Crossing a crevasse
There were some more difficult moments, but ultimately the expedition succeeded spectacularly—putting not one but two pairs of climbers on the summit.
On 25th May 1955, two young British climbers, Joe Brown and George Band, reached the summit of Kangchenjunga. It was the climax of an epic mountaineering saga which had begun fifty years earlier with the first attempt by Aleister Crowley and Jules Jacot-Guillarmod. After two months on the mountain, dodging avalanches and storms George and Joe succeeded in ascending the peak that had been dubbed the ‘hardest in the world’.
This was achievement enough, but it was particularly impressive for an expedition that had been initially billed as a reconnaissance, the advance party for a full-blown attempt in the following year. But did the leader of the 1955 team, Charles Evans, ever really intend to merely find the route—or did he plan from the beginning to go all the way to the top?
For the last three years I’ve been researching a book on Kangchenjunga, The Last Great Mountain, and the question of Charles Evans’ motivation is one that has intrigued me. In Charles’ official expedition book, Kangchenjunga, The Untrodden Peak, the term is barely used, yet in his dispatches to the Times the 1955 expedition is always referred to as a reconnaissance. Charles’ deputy Norman Hardie maintained that it was the publishing company, Hodder and Stoughton, who discouraged any references in The Untrodden Peak to the idea that 1955 was a prelude to the ‘main expedition’. Norman makes it clear in his own book, On My Own Two Feet that he always thought it was a recce and admitted that at the time he was worried that if he took part in 1955, he might not be invited to join the 1956 attempt. Whether his fears were justified, was a different matter.
The mountaineering history of Kangchenjunga starts way back in 1899 when the Victorian climber, Douglas Freshfield, made his epic grand tour of the mountain. His purpose was not to climb the mountain but to try to work out the best approach for future mountaineers. He came to the conclusion that the most likely route to the top lay up the north ridge, which could be accessed from the Nepali side of the mountain. His suggestion was not taken up however by Crowley and Guillarmod, who instead made their attempt via the southwest face, the side of the mountain within Sikkim that was visible from Darjeeling. After this first attempt ended in disaster, the next three expeditions paid greater heed to Freshfield, approaching the mountain from the other side, trying various approaches to the north ridge. Noone however was successful
After WW2, a new generation of climbers decided to revisit the south west face. Between 1951 and 1954, two ex-pat British climbers Gilmour Lewis and John Kempe visited the area three times, travelling up the Yalung glacier to try to get a good look at the south west face and assess its climbability. Their small privately funded expeditions never had the resources to spend too much time on the mountain but in 1954 John Kempe was contacted by John Hunt, the leader of the 1953 Everest team.
Expedition leader Charles Evans
After his success in 1953, Hunt was unexpectedly sitting on a large pile of money, generated by all the books, lectures and film showings surrounding the first ascent of Everest. That money had been put into a trust - the Mount Everest Foundation—whose mission was to support further mountaineering expeditions. The first significant beneficiary, Hunt hoped, would be an expedition to Kangchenjunga, if John Kempe came back with positive news from his latest trip.
As a young soldier in the Indian army, Hunt had first seen Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling and had visited the eastern side of the mountain in 1938. Hunt knew that Kangchenjunga would be a very difficult mountain to climb, so he planned his attempt in two stages: first a well-funded reconnaissance ‘in force’, then the ‘main show’ in the following year. But there was a problem: though Hunt was available in 1956, the army would not release him for the reconnaissance in 1955. So he turned to two members of his Everest team, then exploring the Barun valley and Makalu: Ed Hillary and Charles Evans. Would either of them like to lead the reconnaissance, he enquired?
Setting off from Rungneet Tea Plantation
After an accident in which he damaged several ribs, Ed Hillary declined Hunt’s offer but Charles Evans said ‘yes’ almost immediately—on the proviso that he could have a look at John Kempe’s report and crucially, choose his own team for the 1955 reconnaissance.
In the event, John Kempe’s report was mixed. He and his climbers had managed to ascend the bottom of the South West Face but they had not been able to get past a huge ice-fall which blocked the route to the upper slopes. Kempe thought a bigger team might succeed where he had failed, but he was not absolutely sure. The report was good enough for Charles Evans to stay interested but he added another caveat before signing up fully: he would only lead the reconnaissance if it was equipped with enough oxygen equipment to get high on the mountain. John Hunt agreed and Charles started preparing in earnest.
