The weather factor in high climbing is so important that the best time of year is a very vexed question. In Sikkim, at least among the mountains south and east of Kangchenjunga, the comparatively warm period before the monsoon brings with it storms, snow-falls, avalanches, and stone-falls, on account of the waxing power of the sun. During the monsoon itself there is heavy precipitation of snow, whereas after it there is supposed to be a short-lived period of good weather before the onset of a terrible winter among the heights. September and the early part of October, therefore, are commonly selected as the time for high climbing.
Often, however, the tail-end of the monsoon drags on right into November, giving rise to a few straggling storms; as a result the weather is bad throughout October and a fine autumn fails to materialize. Difficulties encountered by various expeditions on account of these very disturbances have added to the general assumption that conditions must be much worse in the winter; yet often and for days on end the high snows are to be seen standing bright and clear in a winter sky far above the changing mists of the foothills, so much so that many people have wondered whether the conditions up there would not be suitable for climbing in spite of the cold. I considered that the experiment of a winter climb might be of great value.
Kabru is the nearest of the big peaks, its approaches are comparatively little known, and it seemed that a visit to it would yield more positive knowledge of high-altitude winter conditions than one to the more sheltered mountains in northern Sikkim. The Survey of India map 78A gives a height of 24,002 feet to its south peak but none to the northern. Marcel Kurz's recent map indicates 7,316 m. (24,003 feet) and 7,315 m. (24,000 feet) for the heights of the south and north peaks, respectively, and a mile northwards along the same ridge an unnamed peak of 7,395 m. (24,263 feet). This peak is visible from Darjeeling behind the north peak and looks like an ice gendarme high up on the corner of its east face. I was keen to discover whether this was actually the highest point of the great Singalila ridge, and planned a small expedition to follow Rubenson's route up the Kabru glacier, intending first to examine the winter state of weather and snow, and secondly to climb Kabru and, if possible, the unnamed peak behind should it prove to be higher. I was most fortunate in getting Mr. G. Schoberth of Siemens (India), Ltd., to come all the way from Bombay and join me. He has considerable experience of climbing in his native Switzerland, in Austria, Germany, and South America, and had been up the Zemu glacier in Sikkim.
Encouraged by Mr. Wood Johnson and others, I originally intended to be above 20,000 feet until the second week of December, but actually advanced my plan by three weeks. As a result, during the latter part of the climb we had perfect weather and conditions would have been even better had we been a little later. This is perhaps surprising, though not by any means conclusive, because in 1935 the monsoon closed early and was followed by an unusually dry autumn. Nevertheless, from exhaustive inquiries made among the villagers en route it seems that the season, though dry, was not absolutely exceptional.
The party, consisting of ourselves and two Everest 'Tigers', carefully picked for us by Mrs. Townend, left Darjeeling with forty coolies on the 10th October, and travelled by the Singalila ridge. At Chiabhanjan two more 'Tigers' joined us from Mrs. Townend's party on its return from the Cuicha La and completed the climbing party. The junction of the Ra thong Chu and Churung Chu was reached on the 18th, where, after selecting six good men to assist up to the Base Camp, the coolies were discharged. Our first weekly supply of fresh food arrived from Yoksam, also kindly arranged by Mrs. Townend through the Judicial Secretary to the Maharaja of Sikkim.
Two days' cutting through tall rhododendrons brought us to our 'Rathong Camp' beside the stream. We had journeyed almost the whole way in clouds and mist, but here in the mornings before the cloud-level crept up we obtained the first views of our objective and its noble satellites, Little Kabru, the Dome, and the Forked Peak. There was snow blowing off the higher summits almost continuously.
On the 21st October Schoberth and I emerged from the Ra thong valley on to the Kabru glacier and found it entirely moraine covered. No ice was visible; there lay ahead of us the most complicated succession of ridges and cross-ridges, rising one behind the other, that either of us had ever seen. The mountains here must still be in process of construction, for weather effects alone could scarcely split off such large and fresh-looking blocks of granite and produce such debris. The glacier is evidently in rapid motion underneath, for here and there small landslips of stones rattled down at frequent intervals.
