by Col . N. Kumar
Kanchenjunga is the Goddess of the Sikkimese people. Lepchas, the original inhabitants and Bhotias who came to Sikkim in 16th Centaury worship this mountain alike. Even the Nepalese who came and settled in this area in search of Jobs pay homage to this mountain. The lives of Sikkimese people are interwoven with the moods of the Mountain. If the Goddess Kanchenjunga is happy, the crops are good, the flowers blossom, fish are in abandoned and people are prosperous but if the god of Kanchenjunga is anger, it destroys crops and brings illness and death to people. Therefore Sikkimese people to please their deity hold religious LAMAS DANCES. When I decided to climb Kanchenjunga many Lamas were against the attempt fearing the wrath of Kanchenjunga. So in order not to hurt their sentiments we promised them not to step on the throne of Kanchenjunga.
One of the major hurdles of the Himalayan Expedition is its logistics. We had 18 tons of load which had to be carried to equip and feed Sherpas, members and other staff for 3 months. Main problem was how to take these loads up to Base Camp. To do that we hired 500 casual porters but when going became tough and these people deserted us. The whole team would have starved and the expedition called off, if Air Force had not come to our help and dropped the food at Base Camp. Needless to say equipment carried by members themselves who made numerous ferries.
After reaching this Advance Base Camp at 16,800 ft our first obstacle was to negotiate cracking, crumbling and hurtling ice fall. Twice we had very narrow escapes in this area. Once, entire 50 loads were buried by avalanches. Luckily the area was unoccupied. After the ice fall the next problem was to get to the crest of the North east spur ridge, and while doing that we lost Hav Sukhvinder Singh. He slipped from an ice heavy edge, landed on the rock face, his rucksack breaking his neck. Kanchenjunga had taken its toll. Hav Sukhvinder Singh had died exactly at the same place where a German and a Sherpa had earlier died.
We were all very scared of North east spur. The ridge was like the knife edge. The snow was not hard enough to get hold crawl on our fours. The ridge was so thin that we sometime dug tunnels across it for better route. But we were very careful as one wrong step we would have meant fall of 3000 ft below. People ask whether I was scared, yes I was, every body was, but I had to keep brave face outwardly. While we were climbing the weather became bad, as it had not been in last 200 years. All major expeditions in the Himalayas had went back but we carried on., some top and tough Sherpas from Nepal who had gone to Everest the hard way with Chris Bonnington said that in comparison the climbing on Everest was an elephant walk as compared to monkey crawl on Kanchenjunga. Many Sherpas refused to carry loads on this ridge and an incentive as big as Rs. 1000/- per load per day had to be given to keep the expedition going. When we thought that the warm was over the mountain sprung a last surprise. A thin ice arête banned our way to North ridge. This demoralized our Sherpas and they returned to the Base Camp. But, having come so far we were not giving up easily. The efforts were redoubled, and members carried the loads themselves and we hit the North ridge. The last Camp VII was established at 26,200 ft and on 31 May 1977. Major Prem Chand and ND Sherpa tearing through the thin icy cold winds got to the top and put the National Flag 6 ft below the summit.
Kanchenjunga…………..in the language of mountain – people …… Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world…. more than 28,000 ft above the sea level. It was first climbed by a British team in 1955… but from Nepal side. The North west face of the mountain….. the more dangerous route, from Sikkim, via the North East spur had never led to success. A German expedition reached 25,000 ft and tragically had to turn back. It was realized that Kanchenjunga was more difficult to conquer than Everest. In the words of Sir John, now Lord Hunt, leader of the first successful Everest expedition : “ Kanchenjunga is a mountain which combines not only severe handicaps but climbing problems as objective dangers of an order higher than on Everest”. This, among the greatest mountaineering challenges of all time, was taken up by the Indian Army expedition of 1977 led by Colonel Narindra Kumar. The team consisted of 60 members and Sherpas who had to be provided with clothing, food and tentage for at least four months. Six months of planning and preparation raising funds, getting hold of vital equipment from dozen sources, pleading, begging, borrowing and making do. 22 tons of loads to be carried to the Base Camp.
