American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

What are the Chances of Climbing Kanchenjunga?

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  • Publication Year: 1948

What Are the Chances of Climbing Kangchenjunga?

Norman G. Dyhrenfurth

Kangchenjunga has always held for me a fascination that cannot be put into words. Although I have not been there, I have studied most of the available literature on the subject, and have talked at great length with such men as Schneider, Hoerlin, Wieland, and my father, men who have lived and fought in the shadow of that great mountain.

NO MOUNTAIN on the face of the earth can surpass Kangchen- junga for size, magnificence and awe-inspiring grandeur. Although third of the world’s mountains in height (28,146 ft.), it has perhaps attracted the attention of more tourists, scientists and mountaineers than any other peak in the Himalayan Range. One obvious reason for so much interest is the fact that it can be seen from Darjeeling; and, from a mountaineer’s point of view, it is important that one can approach Kangchenjunga without getting permission from the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, since it lies on the border of Nepal and Sikkim. Nowhere on the way does an expedition have to cross into forbidden Tibet.

Before discussing a possible route to the highest of its five summits, I will briefly mention the expeditions that have made serious attempts to climb the mountain:

1905: The first attempt was led by A. E. Crowley, an Irish newspaperman. Other members were R. De Righi, an Italian, and three Swiss, Dr. Jules Jacot-Guillarmod, Alexis A. Pache and Charles A. Reymond.

They attacked the mountain from the Yalung Glacier, over its Southwest Face. After reaching a height of about 20,650 feet, one of the porters deserted and fell to his death. A few days later a huge avalanche crushed Alexis Pache and three native porters between Camps 6 and 7. This was proof to the natives of Sikkim and Nepal that “the God of Kangchenjunga does not permit anyone to approach his holy throne.”

1920: In the fall of the year, Harold Raeburn and C. G. Crawford tried the same Southwest Face of the mountain, only to be forced back by avalanche danger at an altitude of somewhat over 20,000 feet.

1929: This was the first formidable attack, led by the German, Paul Bauer. It was a large modern expedition, consisting of nine extremely capable Bavarian climbers. Their base of operations was the Zemu Glacier on the eastern ramparts of Kangchenjunga, and the East Spur was chosen as presenting the best chance for success. This spur, called “Ostsporn” by the Germans, is a snow and ice ridge which culminates in a peak designated as Peak 7700 (25,256 ft.), and continues on up to the North-Northeast Ridge of the mountain. The East Spur far surpasses in difficulty and length anything that can be found among ice ridges in the Alps. After about a month of the most difficult type of ice climbing, it was made sufficiently safe for porters to carry their loads up to the numerous high camps. Camp 10 was established on October 2nd at an altitude of 23,025 feet, just above the famous ice gendarmes of the spur. Next day the Bavarians reconnoitered up to 24,272 feet, thinking that the worst was behind them, but Kangchenjunga had not yet begun to fight. Five solid days of snowstorm, in which more than seven feet of fresh snow fell, nearly led to a catastrophe, but with almost superhuman effort a successful retreat was effected.

1929: That same year a young American, E. F. Farmer, attempted the Southwest Face alone. Leaving his three porters behind at a camp on Yalung Glacier, he started an ascent in a westerly direction below the Talung Saddle. He has never been seen again.

1930: A large Swiss-organized expedition under the leadership of Dr. G. O. Dyhrenfurth and Mrs. Hettie Dyhrenfurth * was determined to have a close look at Kangchenjunga. It was an international group, comprising some of the best climbers of Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and England, including Frank S. Smythe, who in later years won fame on Kamet and Everest.

Dr. Dyhrenfurth’s original plan was to attempt the mountain over the East Spur, but later he decided to try it from the northwest. This plan had its origin in D. W. Freshfield’s projected route, which led to the col between the Twins and Kangchenjunga from the Kangchenjunga Glacier. According to his calculations, there would be no danger from avalanches on this route, but they would fall instead in the great cirque to the right.

