When Sir John Hunt returned from his conquest of Everest in 1953, reporters asked, "What next?" " Kanchenjunga," he replied without a moment's hesitation. "There is no doubt that those who first climb Kanchenjunga will achieve the greatest feat in mountaineering. For it is a mountain which combines in its defenses not only the severe handicaps of wind, weather and very high altitude, but technical climbing problems and objective dangers of an order even higher than those we encountered on Everest."
Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, is the showplace of the Himalayas, and no one who has viewed its five saw-tooth summits from Darjeeling, just 46 miles away, can ever forget the sight. Rose-colored at dawn, stark white in sunshine, cold and forbidding at dusk, its great mass, only 850 feet short of Everest's supreme height, fills the northwestern horizon and seems to float above the haze and darkness of the jungle valleys below.
Tourists are not alone in awful admiration. The Sikkimese, in whose country the entire east face lies, accord Kang-chen-dz�-nga—"The Five Sacred Treasures of the Snow"—the reverence given to a god. They devoutly believe that the highest summit, 28,146 feet above sea level, is the home of their protective deity.
To mountain climbers, Kanchenjunga stands as "the most difficult and most dangerous mountain in the world." For 50 years, climbers have challenged its savage slopes, constantly swept by avalanches, and have found them utterly unassailable. Indeed, many believed this beautiful mountain too terrible to scale.
In 1899, the first man to circumvent the base concluded, "It is guarded by the Demon of Inaccessibility...for the express purpose of defense against human assault, so skillfully is each comparatively weak spot raked by ice and snow batteries." In 1905, a Swiss expedition was hurled back by an avalanche which killed one climber and three porters. In 1929, E. F. Farmer, an American, abandoned by his porters, set out alone and was never again seen. In 1929 and 1931, two Bavarian parties fought to within 2,500 feet of the summit only to be whipped by blizzards and routed by avalanches. And in 1930, an international expedition barely got started when millions of tons of ice, rock and snow plummeted down the mountain, killing one porter and nearly wiping out the rest of the party. In all, 11 parties had visited the mountain. Eight men had died upon it.
Kanchenjunga remained unchallenged for the next 20 years until Gilmour Lewis and John Kempe, after exploring the little-known area beneath the southwest face, came away convinced that from this approach the summit might "go." In 1954, a lightly equipped team of six climbers led by Kempe pushed the reconnaissance to 19,000 feet.
More intimate knowledge of the upper part of the mountain was needed, however, before a full-scale attempt could be made. A joint committee of the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society—Sir John Hunt was the chairman—recommended a "reconnaissance in force." Thus was our expedition born.
Now, after months of preparation and a rugged 100-mile march, we stood face to face with the giant. Nine men: our leader, Dr. Charles Evans, a surgeon by profession and deputy leader of the victorious Everest expedition; Norman Hardie, a skilled ice climber and second in command; Joe Brown, a Manchester builder and weekend climber; Dr. John Clegg, expedition physician; John Jackson, a Yorkshire schoolteacher; Neil Mather, a textile technologist and snow-and-ice specialist; Tom Mackinnon, a Glasgow pharmacist with considerable Himalayan experience; Tony Streather, a regular army captain and member of two previous major climbs, and finally myself, companion of Evans on Everest.
Ranged in an enormous circle around us was a fantastic array of peaks. The stupendous faces were daubed with masses of hanging ice which discharged their debris into the high snow basins feeding the great Yalung glacier curving around at our feet. So awe.-inspiring was the sight that I felt even smaller than in Everest's Western Cwm.
Directly before us lay the southwest face of Kanchenjunga, a series of contorted icefalls and precipitous snow slopes buttressed by steep walls of rock and gigantic overhanging glaciers which looked as if they might break loose at any moment. Our limited objective was to reach and explore the Great Shelf, a forbidding ledge of ice which stretches across the entire face at 24,000 feet (map below). To reach the Shelf, we would first have to find a route through the Lower Icefall, a 2,000-foot barrier of jumbled, moving ice, gutted with monstrous crevasses and pocked with shattered blocks of ice. Then, we would have to scale the Upper Icefall, some 3,500 feet of sheer walls of glistening ice, studded with snow-covered ledges. If we succeeded in placing a camp on the Great Shelf itself—which from this distance seemed almost impossible—the terrain above it presented even more frightful obstacles. From the Shelf a narrow, steep gully of snow, 2,000 feet in all, led to the West Ridge. From there, a series of pinnacles and vertical cliffs blocked the uppermost crest.