The 12th of March…. Lachen, the road head. From now on its slogging on foot. May God be with you... and indeed good fortune is perhaps the one help that courage needs in mountaineering. Any Himalayan Expedition is not a question of one mans skill and guts against a mountain. Without team work and back-up, most expeditions fail. In attempting to get to these high reaches of the world, every detail and the least dramatic contribution is of tremendous importance. Pretty ladies…. Each one of them carries a load of 25 kilos…. Try it some time at these altitudes. The Base camp was set up at 16,000 ft. near the green Lake where the German Expedition led by Bauer halted. In 1929 and again in 1931 this indomitable man had to turn back because of two deaths and the fury of the weather. All previous attempts via the North Base spur were undertaken after the Monsoon to permit an easier approach. In March, the snow on the steep slopes comes tumbling down before it can settle beyond a depth of six inches. Yet the Indian Army Expedition, led by Col. Kumar decided to beat the monsoon if it could. The Base Camp was quite a big colony and of course the center of activity for some time. The wireless was the backbone of the expedition. A Met observatory was set up to study local weather conditions. The Expedition also received weather reports from All India Radio. They ran into trouble because of a severe snow-storm….. was the deity of Kanchenjunga angry? The expedition ran into further trouble because 300 porters decided to return leaving madmen of challenge Kanchenjunga. The alternative….? There had been six months of meticulous planning and yet the Himalayas are so un- predictable that it was necessary to constantly devise new tactics. To reach the advance Base camp it was necessary to negotiate ‘Zemu’ the biggest glacier in the eastern Himalayas. 10 miles long, not more than ½ a mile wide and 300 ft deep. It was a tricky business. But when the advance Base camp was finally set up, what a reward for the mountaineer’s eye!
The way to camp no. 1 lay through the Zemu the way to ice fall the Kanchenjunga massif…. An amphitheatre of rock and ice, rising to 7,000 ft of sheer precipices, each one ready to send an avalanche crashing down thousands of feet. The first hurdle was a 700 ft high ice – fall, one of the most dangerous in all the Himalayas. Camp one 18,600 ft.
The Indian Army expedition was struggling to the crest of the North East spur in record time.
This is where a German and a Sherpa died in 1931. Alas tragedy was to repeat itself. Havaldar Sukhvinder Singh fell to his death. As Barry Corbett said on the death of John Briten, back during the American Everest expedition in 1963. “stupid, goddamned gentleman’s sport that kills people in their prime and happiness”. To which Col. Kumar, leader of this expedition adds: “yes, mountaineering is sometimes a stupid goddamned sport; but more stupid and goddamned are the men in this sport who never give up”.
It is not only a question of conquering a peak. Kanchenjunga represents the faith of a mountain people. This faith will always inspire climbers. In normal circumstances, good mountaineers can climb a thousand feet in a few hours but this ridge took seventeen days to negotiate. A step this side or the other and certain death. The members of the expedition, many of them seasoned mountaineers, wondered of there were a more dangerous crossing anywhere in the world. Ton after ton of ice had to be hacked away. The conditions in which the climbers worked were worse than hell—if you can imagine a frozen hell. Frostbite was one of the consequences…. Four members suffered from high altitude sickness one from a rare coronary. The Air Force came to help in evacuating them.
In spite of setbacks, in spite of bad weather, and worse to come, efforts were redoubled—Kanchenjunga was there, above waiting. At last, Camp three, at 20,670 ft – a vertical hill of ice. On the way to Camp four, a monstrous tower—sometimes it was necessary to cut the tunnel through fifteen feet of ice. It is strange to recall the subsequently recorded thoughts and feelings of men under stress and facing possible death.
Confession of a spiritual lapse, the forgetting of the writing of a will, a beloved’s face in crystals of ice but there is always the immediate challenge and comradeship, and the call of Kanchenjunga.
Approaching 24,000 ft, the need for Oxygen becomes urgent. Sometimes it is necessary to take two breaths for every step, and here every step is a matter of life and death. A knife edge bridge. A few inches this way or that, a sudden gust of wind, and a thousand-foot fall.
It is now a race against time. Can the climbers beat the Monsoon ? They have already come beyond the North East Spur where no man has ever set foot before. Will they be able to make the summit ? Camp six at 25,000 ft. the summit teams are chosen. They carry the National Flag. The Army Flag, of Indian Mountaineering Foundation Flag and the Flags of the various Regiments taking part in the Expedition.
Major Prem Chand and N. D. Sharma leave Camp seven at 26,250 ft. on the 31st of May for the final assault. The North Ridge of Kanchenjunga is the windiest place on the earth. The sum miters were almost swept off the mountain by the force of the wind.
