When I received a copy of Kangchenjunga: The Himalayan Giant, mountaineer Doug Scott’s last book, published posthumously and edited by Catherine Moorehead, I expected it to be a detailed account of the path-breaking ascent of the mountain in 1979 by Scott and his team.
To my surprise, I found that only one chapter was devoted to that landmark climb. Scott had researched the mountain meticulously and his book is a detailed record of the exploration and ascents of the world’s third highest peak, beginning in 1712 and culminating in the first ascent of the North-West ridge without supplementary oxygen by Scott, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker in 1979.
Described by the mountaineer Reinhold Messner as “among the greatest climbers of all time”, Scott, who died in December 2020 at the age of 79, had made some 30 first ascents, including major climbs in the Himalaya like Changabang, Everest South-West face, Nuptse, Shivling, Shishapangma and Chamlang.
A prolific writer, he had authored six books on his climbs. Shishapangma: The Alpine-Style Ascent Of The South-West Face, which was co-authored with Alex MacIntyre and won the prestigious Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature in 1984, was a gripping tale of a lightweight alpine-style ascent of an 8,000m peak in 1982. It’s a style that Scott had earlier established on Kangchenjunga. The Ogre (2017) became another mountaineering classic, describing the first ascent of the difficult Karakoram peak in 1977 by Chris Bonington and Scott. Their week-long nightmarish descent, when Scott broke both legs and Bonington smashed his ribs, is a legendary story of Himalayan mountaineering. Up And About: The Hard Road To Everest (2015) described Scott and Dougal Haston’s first ascent by the South-West face in 1975 and their night-long bivouac in a snow cave at 28,750ft, pushing the limits of endurance and survival.
Kangchenjunga is more than just a mountain, or merely the third highest mountain in the world. It is an 8,000m peak that holds great religious significance among the region’s animist and Buddhist communities, second only to Mount Kailash. In Scott’s writing about the mountain, his eye for detail and his humanitarian approach comes through vividly. The remoteness of the massif, the early explorations, the political tussles and the complex history of the region make this a fascinating read.
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, like the Lepchas, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, the Newars, Limbus and Rais, are covered in detail. In the second part, a separate chapter is devoted to artists, writers and photographers who travelled in the shadow of Kangchenjunga, like Walter Fitch, Edward Lear, John Claude White, Nicholas Roerich and Vittorio Sella, one of the great mountain photographers of his time. Possibly the most important early exploration in Sikkim and around Kangchenjunga, from 1848-50, was by the British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who took the Sikkim rhododendron back to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London.
In the third part of the book, Scott focuses on the early climbs and explorations around the mountain. Douglas Freshfield, accompanied by Sella, made the first circuit of the mountain, in 1899. The first attempt to climb it, in 1905, was by the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley and his “ill-matched team”; four people died. In 1929 and 1931, a team of bold and brave Bavarians led by Paul Bauer attempted Kangchengunga from the North-East spur route from the Zemu Glacier in North Sikkim but were repulsed on both occasions from 26,200ft. The main narrative in this final part of the book covers the three ascents of Kangchenjunga until 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 should not 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 from the Yalung Glacier on 25 May 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 headed by Colonel Narinder (Bull) Kumar led an Indo-Sikkimese expedition by the unclimbed North-East Ridge. Despite great odds, they managed to put N. D. Sherpa and Major Premchand on the summit—succeeding on a route where two crack German expeditions had failed.
Two years after the Indian ascent, Doug Scott, Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and Georges Bettembourg decided to attempt the mountain from the unclimbed North-West ridge in alpine style, without supplementary oxygen. The 1979 attempt had four climbers and only two Sherpas, Ang Phurba and Nima Tenzing, in support, a far cry from the siege-like attempts that were common in the Himalaya at the time.
Scott’s sense of childlike delight comes through on the walk to Base Camp when he exclaims, “So many other tempting peaks appeared: how good it would be to come up here on a simple trekking permit!” As always, Scott was more focused on the sheer joys of climbing, regardless of the mountain and the fame it enjoyed. After combating snowstorms, gale force winds and surviving in snow caves, the team was successful in its third attempt; Scott, Tasker and Boardman reached the summit on 16 May in near perfect weather.
Scott’s Kangchenjunga captures the mysticism and allure of “the five treasures of the great snows” that all those who have been touched by the mountain’s presence have felt. In the words of Douglas Freshfield, who gazed upon Kangchenjunga from the Onglathang plain in Sikkim in 1899, “our moon was almost full…the whole peak…was illuminated as if by a heavenly searchlight. The rock and ice were transfigured into a silver shrine, a visionary emblem of purity and aspiration. The worship of Kangchenjunga at that moment seemed very reasonable service.” As Scott’s excellent book makes clear, such worship remains profoundly reasonable.
Sujoy Das is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer.