First ascent of Kanchenjunga: 65 years ago this week

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 25/05/2020

65 years ago this week, Joe Brown and George Band made the first ascent of Kanchenjunga (8,586m), the world's third highest peak. To mark this anniversary, you can now watch "An interview with Joe Brown" by Alun Hughes on the BMC YouTube channel. Sarah Stirling brings us the story of the first ascent of the mountain.

An interview with Joe Brown is full of the absurd and incredible tales the late climbing legend had to tell.

“I’ve just watched ‘Interview with Joe Brown’ again for the first time in years. It highlights the greatness of the man - excelling on a world stage by doing a first ascent of the second highest mountain on earth as well as being the best climber of his generation on gritstone edges and Welsh crags” – Alun Hughes

WATCH: An Interview with Joe Brown

Joe Brown died this April. An Interview with Joe Brown is the first film from the Alun Hughest collection on BMC TV YouTube. Look out for more coming soon. 

Kanchenjunga: the first ascent

"We spent two days of the most exhilarating ice-climbing of our lives, trying to find a route through ... it made the Khumbu Icefall look like a children’s playground … Were we to be defeated so soon?” – George Band, in his 1955 Alpine Journal report of the first ascent of Kanchenjunga.

By 1955, Kangchenjunga had earned a fearful reputation. In 1899, D W Freshfield, the first European to circuit the peak, described its North-West Face: “[it] might ... have been constructed by the Demon of Kangchenjunga for the express purpose of defence against human assault, so skilfully is each comparatively weak spot raked by the ice and snow batteries.”

The first summit attempt - led by British Cambridge graduate, magician, occultist and Uncle Fester lookalike, Aleister Crowley in 1905 - stirred the wrath of this demon. After several of the party died in an avalanche, despite the insistence of one of the men that "The demon of Kangchenjunga was propitiated with the sacrifice", the team turned around.

As if the mountain was indeed playing a cruel joke, Crowley's attempted route, the South-West Face, was the very one that led to success 50 years later. On the way up, George Band found relics of the 1905 team including, in true early expedition style, champagne corks. In between the two expeditions, almost every other possible option had been attempted and driven back. 

"Despite the insistence of one of the men that 'The demon of Kangchenjunga was propitiated with the sacrifice', the team turned around"

In 1929, a Bavarian team was driven off the North-East Spur by a ferocious storm; a year later, an international party led by Professor Dyhrenfurth met precipices of rock and ice, which collapsed, blocking their way down.

Dyhrenfurth later wrote, “An ice-wall perhaps one thousand feet wide was toppling forward quite slowly… There were after all, only three possibilities. I could be knocked out by the ice-blocks, suffocated by the snow-dust or swept away by the avalanche, and hurled into the great crevasse… I lay in the snow and awaited death in one form or another.” When death didn’t come, the team pushed their luck by trying the North-West Ridge, only to meet “the most terrible ridge" they had ever seen. 

In 1937, an expedition organised by C R Cooke and including Sir John Hunt and his wife, tried to reach the summit via the North Col between Kangchenjunga and the Twins. When this also failed, Hunt wrote: “There is no doubt that those who first climb Kangchenjunga will achieve the greatest feat in mountaineering, for it is a mountain which combines in its defences 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.”

Enthusiasm for the apparently unattainable peak resurfaced in the '50s with a flurry of lower-expectation reconnaissance expeditions. The 1955 expedition was one of these: the team’s aim was to reach the ‘Great Shelf’, an ice terrace stretching across the South-West face at about 7,300m.

"It was the first time a working class climber had been selected to join a British expedition"

The fact that it was a reconnaissance mission rather than a summit attempt led to something of an accidental social turning point. The British Alpine Club asked Liverpudlian surgeon, Charles Evans, to lead the expedition but were relaxed about team selection. Amongst the nine experienced climbers chosen by Evans was the 24-year-old Mancurian jobbing builder and rock-climbing phenomenon, Joe Brown. It was the first time a working class climber had joined a British expedition.

Joe was partnered with someone who was quite his opposite. George Band was at the forefront of the mainly Oxbridge set pushing the standard of British climbing in the Alps at the time, and had played an important role in the Everest story: he had forced a route through the Khumbu Icefall.

In his Alpine Club report, Band spoke highly of his climbing partner: “In the Alps in 1954, he had astonished Continental mountaineers by repeating the West Face of the Dru in 25 climbing and forcing a new route up the West Face of the Blaitiere with Don Whillans. Small and muscular, he was the youngest in the party and had not been to the Himalayas before.”

At 26, George wasn't much older. His exuberant expedition report is full of colourful, quirky details, rather like a Wes Anderson film, and is well worth a read (link in footer). I have included excerpts throughout the rest of this piece. In his jovial style, he describes the team setting off, in the tone of one setting off for a picnic:

“Our many friends and well-wishers gave us a grand send-off when we sailed from Liverpool on February 12. The sea voyage gave us a fine opportunity to become well acquainted. Every day at noon, Treather, sitting stripped to the waist and cross-legged on his bunk like a Hindu guru, instructed us in Hindustani. Hardie and McKinnon chased our six tons of luggage across India, while the rest of us had a smooth journey to Darjeeling.” 