All over India, the Press, the Armed Forces, Friends and Relatives wait for the news, riddled with anxiety, cold with apprehension.
Yes, they’ve made it !
The hopes, the tribulations, the suffering……. It has been worth it…. This is the kind of joy which cannot be explained…. A mixture of pain and happiness that can only be experienced, never told.
ARMY KANCHENJUNGA EXPEDITION – I
On 26th April 1976 I descended from the steep slopes of Latakharak and boarding a waiting vehicle reached Joshimath. It was all over. We had successfully skied down from Trishul, the highest summit ever to be skied down. Every success has left a void and emptiness in me. It was with this feeling that I reached home where I found an invitation to dinner, being hosted in honour of Gen TN Raina, MVC, The Chief of the Army Staff, Brig. Choudhary, the host had added in the postscript “you must come”. There was no question of declining this invitation, but I could not attend it, as I had no party clothes. To have gone in front of the General in my “Jeans” would have been unforgivable. How I wished that I was still up on the Mountain. For the next one hour I sat at the telephone trying to find out the height and other statistics of various officers in the station. Luckily I found some one of my size and borrowed a lounge suit to attend the party. It was at this party that the subject of a major Army Expedition arose and General TN Raina who is also the Colonel of my Regiment agreed to sponsor this expedition.
Why Kanchenjunga in 1963 after the climb of Everest Lord Hunt was asked, “What Next” ? “Kanchenjunga”, he replied. “The greatest feat in mountaineering with technical climbing problems and objective dangers greater than Everest”.
It was only after 50 years struggle that this mountain “gained the reputation of being not only the most beautiful but also the most dangerous mountain in the World”.
It was climbed in 1955 by a British team led by Charles E Vans. But the reputation of Kanchenjunga had been established more for its treacherous Eastern approach, which had defeated two Bavarian Expeditions led by Paul Bauer and composed of the most brilliant German climbers of the time. It is said that these Expeditions fought this way foot, through the towers and mushrooms of snow and Ice which crown the ridge by an operation of carving and tunneling, quite unheard of at this high altitude. The Alpine Journal, which rarely indulges in superlatives, described the Bavarian attempts on Kanchenjunga as “eats without parallel, perhaps in all the annals of mountaineering”.
As far as I was concerned, apart from the fact that climbing Kanchenjunga from the East was the greatest challenge available to any mountaineer in the world, it happened to be our country’s highest mountain. It was but appropriate that Indian Mountaineers made serious attempts to climb this Mountain.
As head of the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering, Gulmarg, it was not possible to organize the expedition. So I decided revert to the Army.
It was quite obvious that this Expedition needed tough and experienced Climbers. The selection had to be broad based. We decided to hold a selection camp in Nov 1976 for this expedition. 35 climbers came to show their mettle and selection Committee consisting of heads of Mountaineering Institutes in India, and some Everesters, selected a team of 16 members. Some of the better known names including Maj. Prem Chand who is perhaps the only man to climb both the Nanda Devi’s, Ma j SS Singh who climbed Nun skied down from Trishul, Maj. Pushkar Chand who has to his credit Umba peaks, Capt K. I. Kumar who has been a member of Nandadevi, Saser Kangri and Brahma Expeditions and who climbed Leopargial. People like Nima Dorjee and Norbu had made the first ascent of Sickle moon, the highest Mountain of Kistwar. Nirmal Singh an Instructor of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering had been up Nanda Devi with the Rs. 1,500/- and for the 100 bottles which we needed we would have to spend 1.5 lakhs. But luckily we found 50 bottles lying with a firm, Mountain Travels, at Kathmandu, which were left over by a British Expedition. We got these very cheap. However, this created problems of getting adapters for the French regulator’s on the masks which we had. The Electrical Mechanical Engineers came to our rescue. Despite these purchases we burrowed equipment from various organisations such as the Indian mountaineering Foundation and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institutes, to keep our budget low. As we knew that the mountain would be technically difficult we took 10 kilometres of fixed rope to rope the entire Mountain if necessary.
