The north face of Kangchenjunga in evening light from above Pangpema. November, 1998
Kangchenjunga is third highest mountain in the world, and the most easterly of the 8000 meter peaks of the Himalaya. The name means Five Treasures of the Great Snow, a reference to its five summits. For those truly interested in such things the 1932 edition of The Himalayan Journal devotes 16 pages to discussing the origin of the word "Kangchenjunga". There was debate over it's Tibetan or Sanskrit derivation. If you don't have access to the Journal (it's in the university library where I live), or don't have the inclination to read 16 pages on this subject, the winner is Tibetan: Kang (Snow), Chen (Big), Zod (Treasury), Nga (Five).
The name is also spelled Kanchenjunga, but according to the Himalayan Journal article, people who know the Tibetan language strongly insist that the 'g' should be there.
The huge massif of Kangchenjunga is buttressed by great ridges running roughly due east to west and north to south, forming a giant 'X'. These ridges contain a host of spectacular 6-7000 meter peaks. On the east ridge in Sikkim, is Siniolchu (22,600' / 6888m), regarded as one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. The west ridge culminates in the magnificent Jannu (25,294' / 7710m) with its imposing north face. To the south, clearly visible form Darjeeling, is Kabru (24,002' / 7,316 m). The north ridge contains The Twins and Tent Peak, and runs up to the Tibetan border by the Jongsong La, a 20,080' (6,120 m) pass.
Kangchenjunga does not have an "easy" route as the threat of avalanche is high. Since it is in the eastern Himalaya it receives the brunt of the monsoon moisture.
The summit is considered sacred by the people of Sikkim. Early expeditions that climbed the mountain stopped a few feet from the top to respect this belief.
Kangchenjunga dominates the skyline of Darjeeling, the famous tea growing region and site of a hill station during the British Raj. Its proximity to Darjeeling has inspired a long history of prose, poetry, art, and exploration dating back to the mid-19th century, decades before eyes were turned to Everest. For a time Kangchenjunga was thought to be the world's highest peak. There is a Map of Hindoostan, Farther India, China, and Tibet, published in 1860 by S. Augustus Mitchell shows Kuncghinginga Mt. 28,178 ft. Highest known Mt. of the Globe.
Here are some highlights from early Kangchenjunga explorations, from the mid 19th to early 20th centuries:
- Sir Joseph Hooker, a friend of Charles Darwin and among the first of the great plant hunters explores the region around Kangchenjunga in 1848-50. He collects some 7000 species of plants, illegally entering Tibet and Nepal. His subsequent imprisonment creates a political dispute between Sikkim and the British East India Company, resulting in the annexing of fertile tea-growing land by the Company. Hooker wrote two books about his travels, one on rhododendrons, and his Himalayan Journals published in 1864 and dedicated to Darwin. Kenneth Mason, writing in Abode of Snow says, "To Hooker we owe a debt for opening the delights of travel in Sikkim."
(This Joseph Hooker is not associated with the slang term for a prostitute. That distinction belongs to U.S. Army General Joseph Hooker, whose troops occupied New Orleans during the American Civil War.)
- In 1883 British climber W.W. Graham travels to India and Sikkim, probably the first European to climb in the Himalaya "purely for pleasure". From Sikkim, he crosses the Singalila Ridge and enters Nepal by the Kang La. He claims to have climbed Kabru, (24,002' / 7,316 m) on October 8, "with no great difficulty". This claim is generally rejected as mistaken, and he is presumed to have been on a peak of little more than 20,000 feet.
- American humorist Mark Twain travels to Darjeeling in 1896. He has this to say about his encounter with the Himalaya, written in his 1897 book Following The Equator:
I ... saw the sun drive away the veiling gray and touch up the snow-peaks one after another with pale pink splashes and delicate washes of gold, and finally flood the whole mighty convulsion of snow-mountains with a deluge of rich splendors. ... Mount Everest is a thousand feet higher, but it was not a part of that sea of mountains piled up there before me, so I did not see it; but I did not care, because I think that mountains that are as high as that are disagreeable.