We scrambled to the first ridge of stones at 14,400 feet and, traversing the next higher one, breasted a third ridge at a height of 15,300 feet. Here it was seen that the glacier had an ice-tongue a couple of miles farther up. The regiment of troublesome moraine ridges showed no signs of terminating, so we pitched our so-called 'Moraine Camp' on grass in a small hanging valley below the south-west corner of the glacier.
Five days were spent in relaying the kit up from the Churung Chu and working out a route four miles to the foot of the Kabru ice-fall. Ang Tarke and the four high-altitude porters did magnificent work, sometimes making a double carry in one day and sometimes carrying the best part of two maunds in one load. This effort was sheer enthusiasm on their part. On the 26th Schoberth and Kitar established themselves in the Base Camp while I returned once more to Moraine Camp to arrange about stocking the Base and to discharge four more men.
Our Nepali cook, though willing, seemed unable to accustom himself to the height (he had come from Bombay) and therefore returned with the men. A further supply of fresh food now arrived and with it, to my amazement, Ang Thari, Ang Tsering's young brother, with the cooker that we had left behind in Darjeeling. I had sent him off to get it, and he had done the journey there and back in eight days because I had asked him to hurry! He had left Darjeeling on the afternoon of the 24th, walked throughout the night, and arrived nearly at Pamionchi the next day with a 40-lb. load. Darjeeling to Pamionchi is normally regarded as four marches.
On the 28th we all assembled in the Base Camp at 15,700 feet. Had we known it we could have saved several days by going on to Dzongri on the march out and from there taken a regular pony track which leads over a pass behind Kabur right up to the glacier along the north side of the valley.
The weather since leaving the Rathong Camp had been a source of keen study and some anxiety. The night temperatures had remained at about i2°F. with sometimes a strong northerly wind accompanied by a certain amount of sleet, while above the snow was wisping off Kabru almost incessantly.
The whole problem of climbing Kabru lies in the ascent of the ice-fall, and from the Base Camp it looks a monster. Its lower portion sweeps up into a labyrinth of hanging seracs and grey ice-walls. On its east side the 1,200-foot Kanzel rock stems the cataract of ice but is almost overwhelmed by it, while on its west side a mighty bastion of Kabru discharges ice avalanches down a mile of precipice every hour of the night. From the top of this precipice a wall of ice 300 feet high runs northwards for half a mile towards the south peak of Kabru and joins the ice-fall in a series of terraces. This wall is clearly seen from Darjeeling, and behind it lies a neve plateau about a third of a mile square which is connected with the higher neve slopes between the two summits.
Could we but reach the far end of the wall, we hoped that we could work back along those lofty terraces to the neve behind. Once there the way would be clear, but a direct ascent of the ice-fall was out of the question.
Schoberth thought that by mounting a smaller ice-fall descending at the side of the Dome and by crossing the upper slopes of another glacier we could get on to a shoulder of the Dome above the Kanzel rock and from there reach the main ice-fall. I was afraid that we should find hanging ice over that shoulder, but we decided to try.
KABRU & THE S.E. QUADRANT OF kANGCHENJUNGA
On the 29th we took a bivouac and camped a third of the way up the side ice-fall, and the next day worked up the ice to a point from which we could see a clear way to the shoulder. A rather peculiar lassitude was felt on this glacier which I presume was 'glacier lassitude5 brought on by a hot sun. Returning to camp in the afternoon, the weather deteriorated and presented above us an awe-inspiring sight. Cirro-cumuli had been passing over during the day, and now the summits of Kabru were hidden behind a great blurred arc of cloud, a formless shape without any defined edge evidently moving at a great pace. It was accompanied by a distant murmuring like the sea on a rough day and altogether fitted one of Scott's descriptions of an oncoming blizzard; it must have been, indeed, a blizzard in operation.
The night was windy, and next morning, in driving sleet, we descended to the Base Camp to collect the kit for Camp i on the shoulder. On the 2nd November Camp i was fixed at 17,500 feet on the ice terrace. After a brilliantly clear night with a minimum temperature of — 5^° F., we rounded the shoulder and stood face to face with the Kabru ice-fall pouring over from unseen neve 3,000 feet above.