On the food front, we were badly handicapped by the non availability of dehydrated high altitude food. We made “ four men high altitude composite rations” containing items like biscuits, canned meat,, canned fish, jam, lots of fruits juice ( with the compliments of Mohan Meakin’s) Glucose, Horlics, Bournvita, Chocolates and many pother small items which needed no cooking. We were lucky to get pre cooked deep frozen dehydrated food from the Defence Food Laboratories, which was very useful. For the first time in India we tried card- board packing which was proved to be very light and manageable. It also proved to be cheaper then any other material.
The season in which the mountain was to be climbed, was very important. It is said that “Kanchenjunga bears the burnt of the summer monsoon blowing up from the Bay of Bengal, so its name is inseparably linked with tearing blizzards and thunderous avalanches”. There is a pre monsoon and a post monsoon seasons. It was a big decision which I had to take. This I did after consultations with Indian Meteorological Department, Dr. Pant “ Monsoon Expert” told me that the likely time for the monsoon in this area would be 5th June I asked him “: if there was any likelihood of this date being considerably advanced. He shook his head and said “no, the monsoon is far more predictable in this area than any other. Having been assured I chose the pre monsoon season as I felt that April- May would be enough for us to climb the mountain. At Dr. Pant’s request I decided to send him back local meteorological data and he on his part provided a daily weather forecast.
As there is a shortage of porters in this area, I decided to send an advance party to make food dumps for the porters themselves. Our advance Base Camp was a five day journey from the village of Lachen. Porters take about 8 days for the turn around. As they carry only 25 kgs and we had over 20 tons of load to be shifted to the Advance base camp, this was the biggest administrative problem the Expedition faced. We also tried to hire porters from Darjeeling. We had to give them Transport, food, clothing tentage and what was more they demanded cooked food and had not brought their own utensils. They marched for two days and after that deserted the Expedition. Our Expedition would have come to an end before reaching the Base Camp had not Maj. Gen. MS Menon come to our help and recruited porters from Gangtok.
I knew it would take us almost a month to get our stores across to Base Camp. Therefore, we sent forward small parties to start work on the mountain. The first party under Major Pushkar Chand left Lachen on the 17th of March and established Base Camp on 21 March 1977 in the area Green Lake. The name is misleading there is a brown muddy water pond. May be, after the monsoon, the pond would enlarge itself to become a lake.
This was the earliest entry in this area, even to get to Base Camp we had to make through this deep snow and ‘going’ for the porters was extremely difficult, as the Zemu valley, especially during the first two marches is very narrow and steep. Two huge seasonal avalanches had blocked the tracks and we had to find our way through. But after the Rest Camp (third Stage) the valley became broad and there was hardly any snow.
Kanchenjunga is a religious mountain and like Nanda Devi in Garhwal Himalayas Chomalhari in Bhutan, people worship it. Therefore, our tea was told not to climb to the summit but to stay six feet below as was done by the British Expedition in 1955. however the following press statement was issued from Ruhmetek Monastery.
Kanchenjunga is angry by our correspondent : Gangtok March 31 : Monastic circles here have reported what is described as an unusual phenomenon connected with Kanchenjunga.
Lama Karma Gyampo Mlai, who belongs to the old Ruhmetek Monastery, said here yesterday that he had received a report that a big explosion was heard from the direction of Kanchenjunga on March 27. It was followed by heavy landslides, perhaps avalanches, the next day.
The lama said the phenomenon had affected the nearby Tongshiong Glacier. According to monastic circles, such an incident had never occurred in living memory. Scores of coolies engaged on road construction work near the green Lake had suddenly fallen sick.
Reports from Mangan said that tens of thousand of fish had been sweeping down the Rakhe Chu and Talung Chu rivers to Sangkhalang during the past two days. The Rakhel Chu originates from the Tongshiong Glacier.
According to Karma Gayampo Lama, it is considered by the local people as a manifestation of the wrath of the Gods at the attempts being made by an expedition to scale the mountain which is the “protecting deity” of Sikkim and hence scared. Prayers are being offered at Lachung Gompa to avert ominous portends”.
I am not sure what affect it had on the climbers but surely many porters left, because of it. On 28th March 1977, Maj. Prem Chand opened the route to the Advance Base Camp which was established on the moraine of Zem Glacier, a little ahead of its confluence with the Twins Glacier. It is only when you reach advance Base Camp, you realize that you are approaching one of the biggest mountains of the World. There, you are encircled by the mighty Kanchenjunga rising almost 10,000 vertically and every time you look at it your head hits the rucksack frame. Towards the North are the Brown mountains like those of Ladakh, full of Glaciers. In this bowl of not more than 26 square kilometers, there are over 50 small and big glaciers. They are like frozen water falls. They roar with avalanches and look very aggressive but once they fall into the great Zemu Glacier they are like mountain streams crawling into the Ocean. The Zemu Glacier is the slowest and the most placid glacier of the Himalayas.
