Capturing the Magic of Kangchenjunga


When I received a copy of Kangchenjunga: The Gian of the Himalayast, the last book by mountaineer Doug Scott, published posthumously and edited by Catherine Moorehead, I expected it to be a detailed account of the groundbreaking ascent of the mountain in 1979 by Scott and his team.

To my surprise, I discovered that only one chapter was dedicated to this historic ascent. Scott had meticulously studied the mountain and his book is a detailed account of the exploration and ascents of the world’s third highest peak, beginning in 1712 and culminating in Scott’s first ascent of the Northwest Ridge without supplemental oxygen. Peter Boardman and Joe. Tasker in 1979.

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Described by mountaineer Reinhold Messner as “among the greatest climbers of all time”, Scott, who died in December 2020 at the age of 79, had completed around 30 first ascents, including major ascents in the Himalayas like Changabang, Everest Southwest. face, Nuptse, Shivling, Shishapangma and Chamlang.

A prolific writer, he had written six books about his ascents. Shishapangma: the alpine ascent of the southwest facewhich was co-written with Alex MacIntyre and won the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature in 1984, was a gripping account of a light alpine-style ascent of an 8,000m peak in 1982. C It’s a style that Scott had previously established on Kangchenjunga. The Ogre (2017) has become another mountaineering classic, describing the first ascent of the difficult Karakoram peak in 1977 by Chris Bonington and Scott. Their nightmarish week-long descent, when Scott broke both legs and Bonington broke his ribs, is a legendary story of Himalayan mountaineering. Up And About: The difficult path to Everest (2015) described Scott and Dougal Haston’s first ascent of the southwest face in 1975 and their overnight bivouac in a snow cave at 28,750 feet, pushing the limits of endurance and survival.

Kangchenjunga is more than just a mountain, or simply the third highest mountain in the world. It is an 8,000m peak that holds great religious significance among the animist and Buddhist communities in the region, just behind Mount Kailash. In Scott’s writings on the mountain, his eye for detail and humanitarian approach are evident. The remoteness of the massif, the first explorations, the political disputes and the complex history of the region make it a fascinating read.


‘Kangchenjunga—The Himalayan Giant’, by Doug Scott, Vertebrate Publishing, 272 pages, £24 (approx. 2,400).

In the first part of the book, Scott describes the huge Kangchenjunga massif and the peaks and ridges that radiate from the summit, as well as the climate, flora and fauna around Kangchenjunga. The people who live in the shadow of the mountain, such as the Lepchas, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, the Newars, the Limbus and the Rais, are covered in detail. In the second part, a separate chapter is devoted to the artists, writers and photographers who traveled in the shadow of Kangchenjunga, such as Walter Fitch, Edward Lear, John Claude White, Nicholas Roerich and Vittorio Sella, one of the great photographers mountain of his time. . Probably the most significant early exploration in Sikkim and around Kangchenjunga, from 1848 to 1850, was by British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who brought the Sikkim rhododendron to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London.

In the third part of the book, Scott focuses on the first ascents and explorations around the mountain. Douglas Freshfield, accompanied by Sella, made the first circuit of the mountain, in 1899. The first attempt to scale it, in 1905, was by notorious occultist Aleister Crowley and his “mismatched crew”; four people died. In 1929 and 1931, a team of daring and brave Bavarians led by Paul Bauer attempted Kangchengunga from the route of the northeast spur of the Zemu Glacier in North Sikkim, but were twice beaten back 26,200 feet. The main narrative of this last part of the book covers the three ascents of Kangchenjunga up to 1979.

In 1955, Kangchenjunga was the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. A British expedition received permission from the Chogyal of Sikkim to climb Kangchenjunga, with a rider: They were not to set foot on the summit, as the mountain was the guardian deity of the Sikkimese people. Mountaineers George Band and Joe Brown made the first ascent of Yalung Glacier on May 25, 1955, followed by Norman Hardie and Tony Streather a day later. As promised, neither team set foot on the summit.

The next success came 22 years later, in 1977, when an Indian Army team led by Colonel Narinder (Bull) Kumar led an Indo-Sikkimese expedition over the unclimbed northeast ridge. Despite great odds, they managed to place ND Sherpa and Major Premchand at the top, succeeding on a route where two elite German expeditions had failed.

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Two years after the Indian ascent, Doug Scott, Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and Georges Bettembourg decided to attempt the mountain from the unclimbed northwest ridge in alpine style, without supplemental oxygen. The 1979 attempt had four climbers and only two Sherpas, Ang Phurba and Nima Tenzing, in support, a far cry from the siege attempts that were common in the Himalayas at the time.

Scott’s sense of childlike delight is evident on the trek to Base Camp when he exclaims, “So many other tempting peaks have appeared: how nice it would be to come here with just a trekking permit!” As always, Scott was more focused on the pure joys of climbing, whatever mountain and whatever fame it enjoyed. After battling blizzards, high winds, and surviving in snow caves, the team was successful on their third attempt; Scott, Tasker and Boardman summited May 16 in near perfect weather.

at Scott Kangchenjunga captures the mysticism and allure of the “five treasures of the great snows” that all who have been touched by the mountain’s presence have felt. In the words of Douglas Freshfield, who viewed Kangchenjunga from the Onglathang plain in Sikkim in 1899, “our moon was nearly full…the whole top…was illuminated as if by a celestial searchlight. Rock and ice have been transfigured into a silver shrine, a visionary emblem of purity and aspiration. Kangchenjunga’s worship at this time seemed a very reasonable service. As Scott’s excellent book makes clear, such worship remains profoundly reasonable.

Sujoy Das is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer.

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