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ExWeb series on Kangchenjunga: The bloody way to the summit
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Feb 18, 2005 19: 15 EST
Previously published Feb 17, 2005 12:06 EST

Kangchenjunga (8,586 m) is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first complete ascent. But since the first attempt in 1905, it took fifty years, eight major expeditions, and many deaths to finally carve a painful, blood-spilled track to its sharp summit.

The mountain, which was once believed to be the tallest on Earth, is encapsulated in religious awe. For a long time, summiters avoided touching the actual summit by staying a few meters away, as a sign of respect towards the people of Sikkim, who consider the peak sacred.

The fiery god of Kangchenjunga

A local trekking agency, Travel-Himalayas, explains in their website that “the people of Sikkim depend on the good humor of the deity enthroned on a summit, who has the power to destroy their homes with devastating floods and avalanches and ruin crops by sending terrible hailstorms. The god is portrayed as a fiery black and red countenanced deity with a crown of five skulls, riding a mythical snow lion, and holding aloft the banner of victory.”

At the sight of such a terrible guardian, it’s not surprising that climbers wouldn’t see a problem in showing some extra respect to the local traditions, especially if we keep in mind how many climbers died on Kanchenjunga long before the anyone summited.

The Necromantic

Speaking of evil, the leader of the first attempt on Kangchenjunga in 1905 was no other than Aleister Crowley, nicknamed the ‘wickedest man on Earth’ (read his bio related to his K2 expedition in the link section). Like so many episodes in Crowley’s life, the expedition ended in disaster. Climbers Alexis Pache and Jacot-Guillarmod were descending late in the day to Camp 7, at 6500m, when some of the porters slipped and triggered an avalanche. Pache and three porters were missing and the rest were screaming for help. Crowley, in the tent on a higher camp, heard the cries, but he refused to go help. The expedition was aborted and British papers reported on the scandal. The event contributed to Aleister Crowley’s bad reputation, which became further tainted by his devotion to black magic and heroine addiction.

Germans fight their fears

As the Britons retreated, the Germans aggressively pursued, launching three expeditions in 1929, 1930 and 1931. The first one used snow caves on the NE Spur as a way to make progress up the mountain, but it didn’t work. The second one, formed by a multinational German, Austrian, Swiss and British team, got a permit to climb from Nepal. After two failed attempts and one porter dead by avalanche, they gave up. Their later comments blamed the mountain for being too difficult and the weather too bad:

“Kangchenjunga had beaten us… we had examined every portion of the faces above the Kangchenjunga and Rathong glaciers; nowhere was there a chink in the armor of the giant. Others skeptical… like us they will lie awake at night and tremble, even as the ground trembles at the roar of great ice avalanches that seek their destruction… their hope and optimism… ruthlessly crushed beneath the icy heel of Kangchenjunga.”

The third German attempt, led by Paul Bauer, was no more of a success: Two climbers were killed when they fell off and disease claimed two more.

The succeeding British expedition

It was clear that Kangchenjunga demanded not only courage, but also logistics. After succeeding on Everest, the British launched a huge expedition to siege the mountain until the summit was surrendered. Led by Charles Evans, Britons George Band, Joe Brown, John Clegg and New Zealanders Norman Hardie, John Jackson, Tom McKinnon, Neil Mather, and Tony Streather would summit with O2 help.

On May 25, Band and Brown left Camp 5 at 8:15 a.m. on their summit bid. They missed the way, and traversing to the West ridge, they were stopped by a vertical rock tower detached from the main wall. Without hesitation, Brown, an accomplished rock climber, went for it. After climbing the tower he realized he was just meters away from the summit. It was 2:45 pm. Both climbers remained at that point instead of walking the last steps. The real summit was to remain untouched out of respect for the Sikkimese beliefs. Norman Hardie and Tony Streather would follow up to the same point as the second summit team.

The next two successful ascents were expeditions led by India's N. Kumar in 1977, and by British climber Doug Scott in 1979. These parties also stopped some meters away from the main summit. Eventually, respect for the tradition was lost and teams would proceed to the highest point.

The bold climbers of the 80’s

During the 1980’s, word spread about the successes on Kangchenjunga. The Polish made the first winter ascent, new routes were opened, and there was also a solo climb by Pierre Beghin. Others, such as Reinhold Messner in 1982, barely escaped the fury of the mountain gods. Messner would summit through a new line, but ended up seriously ill after descending in the middle of the storm.

Nevertheless, the name of Kangchenjunga has been too often associated with the worst possible news. One example would be 1989’s Indian expedition which attempted to repeat the previous Indian route on the NE Spur. Climbers Bhutia, Dorjee, and Tsering reached the summit but perished while descending. A climber on a second summit party also died on the descent.

No mercy for women

Kangchenjunga has been particularly cruel to women. In 1991, Marija Frantor attempted to be the first woman on the summit of Kangchenjunga. During the summit bid, Marija reported to BC that both she and her climbing mate, Joze Rozman, were lost and snow-blinded. Their bodies were later found below the summit headwall.

In 1992, climbing legend Wanda Rutkiewicz died on Kangchenjunga. She was last seen by Mexican Carlos Carsolio. Focused on the summit bid of her ninth 8000er, the Polish lady ignored Carlos’s warning on the approaching storm, and decided to bivouac for the night. She never came back.

Finally, Briton Ginette Harrison became the first woman to summit Kangchenjunga in 1998. But the curse may have followed her, as she would die months later on Dhaulagiri.

The last race

In 1995, Swiss Erhard Loretan and Frenchman Benoit Chamoux had a good reason to climb Kangchenjunga: The first to reach the summit would become the third person to ascend all fourteen 8000ers. Loretan, climbing with Jean Troillet, won the race. Chamoux disappeared on the same route a few days later, as well as his cameraman Pierre Royer, who had turned back without reaching the summit.

In their risky business, climbers can’t afford to give much room for superstitions. However, no sign of respect seems too much to placate a red-faced god crowned by five skulls… or one of the most difficult and exposed giants of the Himalaya.

Kangchenjunga, also known as the “Five Treasures of the Great Snow,” is an immense mountain situated on the Sikkim-Nepal border and is the most easterly of the Himalayan peaks. The peak was once thought to be the tallest mountain in the world. But in fact, it’s the third highest mountain on Earth, at 8586m. It was first summited by British climbers George Band and Joe Brown on May 25, 1955.

Image of a masked Monk in Sikkim courtesy of Sikkiminfo.net
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