A quiet triumph

Posted by Ed Douglas on 22/05/2005
Photo: RGS.

In 1955 British climbers made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga, a mountain with an even more formidable reputation than Everest. The nation may have forgotten a unique sporting achievement, but former BMC President George Band will take the stage in London in June to remember his part in an extraordinary adventure. Ed Douglas went to meet him.

Fifty years ago, on 25th May, Britain was enduring the last day of a general election campaign. Sir Anthony Eden and the Tories were poised for victory over a divided Labour Party. Interest rates were exactly what they are now. And five thousand miles away, two mountaineers, one very tall and the other rather short, were struggling up the final summit rocks of Kangchenjunga, third-highest mountain in the world.

Two years before, another great state occasion, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, had been matched by an unprecedented mountaineering achievement, the first ascent of Everest. Climbing joined the new Queen on the front pages. But success on Kangchenjunga failed to capture the popular imagination and has left barely a ripple on the surface of history. The BBC website, for example, records that in 1955 snooker legend Joe Davis made the first official maximum break of 147. England played its first football match under floodlights and the cricket team bowled out New Zealand for just 26 in Auckland. Best of all ­ for a rugby fan ­ was the Lions’ victory a few days before the election over South Africa at Johannesburg by a single point in front of 95,000 fans. The Springboks hadn’t lost a Test in the previous 59 years.

But of George Band and Joe Brown, the two climbers who reached the top of Kangchenjunga that spring day, there isn’t a sniff. How could the nation forget so completely a unique achievement? International rugby matches are commonplace now, but Kangchenjunga was something special. How did the nation miss it? “It’s in character with Charles Evans,” says George Band, who is gearing up to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary when I speak to him. “He wasn’t one to shout things from the rooftops. He just got on with the job in a quiet sort of way. And of course we weren’t really supposed to get up. We didn’t really have national honour at stake, which the Everest expedition did. Then we felt that if it’s not climbed this year we’ll all look bloody stupid. If the Swiss had climbed it in 1952 we would have looked stupid too, and they jolly nearly did.”

I have to remind myself, talking to Band, that he is now 76. Born in Taiwan in what was then Japanese-controlled territory to parents working as missionaries, he went to Eltham College in London. The school had been founded to educate the sons of missionaries, and had educated Eric Liddell, the sprinter immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire. Band was also a strong athlete, at Cambridge as well as at school, but ultimately it was as a climber that he made his mark. He seems slighter now than when I first met him in 1993, during the 40th anniversary of Everest’s first ascent. But while many men in their eighth decade are happy to potter round the garden, Band will soon be off to lead a trek to Kangchenjunga’s base camp. He also has an updated edition of his best-selling history of Everest, re-titled Everest Exposed, on the blocks, and is looking forward to events at the Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society celebrating the Kangchenjunga success.

Band isn’t joking when he says no one really expected them to reach the summit on their trip. “When we came back from Everest in 1953, journalists asked John Hunt what was next,” he says. “He replied: ‘Kangchenjunga’. Because he’d recce’d around the east side in 1937 and realised what a formidable problem it would be, he said it would be the greatest mountaineering achievement ever done. He was encouraged by the reports of the little reconnaissance expedition of 1954 and was prepared to back a further look.” The 1955 attempt was seen as a reconnaissance in force and for a later full-blown expedition repeating the template developed on Everest. Band agrees that had such a necessarily expensive attempt gone ahead, then publicity would have been a more pressing concern. As it was, Evans and his team made questions like that academic with their success. “It pre-empted the whole thing,” says Band.

Even between the wars, Kangchenjunga was far from remote. The British had been looking at it for half a century from the hill station of Darjeeling. Many had assumed it the highest mountain on Earth, and from the summit of Tiger Hill above the town, Everest seems puny by comparison. Early explorers included the botanist Joseph Hooker and in 1899 the mountaineer Douglas Freshfield made a circuit of the peak that proved the most valuable reconnaissance of the peak then achieved. It was he who fixed the spelling of the mountains name in its current form, which translates as “Five Treasure-Houses of the Snows”.

