By the time you read this Edita and I will be somewhere in the Kangchenjunga region of Nepal, in the far east of the country near its eastern border with India. It’s a region dominated by one huge mountain, 8,586m Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.
Strangely, given the number of times I’ve travelled to the Himalayas, I have never seen this mountain at close quarters. Although I’ve been high enough to catch distant glimpses from the summits of Mera Peak and Everest, I have to confess that on both of those occasions I wasn’t really concentrating.
My only photo of Kangchenjunga is a rather distant grainy one similar to the ones you see of the Loch Ness Monster. I therefore have to thank mountaineer Anselm Murphy and elderly trekker Ian Horrell – that’s right, my dad – for providing the other photos for this post.
More than them though, I have to thank Jamie McGuinness of Project Himalaya. Jamie has trekked in the region many times; he gave us advice on where to go and possible peaks to climb, and ultimately he arranged our itinerary.
We’ve decided to do a ‘best of Kangchenjunga’ trek, which involves trekking to the north base camp, crossing a high pass to the south base camp, then taking the south base camp trek back to Taplejung. This gives us a circular trek without too much repetition, which should take us around three weeks.
Our trek starts in more densely populated areas among villages and terraced fields, but it should soon take us into quieter valleys of flowering rhododendron trees. Above the tree line, we’ll be climbing into alpine scenery up to Pangpema (5,140m) at north side base camp. While there we hope to make a short excursion up Dromo Ri, a minor trekking peak that is really just a shoulder of the much bigger Dromo (6,881m).
We’ll be backtracking a bit to get over the 4,800m Mingin La pass, which will take us to the south side base camp at Oktang (4,740m). I’m told there’s quite a bit of up and down on the return trek along the southern route back to Taplejung, so it should be good exercise.
Kangchenjunga – more properly Kang-chen-dzong-nga – has a name which translates as Peak of the Five Treasures of the Snow. It has five main peaks, four of which pass the magic 8,000m mark. This has led the tourist authorities in Nepal to make crude attempts to have them all classified as 8,000m peaks.
The Kangchenjunga massif is separated from the other giant peaks of Nepal by the mighty Arun river which rises in Tibet and cuts through the Himalayas from north to south. This (if you’re one of those people who give a toss) has led some geographers to classify it as part of the Sikkim Himalaya rather than the Nepal Himalaya.
It’s a mountain with a rich history. It was clearly visible from the old British hill station of Darjeeling in West Bengal, a place that conjures up images of warm monsoon air wafting over English gentry as they sip tea in wicker chairs on pleasant verandas. Until 1852, everyone thought it was the highest mountain in the world, until surveyors from the Great Trigonometric Survey of India discovered that Peak XV, just visible over its shoulder, was higher. Peak XV, as you can probably guess, was eventually named after Sir George Everest, one of the previous Surveyor Generals of India. Kangchenjunga got to keep its real name.
The first explorer to visit the Nepal side of Kangchenjunga was the botanist Sir Joseph Hooker in 1848. He collected many plants, which were eventually given to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, where his father was director. He was followed thirty years later by two Indian pundits, Sarat Chandra Das and Rinzin Namgyal, who were dispatched by the British government to map the area covertly, and snuck in over the Singalila Ridge, Kangchenjunga’s southern spur.
Rinzin Namgyal was hired by the British mountaineer Douglas Freshfield when he completed his great anticlockwise circumnavigation of Kangchenjunga in 1899. Freshfield’s book, the imaginatively titled Round Kangchenjunga, is an early account of the trials of big expedition life with its inevitable delays and porter strikes. His descriptions of twisted rhododendron forests, hidden valleys and remote glaciers were written over 100 years ago, but will feel familiar to any regular traveller to Nepal.
We’ll be following a large section of Freshfield’s route as we trek back from Pangpema and over the Mirgin La to the village of Tseram. Unlike him, we won’t be doing it illegally, and therefore won’t be afraid of, as Bill McLaren used to say, a wee bit of argy-bargy with border guards.
In 1929 a young American called Francis Farmer tried to climb Kangchenjunga illegally and died somewhere on the south ridge, but a well-organised German expedition led by Paul Bauer reached 7,400m on the north-east spur later that year before being caught in a five-day storm.
In 1930 an international expedition led by the Swiss Günter Dyhrenfurth made another attempt on Kangchenjunga from the western Nepalese side. Before leaving for India Dyhrenfurth was contacted by Francis Farmer’s mother saying she had seen her son in a dream being held captive at a monastery in the Yalung valley. Dyhrenfurth promised to look for him, but he didn’t say how. Would his team of elite mountaineers storm the monastery with their ice axes and free the poor captive from his evil monastic kidnappers in a daring night time raid? We will never know, because when they got there the monastery was derelict, and there was no sign of Farmer or his captors. He probably died on the south ridge after all.
Dyhrenfurth’s team made very little progress during the climb, and found the north ridge to be an avalanche hell. One of them, Erwin Schneider, was lucky to survive when an ice cliff collapsed and swept away a team of twelve porters he was climbing with. One of the porters, Chettan, was killed, and the incident affected morale. They abandoned the north ridge and left it for bolder climbers. This particular expedition was well documented by British mountaineer Frank Smythe in his even more imaginatively titled book The Kangchenjunga Adventure.
Kangchenjunga was the only other 8,000m peak besides Everest to be climbed first by a British team, when Joe Brown and George Band reached the summit in 1955. The local people believed the summit was the abode of mountain gods. Brown and Band respected this tradition by leaving the summit untrodden and stopping just a few feet short. I was lucky enough to see Joe Brown give a talk about this expedition in 2012, more than fifty years later, at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
Brown and Band launched their attack from the south side base camp, and climbed Kangchenjunga’s south-west face to the west ridge, which they took to the summit. This is the route most climbers use today. In 1979 the British climbers Doug Scott, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker started out from the north side base camp at Pangpema, below the north-west face that had defeated Dyhrenfurth’s team in 1930. They succeeded in climbing up to the north col, and took a route across the north-west face to join Joe Brown and George Band’s route on the west ridge.
By crossing the rhodendron forests and trekking to both the north and south base camps, we will be following footsteps to a mountain rich in history. It’s a new part of the Himalayas for both of us and I’m very much looking forward to it.