Having read all the known books on Kanchenjunga, having read the accounts of almost all the expeditions to this Mountain, having studied the amps in details, having pondered over the aerial photographs for hours, having done a helicopter recce of the area, I came to one conclusion, that the North West Spur Route which was taken by the Bavarian Expedition and considered one of the most difficult and dangerous route, when compared to those of other mountains, was the best route up to the mountain, we had no choice but to fight the dangers and try to break through the defences of Kanchenjunga as the Germans did.
Some foreign mountaineers suggest a route from the north Ridge from the Col between thin peak’s and Kanchenjunga and some have suggested a route from Zemu Gap to South Kanchenjunga and then the main peak. But I rejected both the routes at first sight.
After the advance Base Camp was established we negotiated the Ice Fall. Though a small one ( only 10000) it created quite a few problems in the beginning. One of the member’s NK N.D Sharma, fell into a crevasse and was saved by timely action of his rope mates. On another occasion Capt Cruz and his party fixed a rope and climbed up a portion of the Ice fall to recce the higher approaches but on the return journey found that the fixed rope had been swept away by an ice avalanche. On 01st April 1977 maj Prem Chand’s party successfully crossed the ice fall and established Camp I at the height of 5720 metres. The route between Camp-I and II lies through a steep col and sheer rock faces. Dangerous going but Maj Pushkar chand, Nirmal Singh and Gurcharan Singh made it comparatively safe by fixing the entire route by rope.
While taking a ferry to camp II Nk N.D Sharma found the old Camp site of the Germans under the Eagle’s nest. Almost 50 years old remants of the Bavarian Expedition were found. These included crampons, spoons and snow shoes.
On the 10th of April joined Kiran’s party to find out how difficult and dangerous the traverse route would be. It was one of the most fantastic climbing ever done. I have never seen mor e interesting climbing than this. But my happiness at seeing the route open for most of the traverse, vanished, when I saw what lay ahead of us. It was a steep arête of ice rising for 2000. it had fluted 4000 drop on the Northern side and a cornice with a 2000 drop on the other. It was no less dangerous that the horizontal traverse which we had done. It seemed that objective hazards were going to haunt us right upto the Mountain. On the 11th of April when Capt Kumar’s party had nearly finished the travese they found major Prem Chand coming down the arête. He had not only found successful route to the end of the traverse but gone a little higher. I had discussed with him regarding the route taken by him. He had seen the both routes, the first one up to the Camp II which followed the General line of the German route and the one which he had just opened. According to him the new route was much safer and shorter and therefore he decided to abandon the traverse, the route , the traverse was stopped. Capt Kiran was disappointed that he could not reach the ened of the traverse. It had meant a few hours more of work. But keeping in view the bigger aim, he reconciled.
12th April dawned bright. We all had a little breakfast and descended from Camp II. CHM Norbu was leading, followed by Hav Sukhvinder, Kiran, myself and Kura Ram. We were all coming down independently on the fixed rope. The distance between us depended upon the terrain. Whenever there was a danger of stones, over 100 yards, and climbers had to go one by one. I was at the most precarious slope when I heard shouts for the very steep gully becoming smaller and smaller each moment. And then there was another shout ‘ Kura Ram help’ I asked Kura Ram who was behind me to leave rucksack there and rush for help. I was little scared, when he forsook the safety of the fixed rope in order to cross me. But he was very sure footed. After Kura Ram had left, with a lot of the anxiety and worry I crossed the difficult pitches and came to the site of the accident. There stood Kiran and Kura Ram over the dead body of Sukhvinder Singh. It seems while rappelling down, Sukhvinder Singh slipped, lost control, hit against a rock, broke his neck and died on the spot. Forty five years ago, a German and a Sherpa had fallen off this same cliff and died.
ARMY KANCHENJUNGA EXPEDITION – II
For ½ an hour we sat looking at another, feeling Sukhvinder Singh’s pulse again and again. It was strange but in that state of shock, at times our own pulse appear to be the best of Sukhvinder Singh’s and a ray of hope would shine momentarily.