"Hardie and McKinnon chased our six tons of luggage across India, while the rest of us had a smooth journey to Darjeeling"

On arrival, Charles Evans set off for Gangtok. The whole East Face of their objective lay in Sikkimese territory, the peak was sacred and climbing was not allowed: Kangchenjunga means ‘The Five Sacred Treasuries of the Snows’. Having successfully persuaded the Sikkimese prime minister to allow them to climb (as long as they didn't stand on the true summit), Charles calmly rejoined the group. Throughout Band’s report, the expedition leader appears as capable and unruffable; perhaps something of an older brother figure to Band, ten years his junior.

Charles, who had made many trips in the Himalayas alone with Sherpas, chose Dawa Tensing to be the team’s sirdar. He was known as ‘King of the Sherpas, writes Band, “because of his natural dignified bearing and fine character.” Dawa also had tremendous stamina: on Everest in 1953, he had to be put in front to break the trail, and laden with rucksacks so the team could keep up with him. Dawa brought thirty Sherpas with him; the expedition also employed three hundred labourers for the approach march. 

Confronted up-close with the South-West Face of Kanchenjunga, George’s tone takes on more seriousness: “Directly before us lay the South-west face of Kangchenjunga, which we had come so far to see: a series of contorted ice-falls and precipitous snow-slopes buttressed by steep walls of red-brown rock. The most prominent feature was the great shelf of ice stretching across it at 24,000 ft.

"Above the shelf a narrow steep gangway of snow led towards the West ridge, in the direction of the top. Below the shelf, a great ice-fall flowed down to the west. It was in two parts, the Upper Icefall, smooth walls of glistening ice alternating with shelving snow-covered ledges, in all 3,500 ft. high, and the Lower Icefall, a jumble of extremely shattered and active blocks riven by enormous crevasses, in all 2,000 ft. high.”

"At base camp George lay in his tent marking off avalanches on his tent pole with a pencil. After 24 hours he had counted 48 thundering down the face"

The planned route to the Great Shelf did not look promising. At Base Camp George lay in his tent marking off avalanches pouring down it on his tent pole with a pencil. After 24 hours he had counted 48 thundering down the face. Allowing that he had slept for a third of that time, he calculated that avalanches were occurring every 20 minutes. “The lower icefall was horrific and we were absolutely extended,” he recalled. “But then we saw this little gully up on the left that seemed to circumvent seven-eights of it. Charles suggested Norman [Hardie] and I have a crack and hey presto!”

The team had brought oxygen and supplies just in case a summit attempt became possible. Now that they had attained the Great Shelf, “There was an air of expectancy about the camp,” wrote George, as the team nervously awaited Charles’ decision on who would be chosen for the summit bid. “Charles came in while we were lunching and, with a mug of tea in his hand, quite suddenly, without any preliminaries, told us his plans. Tom McKinnon and John Jackson would lead Sherpa teams carrying vital stores to Camp V.

“Then the first summit pair, Joe Brown and myself, with Charles, Neil Mather, Dawa Tensing, Ang Temba, Ang Noru and Tashi in support, would move up from camp to camp a day behind. Their supporting role was to put Camp VI the last one as high as possible near the top of the Gangway. To double our chances of success, Norman Hardie and Tony Streather would form a second assault team.”

"We had a good supper together just in case it would be the last one: tomato soup, stewed steak, roast potatoes and peas, followed by pineapple and custard, and then Ovaltine"

Due to the fact that George had been a messing officer during National Service, he had been put in charge of food on both Everest and Kanchenjunga, and his expedition report is peppered with food commentary.

For example, on 15 May, after establishing Camp V and discussing the summit bid: “We had a good supper together just in case it would be the last one: tomato soup, stewed steak, roast potatoes and peas, followed by pineapple and custard, and then Ovaltine. We opened the second and last bottle of rum and made Mummery’s blood (rum and black treacle) and a hot lemon punch. Waving the empty bottle, Tom, with his matted red beard, heavy ribbed jersey and scarlet nightcap, resembled a jovial pirate plucked from the pages of ‘Peter Pan’. I didn’t sleep well.”

On summit day, 25 May: “We breakfasted on a couple of pints of tea and a biscuit or two and made off up the Gangway at 8.15, swerving out left to meet the sunshine. And later, I had led at first, then we had a period leading through, and now Joe was in front. He offered to stay in the lead."

And, later that day, as the pair came out onto the crest of the snow-ridge after five hours of climbing, and the summit pyramid at last became visible: “We sank down in a little hollow behind and above the cluster of pinnacles. My throat was parched. We took off our oxygen masks and had a quick snack of lemonade, toffee and mint cake.”

"Cranking up the flow on his oxygen bottle to the full six litres a minute, Joe disposed of the highest rock pitch ever attempted"

It was now 2pm, the pair had just a couple of hours of oxygen left, and the hardest part of the whole climb lay ahead: a wall broken by several vertical cracks about twenty feet high with a slight overhang to finish. Just Joe's cup of tea. Cranking up the flow on his oxygen bottle to the full six litres a minute, he disposed of the highest rock pitch ever attempted. Though it would have been a V Diff at sea level, it felt much harder at this altitude; George followed, and there, five feet higher, was the summit.

“It was a quarter to three. We had come as far as we were allowed.” In deference to Sikkimese beliefs, as agreed, they stopped several yards short of the summit cone.

Discover more:

The Alpine Journal: Approaching Kanchenjunga

The Alpine Journal: Kanchenjunga Climbed

Alpine Journal: obituary of George Band

Read more: Legendary climber Joe Brown dies

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