I was told by a resident that the summit of Kinchinjunga is often hidden in the clouds, and that sometimes a tourist has waited twenty-two days and then been obliged to go away without a sight of it. And yet went not disappointed; for when he got his hotel bill he recognized that he was now seeing the highest thing in the Himalayas.
- Douglas Freshfield leads an expedition that completes the first high-level circuit of the mountain during the post-monsoon months of 1899. Vittorio Sella, one of the greatest mountain photographers who ever lived, accompanies him. Freshfield's 1903 book Round Kangchenjunga is a classic of Himalayan literature. He suggests that the Kangchenjunga glacier, on the northwest side of the massif offers the best direct route for climbing the peak.
- A 1905 expedition, led by the "Great Beast" Aleister Crowley, sets out with the object of climbing Kangchenjunga. This comes to an abrupt end when three local porters and a Swiss climber are killed in an avalanche. Crowley sat sipping tea in his tent rather than attempt a rescue, and he later wrote that he had "no sympathy whatever", claiming that they should not have been roped together. Crowley is accused of beating his porters and there are allegations of cannibalism. Crowley's mountaineering career (he was on K2 in 1902) is ended.
- In 1907 two Norwegians, Rubenson and Aas, make a remarkable attempt on Kabru (24,002' / 7,316 m), a main peak on Kangchenjunga's south ridge. They climb to within 100 feet of the summit, the highest elevation achieved at the time, before being beaten by extreme cold and wind. The courageous decision to turn back within reach of the summit saves their lives. Rubenson falls during the harrowing descent and Aas manages to hold him, with 5 of the 6 strands of rope breaking. Aas has frostbitten toes when they return to camp. Importantly, they had a genuine friendship and high praise for the Sherpas who accompanied them, setting the stage for much that followed in Himalayan climbing.
- From 1907-1921 the Scotsman Dr. Alexander Kellas makes six visits to Sikkim, accomplishing many first ascents, including Pauhunri (23,179' / 7065 m), and explores many of Kangchenjunga's glaciers and passes. He climbed in what today might be called alpine style, choosing Sherpas over Swiss mountain guides. He recognizes the natural aptitude that Sherpas have for work at high altitudes. Kellas was a chemist, studied acclimatization, and maintained that the world's highest peaks could be climbed without supplementary oxygen. He was selected to accompany the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance, but was in poor health when the team set out from Darjeeling. He died en route, the first death on a Mount Everest expedition. Kellas was buried near Kampa Dzong in Tibet, facing the mountains of Sikkim.
First ascent route, 1955
Third ascent route, 1979
The first serious attempts to climb Kangchenjunga began after World War I. Here are some highlights:
- In 1929 the newly formed Himalayan Club received a letter from a German group who wanted "to test themselves against something difficult, some mountain that will call out everything they've got in them". The expedition led by Paul Bauer approached Kangchenjunga via the Zemu glacier in August. Over the next two months they struggled up the difficult and dangerous north-east spur. Facing avalanche and blizzard, they pushed ten camps up to nearly 23,000' and climbing as high as 24,250' (7390 m). Finally the weather completely turned against them and they were forced to retreat. One member of this group was Peter Aufschnaiter, who would later spend seven years in Tibet with Heinrich Harrer.
- In 1930 Professor G.O. Dyhrenfurth led an expedition comprised of Germans, British, Swiss, and Austrian climbers. They were to attempt the north-west face via the Kangchenjunga glacier, the route suggested by Freshfield in 1899. They secured permission to enter Nepal over the Kang La, and base camp was pitched in late April near Pangpema. They were beginning the reconnaissance when a huge hanging glacier high on the face released an ice avalanche that killed Chettan, one of their best high altitude Sherpas. The team abandoned the climb. Instead they completed the circuit of Kangchenjunga by crossing the Jongsong La and made first ascents of Jongsong (24,334'), Nepal Peak (23,560'), and Ramthang (23,310), among others. F.S. Smythe's book The Kangchenjunga Adventure is a recommended account of this expedition. Dyhrenfurth's son, Norman, was the leader of the successful 1963 American Mount Everest expedition.
