2019 is the fortieth anniversary of the ascent of Kangchenjunga by Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman and Doug Scott, the three of them reaching the summit on May 16th 1979. At over 28,000ft Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world. It was first climbed in May 1955 by Joe Brown and George Band followed a day later by Norman Hardie and Tony Streather. The British expedition climbed the mountain from the west by the Yalung face and the West Ridge. The mountain was not climbed again until 1977 when an Indian climber and a Sherpa repeated the British route. In respect to the belief of the Sikkim no one had set foot on the actual summit itself.
In late 1978 Doug approached Joe and Pete regarding making an attempt to climb Kangchenjunga from the north, without oxygen. It was a very considerable undertaking; the mountain had not been attempted from the north since 1930, and no mountain of this height and overall scale had been attempted by a new and difficult route without the use of oxygen, and with such a small team.
It was decided to add another climber to the team and they invited Georges Bettembourg to join them. Georges was a top class French alpinist and had recently made a very rapid ascent of Broad Peak with Yannick Seigneur.
The team set up Base Camp in early April and then set about establishing a route to the North Col of the mountain. By April 13th they had set up Camp 2 at 22,500ft. The next couple of weeks were spent climbing and fixing rope on the wall and by April 27th Camp 3 had been established on the North Ridge. At this time Pete was injured by rockfall and descended to Camp 2 to recover. He returned to the North Col camp three days later, but Joe was forced to go down to Base Camp suffering badly from the altitude. On May 1st while Joe descended, Pete, Doug and Georges set off up the North Ridge and dug out a snow cave for Camp 4.
Over the next three days Pete, Doug and Georges pushed on up the mountain, and set up a camp on the North Ridge at 26,0000ft. The camp consisted of a small tent on the east side of the ridge below the crest, where they were sheltered from the wind. All three of them were squashed into the tent that night (May 4th/5th) and the wind gradually changed direction and began to not only increase in strength rapidly but hammered the tent and began to damage it. At about 2am the tent fabric was ripped open and the centre hoop snapped. Doug held the other poles, and tried in vain to hold the tent together, and the three of them were confronted with a potentially fatal situation.
Survival lay only in descent and after the tent was blown away into the night; they struggled downhill, often on all fours, in appalling conditions. Pete describes this epic situation forcefully in Sacred Summits (Pages 137-138) and only their combined resilience and experience allowed them to escape with their lives. Both Pete and Doug experienced frostbite trying to save the tent, while Georges was starting to suffer from snowblindness.
After an epic retreat down to Base Camp, the team set about recovering, and four days later on May 9th Joe, Pete, Doug and Georges all went back up to Camp 2. From there they made a concerted attempt to get to the summit, spending some recovery time at the Snow Cave at Camp 4 (24,500ft.). From there the summit was some two miles away with almost 4,000ft of ascent. On May 14th they set off for the summit but the strength of the wind, the cold and the difficulty of the route caused them to spend a day in a snow cave some 2,000ft below the summit. It was at this point that Georges decided to go down, deciding that he could go no further. While Georges descended, Joe, Pete and Doug set off for the summit spending the night of May 15th in a cave in a crevasse. On May 16th they set off early and after a struggle on a rock buttress led by Joe they pressed on and reached the summit of Kanchenjunga (at 28,208 ft.) at 4-45pm, with barely an hour of daylight left. They had an arduous descent in failing daylight to the crevasse cave, but reached it safely by 8pm in total darkness. The descent to Base Camp took them two days and they were then able to rest and recover after being the first people to climb the mountain from the north side. By May 29th the team were back in Kathmandu.
Both Pete and Joe wrote extensive accounts of their Kangchenjunga adventures in their books:
Savage Arena Pages 159 - 213
Sacred Summits Pages 85 - 168
At present Doug is working on a history of climbing on Kangchenjunga to be published soon.
The ascent of the mountain by this difficult and dangerous route was, along with their ascent of the West face of Changabang, perhaps Joe and Pete’s finest achievement in the Himalayas. For Doug, the ascent of two of the ‘Big Three’ (Everest and Kanchenjunga) and both by new and difficult routes placed him at the forefront of high altitude mountaineering. Of the first nine people to climb Kangchenjunga, seven had been British.
A few words from Doug Scott, 40 years on from the Kangchenjunga ascent:
Three years after we climbed Kangchenjunga I was returning across Tibet from climbing Shishapangma when I heard the awful news from Charlie Clarke whom we met in Shigatse that Pete and Joe had disappeared on the North East ridge of Everest. It seemed unbelievable that two of Britain's strongest Himalayan climbers should have perished on Everest. They had, not only, on account of their great climbs but mainly through their literary abilities inspired a generation of climbers, Pete with his 'Shining Mountain' and Joe with his 'Savage Arena'.
It is entirely appropriate that they should be remembered today, for their climbs, their writing and the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.