But finding a practicable route up the thing was not straightforward. Received wisdom allowed three possibilities, the NW Face, the NE Spur and the SW Face. The former, favoured by Freshfield, was tried by an international expedition in 1930 that was led by G. O. Dhyrenfurth and included Frank Smythe, but that ended with the death of the famous Sherpa Chettan. German-speaking teams led by Paul Bauer tried from the north-east in 1929 and 1931, the latter expedition also being marked by tragedy with two more deaths. The southwest approach, from the head of the Yalung glacier, didn’t look promising. Frank Smythe had peered at it through a telescope from Darjeeling and announced: “There would seem to be little justification for a further attempt from this side.” The face had already seen a quixotic attempt in 1905 from an international team that included the infamous diabolist Aleister Crowley, whom the Daily Mirror Express later dubbed the “Wickedest Man in the World”. The Everest climber Raymond Greene, who tracked the old man down in Sicily between the wars, thought Crowley “a very silly man [but] I doubt whether he did anybody any real harm.” Crowley’s expedition to Kangchenjunga ended in tragedy with the death of a climber, Alexis Pache, and two porters. Where they were buried is still known as Pache’s Grave, lying as it does on what has become the mountain’s voie normale.

On most of the early attempts on Kangchenjunga, the climbers found the colossal scale of Kangchenjunga almost too great to comprehend. Kangchenjunga’s proximity to the Bay of Bengal means the monsoon arrives with full force, and the mountain experiences heavier snowfall than peaks further west. The avalanche risk can be quite horrendous. Band recalls lying in his tent at Base Camp, after the hardest approach he had ever experienced, marking avalanches off on his tent pole with a pencil. After 24 hours, he had counted 48, and given that he had slept for a third of that time, calculated that avalanches were pouring off the SW Face every 20 minutes.
The 1955 team had the advantage of a reconnaissance the year before by John Kempe’s team, but no one had been above 21,000ft on this side of Kangchenjunga and seeing Kempe’s photographs was something of a mixed blessing anyway. “I remember going to the Alpine Club to listen to the report given by John Kempe’s expedition and it was fairly hair-raising,” Band recalls. “There were those in the audience who suggested they wouldn’t like to be in our shoes. It didn’t look a pushover.”

On Everest, Band had been on a mountain that had almost been climbed several times. On Kangchenjunga, the climbers were exploring new and dangerous ground. “Interest was maintained,” Band says. “Everest was more or less known terrain. Ours was a much more exciting climb. No one had been to more than 21,000ft on that face.” Their stated objective was, if possible, to reach the Great Shelf at around 24,000ft. Just getting to this point would have been considered success, but it involved the team picking its way up the Yalung glacier, a line that makes the Khumbu Icefall look moderate. “The Lower Icefall was horrific,” says Band, “and we were absolutely extended just trying to get up it. And we realised it was absolutely no place that you could ever hope to have a safe porter route. But while we were in it we saw this little gully up on the left that seemed to circumvent seventh-eighths of it. Charles suggested that Norman and I have a crack and hey presto!”

You get the sense, talking to Band, that the team he joined were a low-key bunch, just happy to get on with the job. Many of them were from northern England, like Neil Mather, a member of the Rucksack Club and like Joe Brown from Manchester. John Clegg, the team’s doctor, was an anatomist from Liverpool University and a paratrooper in the TA. Yorkshireman John Jackson had considerable Himalayan experience and had been to Kanghchenjunga the year before to see his brother, who was exploring with Kempe. Two exceptions were the New Zealander Norman Hardie, then living in London, and the soldier Tony Streather, who acted as Transport Officer. Streather’s is one of the great Himalayan careers, perhaps not for technical excellence but it is full of the romance of mountaineering. He was on K2 in 1953 with the Americans during the famous retreat from the Abruzzi, and then climbed Tirich Mir in 1954. “The joke was,” Band says, “that he was asked to go to Tirich Mir with the Norwegians as Transport Officer, and he was so conscientious he went all the way to the summit carrying his ice axe.”