The idea that a reconnaissance might become a first ascent was not of course something new. In 1938, Charles Houston led a small American expedition to K2, aiming to recce the mountain for a much bigger expedition to be led by Fritz Wiessener in the following year. In the event, Houston and the mountain guide Paul Petzholdt got much higher than they had ever anticipated, and if it hadn’t been for a missing box of matches, might have gone all the way. Fifteen years later in 1953, Charles Evans had teamed up with Tom Bourdillon on Everest for an attempt on the summit that was billed as part reconnaissance, part attempt. They reached the south summit, but a faulty oxygen set prevented them from going all the way to the summit leaving the way open for Hillary and Tenzing to enter the history books.
The Sherpa team 1955
The clue to Charles’ intentions in 1955 is found perhaps in his insistence on taking oxygen. He was no fan of oxygen sets and had seen first hand how frequently oxygen they broke down. He famously quipped in 1953 that the real question was not whether a climber could reach the summit of Everest without oxygen, but with it. Equally though, Charles knew that a lot work had been done on improving the design and realized that without them the psychological and physical challenge of getting high on Kangchenjunga would be considerably greater. If he really wanted to make the first ascent, oxygen was an absolute necessity.
Having recruited a strong if unorthodox team, Charles left Britain in February 1955 and set up base camp on the Yalung glacier about a month later. After a few false starts, by the middle of May Charles and is team had made significant progress. The agreed target of the reconnaissance was the Great Shelf, a huge sloping terrace that runs across the southwest face between 25000 ft and 27000 ft. If it could be reached, then John Hunt believed that an ascent would be possible in the following year.
Multiple summits of Kangchenjunga (Mick Conefrey)
On 12thMay, climbing with oxygen, Charles Evans and Norman Hardie finally reached the Great Shelf. They sat on a small ledge, surveying the mountains below, as Charles wrote in his diary, ‘like aviators’. At this point he and his men could have returned home triumphant, but Charles clearly had no intention of stopping. Two days later at base camp he outlined the schedule for the next ten days, which would climax he hoped with the first ascent. There were some more difficult moments, but ultimately the expedition succeeded spectacularly—putting not one but two pairs of climbers on the summit. Charles stayed back in reserve, but if the first two attempts had failed, he planned to stage a third with his sirdar, Dawa Tenzing.
When news came out of their success, John Hunt was very gracious in his praise. Even though he knew that Charles’s achievement spelled the end of his own expedition in 1956, he declared that it was ‘a most brilliant performance’ and reiterated the idea that Kangchenjunga was a harder mountain to climb than Everest. Charles and the others returned home, not quite in an Everest-size blaze of glory, but warm and contented nonetheless. Since then Kangchenjunga has slipped away from public consciousness, but the 1955 attempt is widely regarded as an exemplary expedition.
Ultimately whether it was a reconnaissance or a proper attempt is a rather Jesuitical point. On balance though, I suspect that Charles always intended to come back with more than just a route map. Unlike Douglas Freshfield in 1899, he was at the height of his powers in 1955. He had climbed in the Himalayas every summer for the previous five years and was one of the most experienced high altitude mountaineers in the world. In The Untrodden Peak there is rarely a hint of Charles’ emotional investment in the Kangchenjunga expedition but reading his private diary you do get a very strong sense of how nervous he was at the beginning and how much he felt was at stake. As for the others, and Joe Brown in particular, they enjoyed themselves tremendously and worked really hard. The first ascent of Kangchenjunga was the epitome of a team effort, conducted by a team utterly determined to reach their goal yet “under the cover of a great deal of laughter, and while having an enormous amount of fun.”
Kangchenjunga (Mick Conefrey)
Kangchenjunga (Mick Conefrey)
All photos courtesy The Streather Collection.
Mick Conefrey examines the 1955 Kangchenjunga reconnaissance expedition that turned into a historic first ascent of the mountain. Mick’s latest book The Last Great Mountain is about the history of climbs on Kangchenjunga.
Mick Conefrey is an award winning author and film-maker. His documentary, The Ghosts of K2, won prizes at the Banff, Telluride and Trento film festivals and the accompanying book won a US National Outdoor Book Award. He has made films on Everest, the Matterhorn and Mt Denali and travelled all over the world. His previous books include The Ghosts of K2, Everest 1953 and now, The Last Great Mountain—fresh off the press. He lives in Oxford with his family.