The question now arose as to how to take the body down. It was quite obvious that it would be impossible for only three of us to carry the body down the precarious slopes. Normally, expeditions burt the dead near the site of the accident, but we were determined to bring the body down and give it a decent funeral. We shouted for help to Camp I. After a lot of shouting we saw a line of people moving up from camp I.
This party from camp I came up in a remarkably short time . we started making a stretcher out of ruck frames. It was a Herculean task to bring the body doen the steep slopes. We reached Camp I just before it got dark.
I contacted the base camp on the wireless set and told Maj SS Singh to send the following message to the Army Hq “ Regret to announce the death of our Sukhvinder Singh in a climbing accident while he was conming from Camp II to Camp I. Body being taken down to Base Camp for cremation.”
The next morning, we attached jerricanes below our sledge to help slide the stretcher more easily. It was a great problem to bring the body down the ice fall and quite afew people got sprains and back aches because of the awkward positions in which they had to walk, carrying the body. At the end of the ice fall, the body was rertied to the stretcher firmly. While they were doing so a massive shower of rocks came like bullets from the top of the rock where the body of a German climber had been buried by the 1931 German Expedition. Major Prem Chand ordered the body to be carried through this dangerous area immediately. I had never been as anxious in my life as I was now. Twenty metres behind the funeral procession, I sat down to pray for the safety of the all bearers. I did not stir from there until the body had cleared the dangerous area, then thanked God for his mercy and joined the “ caravan”.
As arranged, Sherpas from the Base Camp had come up to relieve our party and carry the body down to the advance base camp. Walking on the glaciers moraine with the body was a difficult task. We had to spend a night at the advance base camp and the next day porters came friom the base vcamp and relieved the Sherpas in carrying the body to the base camp. For the next three days it snowed heavily and we could cremate the body only on the fourth day.
All these days I had trying to think what should be my next step. The morale of the team was down. The task ahead was one of the most dangerous in mountaineering. Time was running out. I knew one thing we had to do our best to ful fil the task in pursuit of which one of our comrades had died. It was the turn of Maj Pushkar Chand’s rope to start where we had left, but it could not as Pushkar himself was ill and Gurcharan Singh had a terrible backache. Maj. Prem Chand volunteered to go back to the ridge. I decided to accompany him to Camp I. Thanks to the descipline and trainig which the Army inculcates in its personnel, the team rallied round me to carry out our mission.
The work on the ridge commenced again with Prem Chand in the lead. At this stage, one of our ace climbers, Naik N. D. Sherpa had to be taken off the mountain as he was suffering from “ high altitude piles”. However , Prem Chand kept up the work with the help of L/Nk Anchok and L/Nk Dorjee very soon. Dorjee, too, had to come down because of high altitude sickness” but Anchok and Prem Chand kept going slowly forward. The route from Camp I to Camp II goes over half a kilometer of ice plateau, almost level, up to the bottom of the north east spur. Then it goes over a huge snow and ice debris where all the avalanches start. Every now and then, our track through its ice cone was obliterated by avalanches from the top. There was only one saving factor, the slopes were so steep that any snow which fell on them kept falling down, causing small avalanches. Many a time climbers came under these avalanches. After the avalanche passed the climbers shrugged off the snow and climbed again.
After the cone of snow debris, the route becomes a rocky platform under a rocky gendarme which the Germans named Eagle’s Nest: here we found three crampons left by the Germans in 1931. from Eagle’s Nest to Camp II we had to cross numerous snow gulleys, climbing some of them and traversing others. Camp II was established below a rock face over a small overhanging Glacier. The space was just enough for two small tents and we had to do our morning chores of the ridge. From there a steep gulley takes us to the crest of the ridge which is above the Col mentioned by the Germans.
From the point where we hit the ridge we followed Zemu side of the Crest. But at time we had to walk on the crest. Itself with sheer drops on both sides. At this time, the route- opener had to crawl hugging the ridge with all four limbs. After four days work Prem Chand’s rope was relieved by Camp Kumar’s rope, who after two days , established temporarily CampIII, at a height of 6,300 metres on April 30, to enable them to be near the site of work. From Camp III to Camp IV was the most difficult part of the ridge. Normally, a 300 metere climb would take two to three hours . this ridge considered of towers upon towers, mushrooms on top of mushrooms and a continous walk over an exposed thin ridge. This needed continuous ice cutting and rope fixing .