The expedition established a Base Camp at Pangpema, and several high camps on the upper Kangchenjunga Glacier, the highest one at 19,450 feet. From there, a careful study of Freshfield’s proposal proved that a direct route to the “North Col” (22,615 ft.) between the Twins (24,108 ft.) and Kangchenjunga was practically impossible. It was therefore decided to try to reach the North-Northeast Ridge slightly south of the “North Col.” The primary obstacle was the first of a series of three huge ice terraces, which form part of the mountain’s armor on the north. After weeks of extremely difficult ice climbing, involving all manner of rope-pulleys, ice- pitons and the like, Erwin Schneider reached the top of the great ice wall at about 20,992 feet. The approach to the North Northeast Ridge seemed to be assured, but the inscrutable Kangchenjunga had other plans: a huge ice avalanche swept down its North Face, killing one porter. Miraculously, the rest of the climbers escaped.

After giving up the Freshfield Route, the 1930 expedition made a thorough investigation of the Northwest Spur. The plan was to try to reach Kangbachen Peak (25,774 ft.), Kangchenjunga’s fifth summit. From there it should have been possible to reach the long West Ridge of the mountain. But that route, too, had to be abandoned at an altitude of about 21,000 feet. The Northwest Spur proved to be extremely difficult and exposed. It was the sort of rock climbing that might be possible in the Alps or in the Rockies, but quite out of the question at that altitude. Reluctantly, the men gave up their primary objective, and turned towards Jongsong Peak and other “seven-thousanders.”

1931: The second German expedition, again under the leadership of Paul Bauer, consisted of ten top-notch climbers, most of them from Munich. Once more the battle was waged from Zemu Glacier over the East Spur, this time during the latter part of the summer. With the monsoon still dominating the atmosphere, they expected good, steady autumn weather for the final attack on the summit pyramid. However, weather and snow conditions were extremely unfavorable that year; almost two months were needed to make the nightmarish ice ridge passable. Tunnels through the bulging ice towers had to be dug, and most of the camps consisted of man- made ice caves, since there was no place for tents. There were heartbreaking mishaps: two “tigers,” one of them Sirdar Lobsang, of Everest fame, fell sick and died. The climbers suffered two cases of appendicitis, rheumatism, heart attack due to overexertion and frostbite. Hermann Schaller and Pasang, one of the Sherpas, fell to their death. Time and again the route had to be improved, changed, and in part renewed. It was an almost uninterrupted chain of hard luck and catastrophes.

Finally, on September 17th and 18th, the Bavarians stood on the highest point of the East Spur (25,256 ft.), far above the “last difficulties” of 1929. But a great disappointment was in store, for the East Spur does not simply meet the Northern Shoulder of Kangchenjunga, but between the spur summit and the Sugar Loaf (25,502 ft.) of the main ridge (N.N.E.) there lies a saddle about 250 feet deep. The opposite slope leading up to the Sugar Loaf is therefore about 500 feet high, convex, and very steep. At that time there was every sign of imminent avalanche danger, and no other way to reach the main ridge. Therefore the desperately disappointed men had to admit defeat. An orderly retreat down that horrible ridge was in itself a great accomplishment. And so the second German Kangchenjunga Expedition ended in failure, after great sacrifices and unparalleled hardships.

1931 was the last year of a serious attempt on Kangchenjunga, though there have been several smaller undertakings which have tried to reconnoiter other routes of attack on the mountain:

1933: During the Houston-Mount Everest flight expedition, Kangchenjunga was circled by plane, but unfortunately the weather conditions were not very favorable for photographic purposes. Still, several interesting and helpful pictures were made on this flight.

1936: Again Paul Bauer led a German expedition through Sikkim, planning to make a stab at the northern summit of the Twins (22,976 ft.) by its East Ridge. The unusually heavy monsoon snows forced his party to retreat after they had reached a height of 21,000 feet.

1937: A small German expedition, consisting of the Swiss, Ernst Grob, and two Germans, L. Schmaderer and H. Paidar, made another attempt on the Twins’ East Ridge, but fared even worse than the previous year’s party.