Having cleverly sneaked past the Lower Icefall, the Evans and his Kangchenjunga team now contemplated the more reasonable upper section. “That was thrilling, because we thought at last we’re launched on the face. The Upper Icefall was more like a mini Lhotse Face, much more stable. It had a slightly convex aspect to it so that avalanches on the left fell relatively harmlessly to that side and didn’t reach far enough to where our ­ Camp II ­ was placed on the little plateau between the two icefalls.”
Evans and Hardie now decided to have a look at the upper reaches of the mountain. Using a closed-circuit oxygen system, they broke through from the Upper Icefall onto the Great Shelf where, as they thought, the going was fairly straightforward for a couple of thousand feet up a couloir leading to the mountain’s W Ridge. “Just to see how far they could get,” Band says, “Charles and Norman banged on up to the Gangway and reached a little ice cliff, which was reasonably well protected for Camp V. The camp was just a bit over 25,000ft, which worked out as marginally higher than the Austrians had managed on the NE Spur.”

Their objective had been to reach Great Shelf and the expedition had already accomplished this and more. Why not just keep going? “It was a marvellous feeling. We were now in position and all of us were okay. There’d been no accidents. The route was well established.” Like Hunt before him, Evans was now faced with choosing who would try for the top first, and who would go in support. He appeared at lunch with a mug of tea in his hand, and quietly announced that it would be Band and Brown on the first go, with Hardie and Streather next. He and Mather, together with the best Sherpas, including the brilliant sirdar Dawa Tensing, would establish Camp VI and then let them get on with it.

I asked Band how he and Brown, then just 24 years old, had got on, and he chuckled a little: “We were privileged to know each other.” Joe, Band recalls, had been very optimistic early on, despite the huge challenge ahead. “But then he hadn’t been to the Himalaya before.” Brown’s legendary sense of humour certainly had them laughing. “In Calcutta station, he picked up a magazine called Sexology,” Band says. “There was an article in it about koro, a medical condition that involves fear of a vanishing penis. We all had a laugh about this article. And when we looked up at the Lower Icefall at this little gully that was going to circumvent all this terrible ground someone decided to call it ‘koro’.”

Once on the Great Shelf, however, the summit team and their support were trapped in a 60-hour storm. Their gear was buried in fresh snow, and they rued not bringing it all inside during the storm. “We had to dig around like park-keepers looking for coils of rope. When we got to the site of Camp V, a small avalanche had come down and knocked quite a lot of stores all over the place. So that was a shambles. We had a little of our day’s allocation of oxygen left over so Charles said let’s have a day’s rest, which was a good thing.”

Taking the chance to regroup, the following day the team continued to place the top camp ­ Camp VI ­ at almost 27,000ft. “That was quite exciting. We’d hoped to find a suitable rock ledge but we had to hack a ledge out of the ice in the gangway, and we hit rock and were left with something not quite the width of a desk.” Drawing lots for a berth, Band found himself on the outside of the tent, the fabric bearing his weight over a formidable drop to the Yalung glacier. But, with Evans and the others now on their way back to Base Camp, Band and Brown used their time well, determined to drink as much fluid as possible. They even managed a tin of lambs’ tongues with mashed potato, and a nightcap of hot chocolate. “I think that’s a better meal than most summit parties have had,” Band wrote afterwards in the Alpine Journal.

The way to the summit was still unknown, but the climbers had benefited from the arrival at Base Camp of aerial photographs taken by the Indian Air Force. The plan had originally been to follow the Gangway to the W Ridge and then head for the summit. But the photographs showed a little snow arete that led up from the Gangway to the ridge, bypassing a series of steep pinnacles which might have blocked progress. The rocks leading to the arete looked easy enough and so it proved, even though they turned off from the Gangway too soon and had to retrace their steps.