- Paul Bauer returned in 1931 to re-attempt the north-east spur. They established an advanced base camp at 19,100' (5820 m) in July. This is the heart of the eastern Himalayan monsoon and climbing conditions were difficult. On August 9 H. Schaller and Pasang Sherpa fell to their deaths. The expedition was demoralized but they continued the struggle for two months, setting eleven camps and reaching 25,263' (7700 m). The way above remained heavily snow laden, and they abandoned the climb in September.
- A British team led by J.W.R. Kempe reconnoitered the south-west face in 1954, approaching along the Yalung glacier. They tried to reach a prominent ice-shelf at 23,000', which appeared to be the key to the route, but deemed the conditions too dangerous and did not reach the shelf.
- First Ascent. In 1955 Charles Evans, who was in the first team to reach the South Summit of Everest in 1953, led another British expedition to the Yalung face, setting base camp in April. They avoided the huge lower icefall by climbing to the west of a prominent buttress and over a feature they named The Hump. They crossed an upper icefall, and set Camp 4 at the Great Shelf, a goal of the 1955 expedition. They continued, now on the east side of the glacier up a ramp called The Gangway. This allowed them to pass a curved cliff known as the Sickle, and Camp 6 was established at 26,900' (8,199 m). On May 25, Joe Brown and George Band made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga, with Brown leading Very Severe (5.7-5.8) rock climbing. Norman Hardie and Tony Streather summit the next day, but they find a snow ramp and avoid the difficult rock. I attended a lecture given by Streather, and he jokingly said Brown has never forgiven him! Respecting the wishes of the people of Sikkim, all parties leave the least few steps to the summit untrodden.
- A French team including Lionel Terray makes the first ascent of Jannu in 1962. Along with the Italian climb of Gasherbrum IV in 1958, this was among the most serious technical climbing done in the Himalaya at the time.
- In 1973, the west summit (also called Yalung Kang) was first climbed by a Japanese Expedition lead by Eizaburo Nishibori. The summit was reached by Yutaka Ageta and Takao Matsuda.
- The fifth summit of Kangchenjunga, named Kangbachen(7903 m) was climbed by Poles in 1974. Five members of expedition leading by Piotr Mlotecki reached the top from west side.
- The second ascent of Kangchenjunga is made in 1977 by an Indian Army team led by Col. Narinder Kumar. They complete the north-east spur, the difficult ridge that defeated Bauer in 1929 and 1931.
- In 1978 Polish expedition lead by Piotr Mlotecki climbed the two remaing over 8000 meter summits. The central summit was reached by Andrzej Heinrich,Kazimierz Olech and Wojciech Branski.The south summit was climbed by Eugeniusz Chrobak and Wojciech Wroz.
- A small four man expedition makes the third ascent in 1979. Doug Scott, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker reach the summit without using high altitude porters or supplemental oxygen. They climb the northwest face, the side of the mountain suggested by Freshfield 80 years earlier. Along with Messner and Haebler's recent achievements, this climb of a new route on a big mountain marks a turning point away from the huge siege style Himalayan expeditions.
- In 1981 a large Japanese expedition places climbers on the main summit and Yalang Kang at the same time, but a planned traverse between the two peaks is not completed
- Reinhold Messner climbs a new route on the NW face on his way to becoming the first person to climb all 14 of the 8000 meter peaks.
- In 1981 the first solo ascent is made by Pierre Beghin via the original route.
- In 1986 the first winter ascent by Jerry Kukuczka and Krzysztof Wielicki on January 11. Kukuczka is on his way to become the 2nd climber of all the 8000 meter peaks.
- 1989 sees the first traverse of the four main summits by a large Russian expedition.
