dinner.
On summit day, 1st October, we were up at 3 am to leave in a clear night however it was 5:30 when we actually started for summit, having spent 2 hours sorting out gear, roping up and wearing frigid double boots and crampons. It was still very dark without moon and snow was unexpectedly soft even at the early hours. Having to plod in knee deep snow, the progress was slow and we reached col at 6:00 am. We could see fixed ropes of previous group which were rendered useless due to soft snow. We had stunning view from the col dominated by Maiktoli , Sunderdhunga col and impregnable walls of Panwali Dwar on Sunderdhunga side and Nanda Khat, Changuch, Nanda Kot and few smaller peaks on Pindari side. We then turned left towards Baljuri and chalked out route to the summit through maze of crevasses.
The approach was excruciatingly slow due to soft snow and at 11:40 we had reached 5700 where we made another stop for melting water. Slope ahead was extremely steep albeit unexposed and thus not requiring roping up. Adil, Nitin and I left for summit with clouds approaching from below. From here onwards we could also get glimpse of twin peaks Nanda Devi even though we were so close to Panwali Dwar. Three of us reached the summit at 12:45 with clouds approaching but sky was still clear to grant us a spectacular view.
We had planned to return to C1 on the same day but could only reach C2 in time as we had to negotiate whiteout and very soft snow. Next day snow conditions were perfect during our descent to C1 and we made good speed and eventually reached Phurkiya comfortably with porters to share loads from C1. Further march down to Khati marked end of trek.