After five hours, at around 2pm, they emerged onto the W Ridge with another 400ft to go. Band warned Brown that they would have to turn around at 3pm to avoid a bivouac, and Brown replied: “We’ve just got to reach the top before then.”
The remaining climbing went easily enough, but just before the summit they were faced with a small rock wall of around 20ft split by several cracks. How could Brown resist? “I knew that at sea-level I could climb it quite easily,” Brown said afterwards, “but at that height you don’t know just how long your strength’s going to last.” Cranking his oxygen up to six litres a minute, Brown banged in a peg, the first runner ever placed at 28,000ft, and swarmed up what he thought to be around VDiff in standard. “George!” he shouted, “we’re there!” It was 2.45pm. In deference to Sikkimese religious sentiment, the summit itself was left untouched, a protocol observed by some later expeditions, but not, alas, many of them.

Streather and Hardie had arrived at Camp VI for their chance, but they were forced to share the tiny platform with the returning climbers. Band got the outside berth again. “We didn’t draw lots that time. They knew I could handle it. So I went to the outside. There wasn’t much sleep that night.” The summit climb was repeated next day, although Streather and Hardie kept their crampons on, neither fancying the rock climbing much. Brown’s crack was by-passed.

Everyone returned safely to Base Camp, which was cleared on 28 May, two days after the General Election and Eden’s success. The mountain, however, maintained its record of claiming lives when one of the Sherpas, Pemi Dorje, suffered a fatal stroke, exhausted by the carry to Camp VI. He perished just as Hardie and Streather were reaching the summit.

In the fifty years since Kangchenjunga, George Band has enjoyed a fulfilling and varied life. He did, he explains, consider a full-time adventuring career, even though his parents regularly asked him when he would start “a proper job”. By the end of the 1950s he was working for Shell in Texas when a millionaire offered to back him on his next big trip. At that point he was faced with a critical decision about which direction his life would move in.

When he asked his employers for more leave, he got a very similar letter to the one Chris Bonington opened during his spell at Unilever. Bonington, of course, chose to climb. Band headed for his next assignment with Shell, in the new oil fields of Venezuela and an encounter with the legendary mountaineer and diplomat Sir Douglas Busk, then ambassador in Caracas. Over the next 30 years, Band worked and climbed all over the world, from Borneo to Oman. There has been plenty of time spent in the mountains, but his biggest challenges were business ones. “I knew I was going to have an interesting time with Shell, and I did.”



« Back

Post a comment Print this article

This article has been read 1042 times

TAGS

Click on the tags to explore more

RELATED ARTICLES

BMC Volunteer Awards
1
BMC Volunteer Awards

The BMC depends on the support of hundreds of volunteers, and recognises their vital contribution to the work of the BMC through annual awards, for which members can make nominations.
Read more »

Nominate a volunteer for a 2024 BMC award
1
Nominate a volunteer for a 2024 BMC award

BMC members are invited to nominate a volunteer for an award recognising the vital contribution volunteers make to the work of the BMC.
Read more »

The George Band Award
0
The George Band Award

The George Band Award for Exceptional Voluntary Contribution to Mountaineering recognises people who have played a significant role in the BMC’s work over an extended period of time.
Read more »

Post a Comment

Posting as Anonymous Community Standards
3000 characters remaining
Submit
Your comment has been posted below, click here to view it
Comments are currently on | Turn off comments
0

There are currently no comments, why not add your own?

RELATED ARTICLES

BMC Volunteer Awards
1

The BMC depends on the support of hundreds of volunteers, and recognises their vital contribution to the work of the BMC through annual awards, for which members can make nominations.
Read more »

Nominate a volunteer for a 2024 BMC award
1

BMC members are invited to nominate a volunteer for an award recognising the vital contribution volunteers make to the work of the BMC.
Read more »

The George Band Award
0

The George Band Award for Exceptional Voluntary Contribution to Mountaineering recognises people who have played a significant role in the BMC’s work over an extended period of time.
Read more »

BMC MEMBERSHIP
Join 82,000 BMC members and support British climbing, walking and mountaineering. Membership only £16.97.
Read more »
BMC SHOP
Great range of guidebooks, DVDs, books, calendars and maps.
All with discounts for members.
Read more »
TRAVEL INSURANCE
Get covered with BMC Insurance. Our five policies take you from the beach to Everest.
Read more »