Is The Last Great Mountain by Mick Conefrey the last great book about Kangchenjunga?

Last weekend a sneaky article appeared in The Times under the headline Everest pioneers smoked their way up to the summit. The article went on to describe how climbers from the golden age of Himalayan mountaineering used to smoke like chimneys.

The 1953 British Everest team took 15,000 cigarettes with them; George Finch observed how puffing on a fag helped to calm his breathing in a tent at 7,800m in 1922; Joe Brown smoked 5 cigarettes at high camp the evening before making the first ascent of Kangchenjunga.

By coincidence (or not) I’d been reading that last fact that very morning:

And here’s the sneaky bit. You might be wondering if the article in question was a piece of advertorial on behalf of the tobacco industry. A few years ago I attended a lecture by Joe Brown, and after I mentioned the smoking incident in my review of the lecture, it prompted a cigarette blogger (yes, apparently there is such a thing) to write a fascinating post about cigarettes as a climbing aid.

In fact, the Times article was promoting something a little more innocent: Mick Conefrey’s new book The Last Great Mountain, about the first ascent of Kangchenjunga. This relatively obscure episode in the annals of mountaineering – concerning a mountain that was once very famous but these days few people can even spell – wouldn’t normally be of interest to a mainstream newspaper. But Mick had cleverly managed to find an angle that persuaded The Times to publish a whole article that referenced his book. Kangchenjunga is actually somewhat topical at the moment. Last Monday marked the 65th anniversary of its first ascent, and Joe Brown, one of Britain’s greatest ever climbers, died a few weeks ago. But cigarettes and Everest proved to be a better hook.

Mick also chose to promote his book by furnishing me with a complimentary digital copy to review (thus reaching a smaller if more targeted audience). I don’t normally accept book review submissions these days because my reading list is so long that I have no idea when or if I’ll ever get round to reading them, let alone write a review. This time I made an exception. I have a fascination with Kangchenjunga, having trekked round it a couple of years ago, and I enjoyed Mick’s previous two books about the history of the 8,000ers, Everest 1953 and The Ghosts of K2. I was pretty confident I would be happy to bump this one to the top of my reading list.

The Last Great Mountain on my latest great Kindle
The Last Great Mountain on my latest great Kindle

At 8,586m, Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world. It lies in the far east of Nepal on its border with India, making it the highest mountain in India too. Its position on the skyline just 80km from the former British hill station of Darjeeling meant that in the early days of Himalayan exploration it provoked as much interest as Everest. In the early 19th century, many Sherpas emigrated to Darjeeling from the Khumbu region of Nepal, and found work as porters and high-altitude workers on mountaineering expeditions exploring the Himalayas. From Darjeeling, Kangchenjunga’s distinctive summits rise like the turrets of a castle, four of them over 8,000m in altitude.

The Last Great Mountain is a somewhat misleading title for what is essentially a comprehensive history of Kangchenjunga up to its first ascent by a British team in 1955. Putting the word ‘last’ in the title of a book or film to inflate the importance of its subject seems to have become something of a cliché in recent years. These ‘lasts’ are invariably quite tenuous, the literary equivalent of being the first person from a particular country to carry a tennis ball to the summit. It’s not clear why Kangchenjunga should be considered the last great mountain. It wasn’t the last one to be spotted, mapped, photographed or even climbed. Seven of the 8,000m peaks were still to be climbed after Kangchenjunga. Shishapangma remained unclimbed until a large Chinese team managed it in 1964. Kangchenjunga wasn’t even the last to be climbed by a chain smoker (Don Whillans climbed Annapurna in 1970).

But aside from the title, this is a very good book. All of the early expeditions are described in detail, starting with Douglas Freshfield’s reconnaissance with the photographer Vittorio Sella in 1899 (whose book Round Kangchenjunga I reviewed a few years ago). Freshfield wasn’t able to get permission to enter Nepal, but he went there anyway and completed a full circuit of the mountain. Although this was just an exploratory trek, Freshfield was also an accomplished mountaineer, and one of his aims was to reconnoitre possible routes for future climbers. He knew that the southwest face (visible from Darjeeling) looked difficult, but he discovered that the northwest face looked even harder.

The north (west) face of Kangchenjunga
The north (west) face of Kangchenjunga

The first person to take up the challenge to try and climb it was the legendary occultist Aleister Crowley (or ‘gun-toting, sensation-seeking, drug dabbling, devil worshipping, poly-sexual poet’ as Mick describes him). Crowley has enjoyed something of a renaissance in mountaineering circles in recent years. He attempted the southwest face in 1905 with a Swiss doctor called Jules Jacot-Guillarmod, but the expedition proved to be his swansong.

I can’t imagine that gun-toting sensation seekers make very good climbing partners, and so it proved with Crowley, who fell out with his teammates throughout the expedition. In some respects Crowley was a visionary mountaineer. The routes he identified up both Kangchenjunga (the southwest face) and K2 (the Abruzzi Spur) have now become the standard routes. These were the days when climbers still considered the 8,000ers to be bigger versions of alpine peaks. Albert Mummery had underestimated the dangers and lost his life on Nanga Parbat in 1895. Crowley recognised that the Himalayas were something else:

This is not Switzerland. The obstacles and the dangers are three times greater. Therefore you need to be three times as audacious.

