When Sir John Hunt returned from his conquest of Everest in 1953, reporters asked, "What next?" "Kanchenjunga," he replied without a moment's hesitation. "There is no doubt that those who first climb Kanchenjunga will achieve the greatest feat in mountaineering. For it is a mountain which combines in its defenses not only the severe handicaps of wind, weather and very high altitude, but technical climbing problems and objective dangers of an order even higher than those we encountered on Everest."
Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, is the showplace of the Himalayas, and no one who has viewed its five saw-tooth summits from Darjeeling, just 46 miles away, can ever forget the sight. Rose-colored at dawn, stark white in sunshine, cold and forbidding at dusk, its great mass, only 850 feet short of Everest's supreme height, fills the northwestern horizon and seems to float above the haze and darkness of the jungle valleys below.
Tourists are not alone in awful admiration. The Sikkimese, in whose country the entire east face lies, accord Kang-chen-dz√∂-nga—"The Five Sacred Treasures of the Snow"—the reverence given to a god. They devoutly believe that the highest summit, 28,146 feet above sea level, is the home of their protective deity.
To mountain climbers, Kanchenjunga stands as "the most difficult and most dangerous mountain in the world." For 50 years, climbers have challenged its savage slopes, constantly swept by avalanches, and have found them utterly unassailable. Indeed, many believed this beautiful mountain too terrible to scale.
October 2, 1955
In 1899, the first man to circumvent the base concluded, "It is guarded by the Demon of Inaccessibility...for the express purpose of defense against human assault, so skillfully is each comparatively weak spot raked by ice and snow batteries." In 1905, a Swiss expedition was hurled back by an avalanche which killed one climber and three porters. In 1929, E. F. Farmer, an American, abandoned by his porters, set out alone and was never again seen. In 1929 and 1931, two Bavarian parties fought to within 2,500 feet of the summit only to be whipped by blizzards and routed by avalanches. And in 1930, an international expedition barely got started when millions of tons of ice, rock and snow plummeted down the mountain, killing one porter and nearly wiping out the rest of the party. In all, 11 parties had visited the mountain. Eight men had died upon it.
Kanchenjunga remained unchallenged for the next 20 years until Gilmour Lewis and John Kempe, after exploring the little-known area beneath the southwest face, came away convinced that from this approach the summit might "go." In 1954, a lightly equipped team of six climbers led by Kempe pushed the reconnaissance to 19,000 feet.
More intimate knowledge of the upper part of the mountain was needed, however, before a full-scale attempt could be made. A joint committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society—Sir John Hunt was the chairman—recommended a "reconnaissance in force." Thus was our expedition born.
Now, after months of preparation and a rugged 100-mile march, we stood face to face with the giant. Nine men: our leader, Dr. Charles Evans, a surgeon by profession and deputy leader of the victorious Everest expedition; Norman Hardie, a skilled ice climber and second in command; Joe Brown, a Manchester builder and weekend climber; Dr. John Clegg, expedition physician; John Jackson, a Yorkshire schoolteacher; Neil Mather, a textile technologist and snow-and-ice specialist; Tom Mackinnon, a Glasgow pharmacist with considerable Himalayan experience; Tony Streather, a regular army captain and member of two previous major climbs, and finally myself, companion of Evans on Everest.
Ranged in an enormous circle around us was a fantastic array of peaks. The stupendous faces were daubed with masses of hanging ice which discharged their debris into the high snow basins feeding the great Yalung glacier curving around at our feet. So awe.-inspiring was the sight that I felt even smaller than in Everest's Western Cwm.
Directly before us lay the southwest face of Kanchenjunga, a series of contorted icefalls and precipitous snow slopes buttressed by steep walls of rock and gigantic overhanging glaciers which looked as if they might break loose at any moment. Our limited objective was to reach and explore the Great Shelf, a forbidding ledge of ice which stretches across the entire face at 24,000 feet (map below). To reach the Shelf, we would first have to find a route through the Lower Icefall, a 2,000-foot barrier of jumbled, moving ice, gutted with monstrous crevasses and pocked with shattered blocks of ice. Then, we would have to scale the Upper Icefall, some 3,500 feet of sheer walls of glistening ice, studded with snow-covered ledges. If we succeeded in placing a camp on the Great Shelf itself—which from this distance seemed almost impossible—the terrain above it presented even more frightful obstacles. From the Shelf a narrow, steep gully of snow, 2,000 feet in all, led to the West Ridge. From there, a series of pinnacles and vertical cliffs blocked the uppermost crest.