Schoberth had proved correct; the back of the shoulder led easily down a ridge of soft snow into the nearest seracs. We cut steps up a depression in the first ice-wall and entered the maze.
The problem now took on the fascination of uncertainty which continued up to the last crevasse. Frequently it appeared that there would be no way past the next ice-wall to the succeeding terrace above. On the 5th November, having dug Camp 1 into the snow and stocked it well against a forced retreat, Kitar and Jigmay accompanied us with a bivouac by the route we had prepared and pitched Camp 2 under the lee of a big wall at 18,200 feet which so far had resisted our assaults. They then returned to Camp 1.
Once again the weather looked threatening with cirro-cumuli scurrying overhead and the view of the Koktang peak across the moraine below interrupted by ragged cumulus clouds swirling over the glacier. We passed an extremely uncomfortable night cramped in our hastily constructed encampment, with the temperature at —8° F. and the wind battering at the tent.
Next day we cut steps a few feet up the ice-wall and thence along a tricky little ledge round a sort of gable to find that we could proceed only a short distance farther among a tangle of immense ice- blocks to a very large crevasse backed by an even larger wall. We were on the right-hand side of the ice-fall and the crevasse stretched to the left into the quite impossible centre portion of the fall. There can be few ice-falls even in the Himalaya which can show such a spectacle of titanic ice monsters wrestling with each other down such a gradient. The Kabru ice-fall drops 5,500 feet in about the same horizontal distance, and, being fed from three extensive neve fields above, contains an immense quantity of ice. There was no way past and we were forced to return. We now explored to the right under the hanging ice of the Dome where the crevasses had been filled with fallen ice.
After two hours' cutting on a steep little serac poised above a deep crevasse, we emerged through an overhang on to the top of the big wall. A stiff ice-laden wind had been icing up our goggles and had made step-cutting most uncomfortable. It was only a matter of minutes before the goggles got so iced that we could see nothing and we had to keep changing places to clean them.
Next night we fared better, for the porters had now consolidated Camp 2. Kitar had been sent down to the Base Camp to bring up Ang Tsering with some extra food, but as they had not arrived another day was spent in improving the track we had made up the wall while the two remaining porters, Jigmay and Pasang, went back to the Base Camp to hurry up Ang Tsering. On the third day there was still no sign of our worthies, and as further delay might lose us the chance of reaching the summit I took a sleeping-bag and set off for Camp i. Finding no one there, I passed on to the Base Camp, and to my great relief found the whole party ascending. Kitar had been sick and had been obliged to wait two days. After a pleasant lunch sitting in a warm sun I said good-bye to Ang Tarke and Ang Thari, who were looking after our base for us, and rejoined the porters in Camp 1. Porters as a rule will not remain in a camp alone.
On the 9th November the whole party joined up with Schoberth in Camp 2, and after collecting stores for the next bivouac climbed up to 19,000 feet and pitched Camp 3 in a snow-filled crevasse. The porters then returned to Camp 2 to bring up more kit next day. In the evening it started to snow and the temperature dropped to — 90 F. Throughout the greater part of the 10th we were confined to our tents by heavy snow and a dense fog, though in the afternoon it cleared sufficiently for us to be able to look down on the snow slopes from the edge of our hollow. To our surprise we discerned four black dots slowly ascending. We climbed down to them at once and found that our stout-hearted lads were on their way up for orders. They were sent back with instructions to come on the morrow if the weather cleared, otherwise after two days we would rejoin them.
More snow fell in the night, accompanied this time by a wind. I woke with the sun to find a thing like a white mummy alongside puffing little clouds of moisture at regular intervals from a hole at one end accompanied by a good hearty snore; Schoberth seemed to be enjoying his snow eiderdown. We had neglected to fasten the second layer of flaps and the wind had brought a shallow snow-drift into the tent.