Mick points out that Edmund Hillary made a similar observation on the southeast ridge of Everest in 1953. But Crowley did underestimate the effects of altitude and believed that they could minimise the risk by trying to rush the summit. This led to disagreements with his teammates, and when four of them died in a fall that triggered an avalanche, he left for home immediately without helping them to retrieve the bodies.

It was another 24 years before anyone tried to climb Kangchenjunga again, then there were three expeditions in successive years: 1929, 1930 and 1931. Mick covers all of these expeditions in detail. The 1930 attempt on the northwest face (by an international team led by Günter Dyhrenfurth) is better known to English-speaking audiences, because it produced one of the classics of Himalayan literature, Frank Smythe’s The Kangchenjunga Adventure. The expedition proved to be a spectacular failure, though.

The scale of the expedition created problems from the start. They needed over 400 porters to transport their supplies to Darjeeling. Around a third of them never reached base camp. A bigger problem was the climbing. The northwest face was menaced by enormous hanging seracs and the climbing was technical. It was the days before modern crampons and ice tools. It was easy enough for Doug Scott, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker to get up there in 1979, with modern equipment and carrying all their own stuff. It was a different proposition for the 1930 team to cut steps in steep ice for their porters. The expedition ended abruptly when a collapsing serac triggered a huge avalanche that killed one of the porters and spooked the rest of the team.

Kangchenjunga from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling (Photo: Ian Horrell)
Kangchenjunga from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling (Photo: Ian Horrell)

By contrast, the two German expeditions led by Paul Bauer in 1929 and 1931 were far more successful. They climbed Kangchenjunga from the Indian (Sikkim) side. Both attempts were up the northeast spur, a terrifying knife-edge ridge, capped by towering ice needles. It wasn’t possible to follow the crest of the ridge, and for much of the way they needed to tunnel a passage through the ice underneath.

In 1931, Bauer’s team had to contend with the additional hazard of climbing in the monsoon season. There was more snow, and they were afflicted by diseases including malaria and blackwater fever. Even so, they managed to tunnel all the way to 7,770m, where they expected to join the north ridge and have a much easier stroll to the summit. This route was described by Freshfield in 1899, and it was where Dyhrenfurth’s team were aiming when the avalanche struck. Alas for Bauer’s team, they found their way onto the north ridge was barred by a bulging cliff, and they feared an avalanche if they tried to climb it.

The bulk of The Last Great Mountain (almost the entire second half) covers the 1955 British expedition that made the first ascent. It was led by Charles Evans, who climbed to the south summit of Everest with Tom Bourdillon in 1953, two days before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent, but had to turn back when his oxygen ran out.

One of the interesting things about The Last Great Mountain is the way it reveals Evans’s character, which seems to be a mix of determination, kindness and wisdom. Mick has delved into his diaries and quotes from them copiously. This produces some amusing details that you won’t find in the standard expedition accounts, like this one.

It sometimes feels like the book is written from Evans’s perspective, as the lead character. It’s not undeserved. The 1955 expedition was intended as a reconnaissance, paving the way for a full-blown assault the following year led by John Hunt, who had led the first ascent of Everest in 1953. Many of the stars of 1953 declined Evans’s invitation to join the reconnaissance, intending to join the 1956 expedition instead. This left him free to select a more eclectic mix of climbers, outside the standard establishment figures. The most publicised of these was the 24-year-old working class builder from Manchester called Joe Brown, who had set the climbing world alight with a series of bold rock climbs in the UK and ascents in the Alps.

I’m not going to describe the 1955 ascent of the southwest face in detail here – you can read the book, and I also summarised Joe Brown’s own account when I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by him a few years ago.

Kangchenjunga's south (west) face from the shrine at Oktang
Kangchenjunga’s south (west) face from the shrine at Oktang

Evans surprised everyone by not putting himself in one of the summit teams, and only putting deputy leader Norman Hardie in the second one. Instead, he chose the two youngest team members, Joe Brown and George Band, as his spearheads. Mick doesn’t go into detail about the reasons for this decision, though it’s implied that Evans believed them to be the best men for the job (well, obviously!) They were the youngest, but they were also performing strongly. Nobody could fault the decision, although Norman Hardie also reached the summit by a better route the following day (interesting piece of trivia: the 88-year-old Norman Hardie also posted a comment on this blog in 2014).

I already knew quite a lot about Kangchenjunga. There are good summaries in Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s monumental history of Himalayan mountaineering Fallen Giants. I’d already read Douglas Freshfield’s Round Kangchenjunga, Frank Smythe’s The Kangchenjunga Adventure, Paul Bauer’s Himalayan Campaign, as well as Pete Boardman’s Sacred Summits. I still learned a lot from this book though. I can thoroughly recommend it, however well acquainted you are with Kangchenjunga’s history.

In its blurb The Last Great Mountain is described as ‘the final instalment of Mick Conefrey’s acclaimed high altitude trilogy’. Everest, K2, and now Kangchenjunga, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd highest mountains in the world. While the 4th highest, Lhotse, was ascended quickly by a Swiss team in 1956 on the back of previous attempts on Everest, its south face has a more interesting, controversial climbing history that would make a great subject for Mick’s next book. Who knows…

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