While the summit was in each of our hearts, our immediate task was to force through the Lower Icefall. From the outset we failed. Norman and I were given the task, which alter a week's reconnaissance, proved far more difficult than the infamous Everest Icefall. One incident I shall remember all my life. Norman and I had reached an impasse; before us loomed an irregular line of overhanging cliffs up to 60 feet in height. Try as we might, we could not find a break in this solid fortress of rock. As a last resort we picked a comparatively safe place where the cliff towered only 40 feet high and decided to climb it direct.
Taking turns, we began cutting away minute bulges of ice so that we could stand in balance. After four hours we had climbed only 20 feet; the remaining 20 feet promised to be even harder.
We returned the next day and after more exhausting chopping I began to wonder whether we would ever get up. "Let's try artificial," I yelled to Norman. This is an extremely strenuous technique, but one by which the hardest rock problems in the Alps have been overcome. The lead man hammers a piton into a crack, attaches a snap-link and slips a rope through the ring. The second man then assists by hauling on the rope, much like a primitive pulley system.
Soon I was perched precariously 30 feet up the side of the cliff, dangling like a puppet on a string. At last I hammered in the final, crucial piton, balanced carefully and stretched across to a shallow scoop. Then, holding my breath, I eased over and pulled myself onto a sloping ledge coated with melted snow. With one great heave I rolled over into the slush. We were up!
But our week of exhausting exploration soon proved to be wasted effort. The terrain beyond was even more risky. This was a serious setback, for our initial strategy, based on the 1954 reconnaissance, depended on reaching the Upper Icefall and then the Great Shelf via this route.
An entire new plan of attack was necessary. Fortunately, Norman had one in mind, for, looking up the Icefall, he had noticed a small glacier on the other side of the Fall. If we could but climb to the top of the tributary glacier we might yet gain the foot of the Upper Icefall. Evans decided it was worth a try and, while the rest of the party moved Base Camp to the foot of the Western Buttress, Norman and I set out on reconnaissance.
We had great luck. On the first day we established Camp I and in a short while a site for Camp II. This would bypass the dangerous Lower Icefall completely and put us in position to put Camp III on the steep but less hazardous Upper Icefall. At last we felt we were getting somewhere.
Camp III, at 21,800 feet, was a spectacular spot—on a platform 40 feet long and 15 feet wide. From here we could look for miles over the barren, snow-covered landscape 5,000 feet below. Above was the unknown. No human had set foot higher on this side of the mountain than where we now stood. Although the Great Shelf lay less than 2,000 feet above our heads, we still did not know whether we could reach it.
Early one morning Evans and Hardie strapped on oxygen and with two of the strongest Sherpas set out on a lightning reconnaissance to find out. They were lucky.
By one o'clock they stood at 23,500 feet, on a level with the Great Shelf but cut off from it by an ugly barrier of crevasses and seracs. They set up a tent—Camp IV—and sent the Sherpas down.
The next morning Evans and Hardie cut their way along a great whaleback of ice, skirting the maze of bottomless crevasses, until they stood on the Great Shelf at last.
It was Friday the thirteenth, a crucial moment for our entire expedition. We had succeeded in reaching our original objective-the Shelf. Indeed, Evans and Hardie had pushed even farther, almost to the Gangway, and discovered a site for Camp V. From here the summit—less than 2,900 feet beyond—seemed within our grasp.
There was an air of lightheartedness at Base Camp where the rest of us had gathered to await Charles' return. We knew now that we were going to make a bid for the summit, and that soon he would be allotting each of us a vital task during the assault.
PLAN OF ATTACK
Charles burst into the mess tent at Base Camp while we were lunching. Someone handed him a mug of tea and quite suddenly he outlined his plan:
Tom Mackinnon and John Jackson would lead Sherpa teams carrying supplies to Camp V—the equivalent of the South Col of Everest. Then the first summit pair, Joe Brown and myself, with Charles, Neil Mather and four Sherpas in support, would move up to camp a day behind. The latter's role was to place Camp VI—the final camp—as high as possible near the top of the Gangway. Streather and Hardie, the second summit team, would rest at a lower camp, prepared to move up in case Brown and I failed. The plan seemed infallible. But we had neglected to calculate the ferocity of the mountain itself.
The first trouble came when trying to stock Camp V. The day before he was to start, Jackson became snow-blind when he lifted his fogged-up goggles. In acute pain, he nonetheless insisted on carrying out his assignment; he felt that he could at least urge the Sherpas on.