We returned early in the afternoon from our exploration of the route to Camp 4 to find no porters. This time they were resting on their laurels. Time was too precious for this, so I went off with my sleeping-bag to investigate. The wind strengthened in the afternoon and whirled the fresh snow along the ground. At times it became necessary to cover my face with my gloves and cower down on the slope to let the blast abate somewhat before proceeding. Conditions, however, improved as I descended, and Camp 2 presented a peaceful scene with the tent laced up, basking in a comparatively calm sun. Presently two astonished faces popped through the flap in answer to my shouts. I could not resist a laugh at their Jack-in-the-box appearance, and when they saw the joke too the effect was complete. I dug them out of their sleeping-bags and sent them off to Camp 3 with a load each. Fine fellows these! They took it all in the right spirit and must have had a struggle to get there.
1. The Kabru ice fall from the shoulder of the Dome
2. Camp 2, Kabru. 200-foot serac in background
3. The terrace wall above the Kabru glacier (height 450 feet)
Next morning we all collected again in Camp 3 and carried on up the ice-fall. There was no hope of surmounting the terraces at the far end of the 300-foot ice-wall owing to the risk of tumbling seracs. Camp 4 was established at 20,000 feet, a glorious display of sunset lights revealing the snows above. From now on the weather remained perfect for the rest of the climb.
We spent a day climbing by a steep and devious route to the last crevasse of the glacier and found ourselves at last on the easy neve leading to the summit 3,000 feet above. Too lazy to climb back towards the slopes of the Dome, we took the risk of a short cut right into the maze of fallen seracs at the top of the ice-fall, prepared to rope down anything. Suddenly we recognized below us our tracks of the morning, and all depended on our reaching those before dark. We cut steps along a ledge on the edge of a huge chasm; there were no holds and we had to proceed with the greatest care, but eventually, to our relief, we succeeded in joining our old tracks. This short cut served us well later.
The wind woke us early on the morning of the 15th by the simple process of blowing the tent down. The job of getting out before sunrise and refixing it had all the exhilarating effects of a cold shower. Breakfast, as usual, consisted of porridge, bacon and eggs, and a cup of Ovaltine, after which we setoff with the bivouac for Camp 5 with two porters, while the other two went back to Camp 3 for the last of the kit for the high camps.
The weather became calmer and we ascended easily, improving on our route of the descent, and eventually entering a large crevasse at 21,100 feet, where we decided to camp.
We took considerable trouble to select the calmest place along the snow-filled bottom of the crevasse, for the wind showed signs of rising in the night. The porters went back to Camp 4 while we set about our evening meal. At sundown the wind became so powerful that it was only a matter of minutes before the canvas tore, and something had to be done at once. We discovered a shelf farther in and 40 feet higher under a portion of the crevasse wall near where it closed over altogether and formed a snow bridge 50 feet above the shelf. Here there was much better protection from the wind. We now hurriedly rolled up everything and staggered up the slope of hard snow with a load in one arm and cutting steps with the other. This had to be repeated at every trip, so quickly did the wind-driven ice particles fill up the steps. Finally, Schoberth shouldered the tent while I assisted from behind. At the end of the slope a sudden strong gust of wind knocked us both out of our steps. Schoberth shot off down the slope but kept his head and tobogganed neatly over a small subsidiary crevasse to land in a graceful sitting posture in the pit from which we had just taken the tent. I managed to save the tent from falling into the small crevasse, from which we might not have been able to recover it.
It was well that we moved, for the wind continued to increase and gave us a disturbed night, tearing across the opening of the crevasse above. It was very noticeable that throughout the climb the wind was strongest always during the night, while frequently at about midday it died away altogether for an hour or more.
We spent the next morning crossing the neve and ascending the long low saddle which connects the Dome with the north peak of Kabru. Having seen nothing but the Dome cliffs and Kabru since we started it was a thrill which neither of us will forget when we saw the view over the edge. Range after range of sharp rock-sided peaks filled the view. From Kangchenjunga on the left the eye swept over the entire vista of the mountains of Sikkim and rested finally on the summit of Chomo Lhari, 23,990 feet, in Tibet, while Sikkim itself lay hid under 4,000 square miles of flat, unbroken planchette. The outstanding feature was, of course, Pandim, rising only 6| miles across the Alukthang valley. Though I have looked up at it from many angles, I had no idea that it had such a beautiful spire.