If a safe and not too difficult traverse from the northern to the main summit of the Twins (24,108 ft.) exists, one might be able to reach the “North Col” and thereby the North-Northeast Ridge of Kangchenjunga. This “North Col” is of great strategic importance; in fact the 1930 Expedition had originally planned to reach it from the Nepalese side. It is therefore of special interest that in the fall of 1937 a small British expedition, consisting of C. R. Cooke, J. Hunt and Mrs. Hunt, attempted the col from the Sikkim Side. Cooke, who had previously climbed Kabru, together with two of the best “tigers,” made a determined effort to reach the col from the Twins Glacier. The ascent was extremely difficult in stretches, and the party was in acute danger from falling rocks; but, contrary to expectations, the route did not appear impossible. They pushed on to a height of 21,650 feet, slightly less than a thousand feet below the col, before returning to camp.

1939: This year Grob, Schmaderer and Paidar were active in the shadow of Kangchenjunga. After having climbed the proud Tent Peak (24,150 ft.), they intended to have another try at the Twins by way of the East Ridge, but an early monsoon ruined any further climbing plans. This particular problem still remains unsolved.

Such is the story to date. The jealous god of Kangchenjunga has been consistent in his revenge upon intruders. Eleven men have died. A score of Europe’s best climbers have been defeated. The challenge remains: is Kangchenjunga climbable?

In 1931 Dr. Dyhrenfurth wrote: “It looks very much as if Kangchenjunga is indeed above the limitations of strength and will power of the present-day generation of mountaineers.” Little has happened since then to warrant any optimistic views about a successful ascent.

Of all the high mountains, Kangchenjunga is undoubtedly one of the most terrible. It appears to be more difficult than Mount Everest and more dangerous than K2. The huge mass of Kangchenjunga, measuring about ten miles from west to east, and about five miles from south to north, has some of the worst weather conditions and the heaviest precipitation of the entire Himalayan Range. Avalanches thunder down its walls. During a day in May 1930, 64 ice avalanches were counted on the North Face of Kangbachen Peak, averaging one every 13 minutes. Between 20,000 feet and 25,000 feet, Kangchenjunga is girded with a fearsome array of vertical or near-vertical cliffs. Even for “death or glory” climbers, the faces are practically out of the question. The ridges are exceedingly long and fantastically shaped; most of them are extremely difficult. This super-Alpine mountain has no known weak spots; indeed it embodies all the difficulties and dangers of mountaineering.

And yet, we can’t give up so soon. Let us take a look at the various attempted and proposed routes:

The “Munich” Route by way of the East Spur:

Everybody is familiar with the extraordinary difficulties of this

ridge. The worst feature is that it apparently takes two months to make it passable for porters with the necessary loads. Therefore the time before the monsoon is insufficient, and one must use some of the summer months with all their monsoon snow. This of course increases the dangers and difficulties considerably. If a strong team of competent climbers, in excellent physical condition, could establish Camp 12 in the saddle between the summit of the East Spur and the Sugar Loaf, at the beginning of the good weather period in autumn, then … the difficulties would not be at an end by a long shot, but at least a serious chance for success would exist. I have already mentioned the need for an effective way of dealing with the avalanche slope above the saddle. In reaching the Sugar Loaf, the climbers would find themselves on the North-Northeast Ridge of the main summit, at the beginning of a broad shoulder which finds its continuation in the third ice terrace of the North Face. The actual summit pyramid looks somewhat like the Matterhorn-head, and still holds several steep, probably quite difficult steps. There would be a definite need for at least one, perhaps even two more camps above Camp 12. According to Bauer’s account, Camp 6, at the base of the East Spur (16,860 ft.), was considered the “Upper Base Camp.” This means establishing seven or eight truly “high” camps, a very complex problem of organization.

“North Col” from Twins Glacier:

One might try to reach the “North Col” from the east (Sikkim), then proceed along the North Ridge (perhaps making partial use of the snow terrace east of the ridge), to the Sugar Loaf, then continue towards the summit pyramid as planned by Bauer. This route would be relatively short and in many ways ideal, but the approach to the col is technically difficult and under constant danger from falling rocks. Nevertheless the reconnaissance trip made by C. R. Cooke has shown that the much feared steep slope below the col is not as impossible as had previously been assumed. Whether the risks to be taken here would be greater than in the case of the never-ending East Spur with its grim gendarmes, séracs, and ceaseless exposure, is a question.