- Wanda Rutkiewicz, one of the greatest women mountaineers, and Carlos Carsolio, leader of a Mexican expedition attempt to summit on May 12, 1995. Carsolio reaches the top, begins his descent and meets Rutkiewicz, still climbing with 300 meters to go. She pushes on alone and is never seen again.
- In 1995, with his ascent of Kangchenjunga, Erhard Loretan becomes the third person to reach the summit of the fourteen 8000ers.
- In 1998 Ginette Harrison of Britain is the first woman to successfully summit Kangchenjunga, which is the last 8000'er to be climbed by a woman.
- As of May, 2002 there have been 180 ascents of Kangchenjunga, and 40 fatalities. Data from adventurestats.com
- On May 31, 2005 Alan Hinkes climbs Kangchenjunga to become the 13th person, to reach all 14 8000'ers. However, a nagging controversy over his Cho Oyo ascent remains. Source.
It is interesting to note that the first three ascents were all by new routes.
Getting There - Trekking
The region around Kangchenjunga offers some of the best trekking in the Himalaya, although every region makes the same claim. There are the now standard base camp treks in Nepal, and the Goeche La trek in Sikkim. In addition there are wild exploratory treks on the Nepalese north side of the mountain and the government in Sikkim is opening up the approaches along the Zemu Glacier which have been closed for years due to border disputes with the Chinese.
I climbed a small summit near Pangpema, Kangchenjunga's north base camp.
Please visit the Peak 5950 page for more information about trekking in this region.
Nearing the summit of Peak 5950, Kangchenjunga in the distance
Natural and Cultural History
The Kangchenjunga Conservation Area has been set aside in the hopes of preserving this remarkably biodiverse eco-system. It covers an area of 2035 sq. km, and includes river valleys of dense sub-tropical and temperate forests, up to alpine tundra, and the crowning heights of the Himalayan ice peaks. The World Wildlife Fund has identified the Eastern Himalaya as one of the "Global 200" most important eco-systems on earth.
At lower elevations the forests contain tropical hardwoods. As you gain elevation these are replaced by oak and pine and larch, then fir, juniper, and rhododendron up to the tree line at about 14,000'. There are nearly 30 species of rhododendron, which provide an amazing flower spectacle in the spring, some 70 different types of orchids, and 3,000 flowering plants including the Tibetan blue poppy, one of the grand prize finds of the plant hunters like Joseph Hooker and F. Kingdon Ward.
There is a rich diversity of endangered wildlife including snow leopard, Himalayan black bear, musk deer, and red panda. Other animals include langur monkeys, ghoral, Himalayan tahr, and Himalayan blue sheep, or bharal.
Over 200 species of birds can be found in the region, including some extremely rare ones that live nowhere else. (For comparison of numbers, the entire United States has about 800 species). Birding is a side interest of mine. I have identified more than 50 species of birds in the region. This includes low elevation sub-tropical species such as the Blossom-headed Parakeet and White-throated Kingfisher, the middle hills Scarlet Minivet and Plumbeous Redstart, up to the high alpine Tibetan Snowcock, Black-headed Mountain-Finch, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Chough and the mighty Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture.
This natural diversity is matched with a wide range of human ethnic diversity and culture. The Limbu are the dominant ethnic group in the lower regions, while Sherpas inhabit the higher elevations. These Sherpas have a distinct culture and tradition from those in the Everest region. Other ethnic groups include Rais, Chhetris, and Brahmins.
Monasteries, chortens, temples, and prayer-walls round out the cultural heritage of this remarkable area. I am told that the wall murals at the small monastery at Ghunsa are 400 years old.
As mentioned above Kangchenjunga has attracted writers, artists, poets, and photographers for nearly 200 years. Here is a selected bibliography of books, most of which are in my collection.
A more thorough list can be found here: http://www.travelstained.com/books.htm, which lists much more material including various Himalayan and Alpine Club journal articles. In addition, probably the best site on the web for a review of Asian mountaineering literature is Bill Buxton's Mountain Books page.