Camp 6 was pitched on the 16th November near the foot of the ice- fall which comes down from the ‘ice-brae' behind Kabru's two summits. I asked Ang Tsering if he would share the Mummery tent with us and try the summit next day; his reply was a graceful 'I have become a little tired, but it is as the Sahib wishes'. Small wonder that he was 4a little tired', for in spite of our remonstrance both he and Kitar had brought a full 60-lb. load rather than make a second journey the next day. We therefore sent them back to Camp 5 for two days' rest. Had we known that the wonderful weather would hold we should have brought up another tent and assembled the whole party at 22,500 feet, but with the wind danger in such an exposed place we had to keep Camp 5 fully equipped as a retreat.
The following morning I felt a little mountain-sick after a very cramped night and was the cause of a late start. From here two routes to the summit ridge are possible. Schoberth suggested that if the wind was favourable we should ascend the 500 feet of steepening snow-slopes above us and then climb the 1,000 feet of rocks; otherwise we would climb the more difficult but more sheltered route up the 1,500 feet of ice-fall. Schoberth soon developed a persistent cough and returned when we had nearly reached the rocks, to be followed a couple of hours later by me after an examination of them.
4. Pandim from Kabru
5. Kabru north peak from the Dome ridge
6. The Dome from Camp 6
On the 18th, an hour after sunrise, we started in earnest. A bitter wind made progress slow and breathing very difficult. When we had nearly reached the rocks Schoberth's cough again bothered him very considerably, and with this handicap and the fear of frostbitten hands he reluctantly decided to return. We decided that I should go on as far as possible. I climbed the first band of rocks and thence diagonally eastwards over the next band to the south-east rib. Here, on ascending a steep stretch of rocks, I could see that the slopes from the summit ridge were steep and heavily corniced at the top and that it would be better to go round via the ice-brae. From here onwards the snow became very steep and had been pressed so hard by the wind that it was impossible to kick steps, so it was a case of cutting steps for the next 700 feet or so to the beginning of the summit ridge. As the day wore on the wind, though cold, died to a gentle breeze and the weather became quite perfect.
On reaching the final ridge I at once encountered a stiff wind from the west. Three rounded summits appeared ahead, one behind the other, and I wondered which was the summit and whether the third, which looked considerably farther off, could be the point marked 7,395 m. on Kurz's map. It was very difficult to judge distance ; rather despondently I traversed the first summit, and, rounding the second, made for the farthest one, resolved to turn back should it prove too far. It turned out to be only about a quarter of a mile, and I found myself quicker than I expected on the top and looking down a tremendous abyss to the Talung glacier below with the unnamed peak half a mile or so along the ridge and about 300 feet lower.
It was much too cold to sit for long and admire the magnificent view of Kangchenjunga. There they stood, ‘The Five Treasuries of the Great Snows', looking more deadly than ever and giving the impression of a huge piece of flat stage scenery erected as a background to the ice-fluted Talung peak. Although about five miles away, I might have been sitting in the front row of the stalls, so huge are the walls of Kangchenjunga. The mountains of Sikkim looked very fine though they had sunk somewhat to their disadvantage, while far to the west stood Everest and Makalu looking their real height. It was impossible to tell whether the south peak of Kabru was higher or not; I rather feared that it was, but from careful calculations made later from photographs the north peak works out at from 100 to 150 feet higher. I doubt if the top can be seen from Darjeeling, for it lies on a portion of the ridge almost at right angles to the main ridge and considerably behind the second rounded summit. Very little could be seen of the mountains of Nepal, except the extreme top of Janu, on account of the surprising extent of the icefield, which reminded me strongly of the Josterdals Brae in Norway. Part of this unique feature can be seen from Darjeeling as a level sky-line between Kabru's two summits. It sweeps from the south peak like a slow Atlantic roller 1 ½ miles long with its crest at an altitude of 23,800 feet and perhaps half a mile west from where I sat, thence it curves gradually into the saddle between the unnamed and Talung peaks. This ice-field is pock-marked all over with thousands of 'wind-tables', slabs of very hard snow about 1 o feet across supported on a centre portion of snow about 18 inches above the ground. The 'edge' of the table projects anything from 1 to 8 feet and is strong enough to walk about on. This unusual formation is the result of the continuous action of the powerful west wind.