East Ridge of Twins:

One might ascend to the saddle (19,926 ft.) west of Sugar Loaf, then climb along the East Ridge to the north summit of the Twins (22,976 ft.), continue to the main summit (24,108 ft.), and descend to the “North Col.” From there on, one could proceed as in Route #2. The basic argument against this line of approach is the length of exposed ridges—most of them difficult—to be traversed (about 5½ miles), and several considerable drops and rises. The only reason for traversing the Twins would be to secure an approach to the “North Col” safe from ice avalanches and falling rocks. But since three efforts merely to reach the northern summit have failed in the past, the chances for success do not appear very bright. It may be possible to reach the Twins from the Nepalese side, according to observations made during the 1930 expedition. This might be easier from a technical standpoint, but it would present a complicated problem of organization. It would mean, for instance, establishing a base camp west of Nepal Gap, a very uncomfortable, remote base of operations.

West Ridge:

The lengthy West Ridge appears to be the easiest route. To reach the ridge from the upper Kangchenjunga Glacier by way of the Northwest Spur seems to be quite impossible, however, judging from the attempt of the 1930 expedition. Much more promising would be the following approach: up Ramthang Glacier to the saddle southeast of White Wave (22,828 ft.); along the Southwest Ridge of Kangbachen Peak to Kangbachen Peak (25,774 ft.); thence to Kangchenjunga West Peak (27,888 ft.) and Kangchen- junga’s main summit (28,146 ft.). The slopes leading from Ramthang Glacier to the “White Wave Saddle” are somewhat threatened by ice avalanches. The ascent to Peak 7535 (24,715 ft.) appears to be very steep, but possible. The ensuing summit ridge, which forms the northern framework of the Yalung Glacier, measures no less than six miles from there to the main summit, with several drops and rises along its length. Another bad feature is its exposure to the almost constant western storms, but it does not seem to be difficult. For long stretches it looks almost like plain walking terrain, with plenty of space for a series of high camps. After the monsoon, during October and November, a well-organized and determined attack along that ridge might be successful. At least, it should be possible to reach Kangchenjunga West Peak. What the traverse from there to the main summit looks like has caused many guesses.

A major problem is political. The big Nepalese village of Khunza would have to be used to secure a base camp on Ramthang Glacier. Nepal is a closed country. Permission to enter is given only on rare occasions, and must be obtained from the Maharajah.

To be able to reach the Southwest Ridge of Kangbachen Peak from the south (Yalung Glacier) would mean a considerable shortening of the approach march and a great simplification of organizational problems. However, this possibility has not been sufficiently reconnoitered; what little is known about it is not very promising. The steep slopes enclosing the upper Yalung Glacier are considered to be among the most dangerous, for both Pache and Farmer were killed by avalanches not far from there.

Other Routes:

For the sake of completeness, one might mention the formidable East Ridge of the mountain, sweeping up from Zemu Gap (19,270 ft.) over the 25,518-foot peak to the South Peak (27,888 ft.). This seemingly endless, terribly jagged and corniced ridge is definitely out of the question as a sane route of attack. The same goes for the extremely steep South-Southwest Buttress, which swings up from Talung Saddle (22,124 ft.) towards the South Peak.

Among the mountain’s tremendous faces, the southern front (towards Talung Glacier) and eastern front (towards Zemu Glacier) are beyond possibility; the northern (towards Kangchenjunga Glacier) and southwestern front (towards Yalung Glacier) are constantly swept by huge avalanches. All in all, the best route for Kangchenjunga is still an open question.

However, I should like to submit a few suggestions of my own:

Make a series of photographic flights around Kangchenjunga, paying particular attention to the Ramthang and Yalung approaches to the West Ridge.

If no safe way to reach the West Ridge can be found, make a strong bid for the “North Col” from the east, and continue along the North-Northeast Ridge.

Should a good route be discovered up to the West Ridge from either Ramthang or Yalung Glacier, plan definitely on attacking the mountain over that route.

Some time in the not-too-distant future, I hope to have the opportunity of testing my theories—on the mountain itself.

* The author’s father and mother.—Ed.

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