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The ascent of Kangchenjunga

Age has not dimmed their enthusiasm or crystal clear memories and their spirit for adventure. And the 50 years of their first ascent of Kangchenjunga commemorate that spirit, says MEENA MENON, who profiles the three stars in The Himalayan Club's golden jubilee celebrations of that achievement.


"WHEN you go to high altitudes, you don't sleep very well and you long for something special. Joe (Brown) said he would like a large lump of cheese with tomato ketchup on it and then a "Mars" bar for breakfast. After eating all this, (at 21,000 feet) he was not sick for only about half an hour," laughs George Band, who along with Brown was the first to climb Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain on May 25, 1955.

The mountaineering stars

Brown can no longer take long flights but Band who just turned 76, and his old team-mates Norman Hardie, 80, and John Jackson, 83, are the stars in The Himalayan Club's golden jubilee celebrations of the first ascent of Kangchenjunga. Band and Jackson, along with Hardie, a New Zealander, who also reached the top with Tony Streather on May 26, 1955, were part of the successful nine-member British expedition led by Charles Evans, which climbed the mountain via the Southwest face. All of them stopped a little short of the snowy summit, which is sacred to the people of Sikkim. Evans had climbed upto the South peak on Sir John Hunt's successful Everest expedition of May 1953, in which Band was the youngest member at 24 and Jackson, a reserve.

A peak revered in Sikkim

Till 1852, Kangchenjunga was believed to be the highest mountain in the world. The whole of the east side of the mountain is in Sikkim, whose people regard it as a God and protector. The name Kangchenjunga means "The Five Treasures of the Great Snow", referring to its five summits all over 8,000 metres, of which the highest is 28,169 feet or 8,586 metres. Evans had to make a special trip to Gangtok to meet the ruler of Sikkim, even though they did not need permission, to assure him that the team would not tread on the summit. In his book, Kangchenjunga, The Untrodden Peak, he writes, "I promised that we would leave the top and its immediate neighbourhood untouched and would go no farther up the mountain than was necessary to assure us that the top could be reached."

Hardie now recalls that, "There was a small mound of ice and snow which was the top and below it there was a convenient terrace where we could sit and take pictures."

The three climbers were reunited in Mumbai for the club's celebration after a long time and Jackson, a school teacher and mountaineering instructor, comes up with his own memorable bit from that expedition. "We dug a hole in the ice and squeezed out tubes of condensed milk and jam and then scooped up the whole lot and ate it up. It was like ice cream," he grins.

Travails to the summit


John Jackson, George Band and Norman Hardie.

Not all memories are about food or the inability to eat. There was a dreadful storm on the way up at 23,500 ft and they were stuck in their tents at Camp Four for about 60 hours. On the way back from the summit, Hardie found he had dropped his spare oxygen cylinder. "We really ended up rather short on oxygen for the descent," he recalls.

"It was a team that climbed," says Jackson, and when Evans sent out telegrams of the successful ascent, he only said two teams of four people reached the top, helping to emphasise the team effort. After Everest was climbed, people only remembered Hillary and Tenzing, they forgot the others, he points out.

For the team, reaching within a few feet of the summit of Kangchenjunga was unexpected and against all odds. Band says, "The icefall on the route up to Kangchenjunga was more difficult than Khumbu, (on the Everest route), harder in places, and a lot more dangerous. We were lucky as the Indian Air Force knew about our expedition and arranged for a pilot to fly in the area and take some pictures, which was very helpful in planning our route."

It was a very special expedition, the most exciting part being that no one had been above 20,000 feet on this mountain, unlike Everest. An Italian, Vittorio Sella and British climber Douglas Freshfield first explored it in 1899. Alistair Crowley attempted the peak in 1905 but four people were killed in an avalanche on that unsuccessful expedition. There were some German attempts later in the 1930s. There were reconnaissance trips to the region in 1951 and 1953 and in 1954, a six-member team including Jackson's brother had gone for an investigation. They concluded that it was worth having a "serious" reconnaissance and Evans was asked to be the leader. "By actually climbing the mountain, we saved a whole expedition," according to Band. "We were only expected to reach the Great Shelf below the summit at 23,000 ft," he points out. However, being an astute leader, Evans worked out that two pairs of people would climb to the Great Shelf and asked them to take extra oxygen supplies in case they could make a summit bid.

After 50 years, Band recalls that it was a satisfying climb over a virgin stretch of over 8,000 ft with a small party of people. He feels they were lucky to have found a route, which avoided all the worst avalanche areas. "A lot of people were surprised that we had made it. Kangchenjunga was a dangerous mountain with a bad reputation for avalanches and that did not give us all that much chance of a success," says Hardie. The team spent over a month on the mountain, while the approach march alone took 12 days, starting from Darjeeling and then crossing over the Singalila ridge into Nepal and then into the Yalong glacier before setting up base camp at 18,000 feet. The sherpas were led by Dawa Tenzing who had got about 10 to 12 sherpas from Khumjung village in the Khumbu region. The team had a lot of good equipment including bulky walkie-talkies albeit with a limited range.

Hardie had a theodolite for making surveys as nothing had been done before at that height.

Eating a yak

"We even ate a yak at Base camp and we stored the meat as there was a deep freeze all around us in the form of ice and snow," says Band. His most memorable moment was at the last camp, which was on a 45 slope at 26,900 ft. He and Brown were together on the night before the summit bid. "We had to cut steps into the ice and our tent hung over the edge. We drew straws to decide who would sleep at the edge," recalls Band, who had the honour.

The only sad note on that successful climb was the death of one of the sherpas, Pemi Dorje, who was exhausted after carrying loads to Camp five. The mountain remained unclimbed for the next 22 years, till an Indian Army team made it up the North east spur to the North ridge from the Sikkim side in 1977. Jackson recalls that he showed the expedition leader Col Narinder Kumar pictures of his Kangchenjunga expedition the year before. Doug Scott's team too upheld the tradition of not stepping on the summit in 1979 when they climbed the Northwest face, but of late things have changed ... .

* * *

Life after the climb

AFTER 40 years, Band and some members from the 1955 team trekked to the southwest and northwest faces of Kangchenjunga. This year, too, Band plans a commemorative trek to the region. Hardie, a civil engineer by profession, has 11 Himalayan visits and has also been to Antarctica. Now, he has an arthritic hip and is scheduled to have an operation later this month but he is looking forward to being a "new man after that". Band, a petroleum engineer, made time for a quick trek in the Sahyadris with his wife while in Mumbai. His book Everest — 50 years on Top of the World is a best seller.

Jackson has climbed extensively, and written several books including a Climbing and Trekking Guide in Kashmir and even completed a first ever traverse from Everest to Kanchenjunga in 1954 apart from leading a rather memorable Himalayan yeti expedition. Age has obviously not dimmed their enthusiasm or crystal clear memories and their spirit for adventure. And the 50 years of their first ascent of Kangchenjunga commemorates that spirit more than anything else.

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