On the descent I decided to take a shorter route down the south face instead of following my previous steps. From the summit ridge the snow-slope falls at a very steep angle, and, forgetting that the snow was so hard, I made a lunge down with my heel, but the nails failed to bite at all and I shot down at once on my back. About 50 feet lower a passing rock jumped me over on to my face and I got a chance to get the point of the ice-axe working as a brake, but there seemed little hope of stopping as the pace was terrific. I fetched up with a bang on a bulge of rock, severely shaken but unhurt. The fall was seen from Camp 6 by Ang Tsering, but I was able to relieve their anxiety by waving that all was well. An hour and a half later I was back in camp and consuming hard-boiled eggs thoughtfully prepared by Ang Tsering.
The next day we decided to get back to Camp 5. Schoberth arrived in the evening, having climbed up to 23,500 feet with Jigmay to take photographs. It was a pity that they had not started earlier, for they made good progress and could have reached the summit with more time to spare. On the 20th Schoberth decided to carry on down from Camp 5, so Ang Tsering and I donned crampons and shouldered a bivouac for an attempt on the Dome. After an easy ascent to a peak on the ridge about 200 feet higher than the actual summit, we commenced to descend the steep arete for about 600 yards. It is interesting to record that the mountain which looks so like a dome from below actually has the form of a large semicircular crater with the summit, 21,500 feet, at the far end.
It now became apparent that it would take too long to reach the summit and return, and as we had to reach Camp 1 on the following day we gave it up. We wasted some time on the return belaying down a 'short cut', having eventually to work back to our original route; however, by sundown we fixed our light tent on the site of our Camp 4. Ang Tsering proved to be very steady and negotiated the steps very neatly, like the born mountaineer he is. With an alpine training what could not these men do?
7. Kangchenjunga from Kabru north peak
The party assembled once more in Camp 1, every one in high spirits, in calm and brilliant weather. Schoberth and I reached the Base Camp on the 22nd, to be followed a day later by the porters with the last of the kit.
We now had to wait three days for the coolies to turn up, so while Schoberth went off to climb the other side of the valley to complete his excellent series of photographs of the glacier and ice-fall, Ang Tsering and I visited the Rathong Gap, a narrow pass crossed in 1920 by H. Raeburn on his way to the Yalung glacier in Nepal.
A word about equipment. We had expected arctic temperatures and high wind; — 210 F. was recorded by Rubenson in 1907 a month earlier in the year. The ideal protection against wind, for it is only with a wind that dry cold matters, is two windproof layers separated by a completely free air space and not merely extra windproof layers piled on in contact with one another. A hermetically impervious outer layer is scarcely possible and certainly not hygienic. Assuming, then, that the windproofing used reduces the air stream to 1 per cent., a double layer will simply reduce it something over | per cent., but allowing a free space to by-pass the leakage air stream a second wind- proof will have the effect of reducing the air movement to 1 per cent, of 1 per cent., or o-o 1 per cent. This is a principle which, I believe, has been very little exploited by climbers. To arrange an entirely free intervening space all round is scarcely practicable in clothing, though it is done in certain arctic tents, but by inserting a layer of very porous material, such as extremely loosely woven wool, the principle nearly applies. With this idea I used two or three layers of wool as usual for bodily warmth, then a special windproof silk underlayer, followed by one or two layers of loose Shetland wool under my outer wind- proofs. The result was extremely effective; I tried it with and without the silk underlayer. The latter in a wind was more effective than an extra sweater; in fact, I am almost sorry that the scheme was never put to a severe test. Other equipment, such as sleeping-bags, &C., was of the Mount Everest pattern. Lawrie's fur-lined high-altitude boots deserve a word of praise; they were extraordinarily warm.
Actually the weather was so favourable that the minimum temperature at Camp 6 was only — 110 F., with comparatively mild winds.
We left the Base Camp on the 26th November and arrived extremely fit in Darjeeling by way of Dzongri on the 2nd December.