The dates I give here are for the first English language edition. Most of the books are long out of print in the first editions. However, many been reprinted recently in either hardback or paperback. You can search Internet used book sites, or amazon.com for titles that interest you.
Bauer, Paul, Himalayan Campaign: The German Attack on Kangchenjunga, 1937; The expeditions of 1929 and 1931.
Bauer, Paul, Himalayan Quest: The German Expeditions to Siniolchum and Nanga Parbat, 1938.
Boardman, Peter, Sacred Summits - A Climber's Year, 1982; Includes the 1979 ascent of Kangchenjunga with Tasker and Scott. Also climbs on Carstensz and Gauri Shankar.
Bremer-Kamp, Cherie, Living On The Edge, 1987; A winter attempt on Kangchenjunga, A heartfelt story as Bremer's husband Chris Chandler dies of altitude sickness high on the mountain.
Brown, Joe, The Hard Years, 1967; His autobiography, one of the classics.
Cameron, Ian, Mountains Of The Gods, 1984; An excellent general history of the Himalaya. Has a good account of the Rubenson and Aas attempt on Kabru.
Dingle, Graham, Wall Of Shadows, 1976; A New Zealand attempt on the north face of Jannu.
Evans, Charles, Kangchenjunga The Untrodden Peak, 1956; The account of the first ascent.
Franco, Jean & Terray, Lionel, At Grips with Jannu, 1967; Two expeditions to Jannu, including the successful first ascent.
Freshfield, Douglas, Round Kangchenjunga, 1903; An early classic of Himalayan mountaineering literature. Freshfield's writing and Vittorio Sella's photography, an unbeatable combination. First editions are rare and expensive. It has been reissued in India. You might check amazon.com for it as well.
Hooker, Sir Joseph Dalton, Himalayan Journals, 1854; Another early classic, written by the great plant hunter. It has also been reissued in India, and the entire text is available on the web, including scans of 45 wood engravings.
Kielkowski, Jan, Kangchenjunga Himal : And Kumbhakarna Himal: Monograph, Guide, Chronicle, 1999; Routes, descriptions, sketches, maps.
Kumar, Col Narinder, Kanchenjunga First Ascent From The North-East Spur, 1978; Nicely illustrated account of the second ascent.
Mason, Kenneth, Abode Of Snow, 1955; A history of Himalayan mountaineering through 1954, by the first editor of the Himalayan Journal.
Morrow, Pat and Baiba, Footsteps in the Clouds: Kangchenjunga A Century Later, 1999; Following Freshfield's steps, 100 years later.
Smythe, F. S., The Kangchenjunga Adventure, 1930; Another classic, Smythe's account of the 1930 international expedition.
Tasker, Joe, Savage Arena, 1982; The widely-acclaimed book which includes Tasker's expeditions on the Eiger, Dunagiri, Changabang, K2, and Kangchenjunga. Tasker disappeared on Everest, along with Pete Boardman after delivering the manuscript to his publisher.
Tucker, John, Kanchenjunga, 1955; An account of the 1954 reconnaissance.
Waddell, Maj L A, Among The Himalayas, 1899; Travels in Sikkim.
Ghunsa: One Hundred Years
These photos were taken from close to the same spot over a span of one hundred years. The view is looking down to Ghunsa, the largest Sherpa village on the north side of Kangchenjunga from the trail that eventually crosses the Mirgin La.
The first was taken by the great mountain photographer Vittorio Sella, the second by the famous alpinist and author Frank Smythe, and the third by an undistinguished trekker who carried a copy of Smythe's photo which he used to find the same location.
Ghunsa by Sella, 1899
Ghunsa by Smythe, 1931
Ghunsa by Nelson, 1998
- Mindless Pleasures
Excellent mountain and travel photography from Kangchenjunga to the Karakoram, and the Arctic to Tunisia.