The decision was made and Jackson, roped between Sherpas, started out with Mackinnon to climb from Camp III to Camp V. They spent a very windy night at Camp IV and the next morning no Sherpa was in a mood to make up his load. To make matters worse Jacks' snow blindness was even more painful.
It was a rugged day. Deep, soft snow lay over much of the route and the loads of 40 pounds were too heavy for such an altitude. By 4:00 in the afternoon, five of the Sherpas had reached camp and under Mackinnon's direction pitched a tent. The other four Sherpas, still some way off, were forced to dump their loads on an exposed slope of ice and return below.
Our plan was now to pick up this gear and occupy Camp V the next day. But that night the wind ominously changed and it began to snow. Brown and I and Mather and Evans with four Sherpas were in Camp IV; and before dark Jackson, still unable to see, Mackinnon and a Sherpa, Pemba Dorje, joined us.
Throughout the night 50-mph winds screamed across the barren site of Camp IV, scarcely a sheltered spot even during the best of weather. The blizzard ripped at our tents. Visibility was down to no more than a few feet and wind-driven snow threatened to engulf and collapse our shelters. For two days and three nights we huddled and waited. With each hour our chances for making a try for the summit grew slimmer. On the second afternoon the storm did moderate enough for Mackinnon, Jackson and Pemba Dorje to descend to Camp III.
At 5:30 the morning of the third day Tashi, my personal Sherpa, looked out through the tent sleeve and excitedly shouted, "Sahib, it's clear. I can see all the way round from Darjeeling to Everest."
By 10 o'clock we forced on our boots, drank two more mugs of tea, vomited a little porridge after attempting to eat and rolled up our sleeping bags.
With Brown and Evans at each end of the rope and two Sherpas between Mather and myself, we took turns breaking trail. We sank into the soft snow up to midcalf and often up to our knees. Suddenly we realized that we were wading in the debris of a new snow avalanche. Ahead we saw what looked like a Primus stove sticking out of the snow. We mounted a steep pitch and to our horror discovered that the avalanche had scattered the tents, oxygen cylinders, kerosene, cookers and food across the slope.
Numbly, we searched for what was left. What we found we added to our loads and, gasping for breath, wallowed the last few yards to the campsite. The avalanche had been there too. All that remained visible was the tip of a tent.
It was 4:15. The sun here had set and I felt desperately cold. My companions' faces were pinched and blue, with great icicles hanging from their nostrils and beards.
DIGGING AND BATTLING
Despite our condition we could not rest, for it was fast growing dark. During the next two hours we dug for buried equipment and battled against the wind to rig our tents. Somehow we got the tents up, the Sherpas lit a stove and produced mugs of hot tea. Then all of us crawled into our sleeping bags, turned on our oxygen and slept.
By morning we were too exhausted to make an early start so we radioed Hardie and Streather—the second summit team—to remain below and everything was put back a day.
It was nearly 9 o'clock before we got under way the next day. Mather and Evans took the first rope with the Sherpas. Joe and I trailed to save our energy for the summit.
The going was steep but good and firm. After some hours, with few pauses to rest our weighty 40-pound loads, we began, one by one, to run out of oxygen. But with an excitement that no weariness can dull, we strove step by step to gain all the height we could.
At nearly 27,000 feet we reached a ledge of broken rock where it was decided to put the final two-man tent. We began scraping a space from the 45° snow slope and after two hours had cleared an area large enough for most of the tent; the rest hung over the abyss below.
With fervent handshakes, wishing us good luck, Evans, Mather and the Sherpas left. Joe and I were alone—to decide who would sleep on the outside position. We tossed. I lost.
The two of us dined on lemonade, tea with lots of sugar, asparagus soup, a tin of lambs' tongues with mashed potatoes and finally a mug of chocolate. Then we crawled into our sleeping bags to wait for the morning. Both of us wore our windproof, eider-down clothing to fight off the sub-zero cold. We even kept on our special padded high-altitude boots lest, like Hillary's on Everest, they might freeze hard. As we lay side by side, roped to a nearby spike of rock, little bits of snow skittered down the slope above and pelted our tent. I wondered what might happen if a really big lump or stone hit us. Finally I dozed off into a restless sleep.
The morning of May 25 dawned brilliant and calm. Soon after 8 o'clock Joe and I started up the narrow Gangway, each carrying about 24 pounds, almost all of it oxygen.
Earlier, through binoculars, we had seen that the West Ridge itself was extremely broken and difficult, so our plan was to turn off to the right and climb across the face. Unfortunately, we made a miscalculation, turning off too early, and lost an hour and a half of precious time and oxygen.
To make up time we backtracked and pushed on without rest. The slope underfoot was steep and unsteady, too dangerous for both of us to move safely together. One would have to take a secure stance, braced against the slope, and pay out rope to safeguard the other.
By 2 o'clock we were out of the Gangway and at the West Ridge above its most difficult section. We stopped for a quick snack of lemonade, toffees and mint cakes. This was our first real rest since starting six hours earlier.
I was tiring. Our oxygen tanks only had enough for a couple more hours.
"We must turn back by 3:00 or we may have to spend the night up here," I shouted to Joe.
"We've just got to reach the top before then," he snapped back.
For a moment the climbing became easier and we could move together. But above us a steep, smooth nose of rock barred the way. Would this defeat us? We couldn't see, but knew we must be near the summit.
We turned to the right, around the corner, hoping to see a passage to the top. Instead a wall towered about 20 feet above us. The amber-colored face was broken by several deep vertical cracks and Joe, without a second thought, wedged his body into one of them and with a tremendous struggle forced his way to the top. It was the hardest part of the whole climb. Suddenly he turned and shouted, "George, we're there!" I clambered up and there before us, some 20 feet away and five feet higher than the ground on which we stood, was the very top, a gently sloping cone of snow.
Since we had promised the Sikkimese not to disturb their god by stepping on the uppermost crest, we stopped short. But the summit was ours.
We said nothing for a moment. We stood there, realizing what had been accomplished. Nine of us started out on reconnaissance, and now the two of us stood at the top.
I glanced at my watch: a quarter to 3. Looking on all four sides, we could see little detail: a great sea of clouds covered the land so only the highest peaks stood out, like so many rocky islands above a white sea. Against the horizon 80 miles to the west we could just make out Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. Then we turned and started to descend.
After an hour our oxygen ran out and we began to gasp in the thin, bitter air. I felt extremely weary and lightheaded. As I stepped down a small patch of unstable snow, my foothold suddenly broke. I rolled over onto my stomach, dug my ax point into the snow, and in a split second it was over. Joe clambered down where I lay panting and quipped, "It makes me tired just to watch you do that."
By the time we descended the 1,200 feet back to our tent it was dark; Hardie and Streather were already there, as planned, for a second attempt in case we had failed. The four of us squeezed into the tiny two-man tent that overlapped the narrow ledge and drank and drank and drank—lemonade, soup and chocolate. I don't believe that I ever felt so thirsty in all my life.
A SIMPLER WAY
That night there was no tossing for who would sleep on the outside position. The rest reckoned that I knew all about it, so there I went. Somehow, I don't quite remember how, we passed the night. Hardie and Streather used the sleeping bags and some oxygen because they still wanted to have a crack at the top—and in the morning we started down while they set off to repeat the ascent. The night before, Joe had taken off his goggles for a moment and became snow-blind, although not nearly so bad as Jackson had before and we were able to get down safely.
Hardie and Streather, moving to the summit, followed the same route that we used except at the very end. When they looked at the vertical crack Joe had found they decided that there had to be some simpler way to the top. They walked around the nose of rock, found a sloping bit a few yards to one side and scrambled easily toward the final crest. They made it extremely fast compared to our daylong struggle the day before. However, they suffered one stroke of bad luck. On the way up, one of their larger oxygen bottles worked loose from its frozen straps and slid, crashing, down the face of the mountain. As a result of this mishap Streather had to make the entire descent without oxygen.
Evans was waiting for them at Camp V. Early the next morning he spotted two tiny figures, hardly more than blue specks against the white snow, staggering, unsteady with fatigue and lack of oxygen, down the final pitch.
Evans called out, "Are you all right?"
"What about the General Election?" was Hardie's only reply.
They had come back.
HIGHEST SUMMIT 28,146 FEET
NEWS BASE CAMP
OLD BASE CAMP
OLD CAMP I
400-FOOT SNOW GULLY
FOUR CONQUERORS, ONE CASUALTY
George Band, 26, a Cambridge graduate geologist, member of '53 Everest expedition and '54 team to Rakaposhi.
Joe Brown, at 24, youngest man in party. A weekend rock climber, this was his first try at a Himalayan peak.
Norman Hardie, 30-year-old New Zealand engineer. A top ice climber, he took charge of oxygen equipment.
Tony Streather, 29, an Army captain. Previous climbs: Tirich Mir with Norwegians; ill-fated U.S. try on K2.
Pemba Dorje, Sherpa porter, died of cerebral thrombosis at Base Camp after an exhausting high portage.