Capt Kumar’s party consisting of Norbu and Kura Ram worked for two days on the ridge fixing the rope all the way. At one stage, they had to squeeze into a four metre tunnel as there was no other way to cross it. This tunnel, with a diameter of less than a metre, had to be crawled through and the rucksack pulled with a rope later. Capt Kumar’s party was relieved by Maj Pushkar Chand, Hav Gurcharan Singh and Hav Nirmal Singh. For the next two days, the weather remained extremely bad and little work could be done. Pushkar Chand returned to Camp III because of “ altitude sickness”. Due to bad weather, this rope could not make such progress and Maj Prem Chand and Naik Sherpa were inducted again. For the first two days, they were supported by Gurcharan Singh and Nirmal Singh, who later returned to Base Camp.
The last ice- tower on the ridge, which was one of the big obstacle on it, had not been crossed till May 10. time was running out. After this ice tower ( as seen from Camp I ), there were two other towers which seemed more difficult. Our only hope was that there might be an ice field behind the first tower which would allow us to circumvent the other two towers. One day, while watching through a gap between the big tower and its adjoining ice needle, I saw sunlight snow which created hope that there could be such a field jusat across the first ice tower. This proved right and a difficult portion came to an end after the last tower was negotiated. After Major Prem Chand had opened the route across the ridge, he came down and was relieved by Capt Kumar, whose party consisting of Kushal Singh and Kura Ram , established camp IV at a height of 6,630 metres on May 12.
The ridge had become a nightmare for the Sherpas. Some of them protested that it was too dangerous and refused to go. Once we took a Sherpa to Camp IV he refused to come down but was willing to work between camp IV and Camp VI only. A Sherpa remarked that even the southwest face of Everest was a straight walk compared to this ridge.
After Camp IV the going was easy. An one looked at the ridge one could see three humps before the ridghe appeared to end and join the Northern ridge. Though the route to camp V was opened on May 15 by Capt Kumar’s rope the camp could not be established till May 18 as, every time the track was made, it was obliterated by fresk snowfall and wind drift snow. I had intended to put this camp somewhere near the last hump but could not do so. Untimely, Hav Gurcharan Singh and Hav Nirmal Singh established it at a height of 7,230 metres. Just below the third hump, on May 18. this rope was replaced by Maj Pushkar Chand’s and he was given the job to push Camp VI upto the Col, between the North- East ridge and the North ridge. However, after the third hump, he was halted by a long thin ridge which ended in a small rock cum ice peak, which forms the eastern edge only on May 24.
Now the problem of high altitude and cold began to plague us. In all, seven people were evacuated by helicopter, five suffering from “ high altitude sickness” and two from frost bite. Even those who were fit felt the increasing altitude.
Once the camps were opened, ferry after ferry went up and down, 75 porters operated between the base camp and the advance base camp, 15 between the advance base camp and “ Crampon point” this was the farthest point the unskilled porter could come. We created a dump here. Sherpas and members came to pick up the store left by the porters. One day, a huge ice avalanche came and buried the entire dump. Luckily, no one was there when the avalanche struck.
ARMY KANCHENJUNGA EXPEDITION – III
Immediately after Camp IV was opened started thinking about the selection of the first summit party. For the leader it is a very unpleasant decision to make. If I could, I would have sent all the membersup together, but logistical problems do not allow such an easy solution. It is at this decision making juncture that theleader isolates himself from his team mates, some of whom are bound to feel hurt, while sympathizing with them, he takes consolation in the fact that, after all the endeavour is a team efforts.
There are many factors to be considered in the selection of a summit team. First the summiteers should in an excellent physical condition. There are many climbers who, for the sake of the expedition, work themselves to exhausion and become physically unfit at the time of the summit climb. Secondly, the leader ha sto be fair to the climbers who have worked harder and taken more risks during the climb than the others. The third major fgactor to be considered is that both the summiteers should have faith in each other’s capabilities. This confidence not only boosts their morale at crucial movesments but helps prevent accidents.
Fourthly, the summiteers should be temperamentally attuned to each other. Due to scarce oxygen supply to the brain at high altitudes, climbers become irritable. Once, Smyth, the famous British mountaineer, said “ I felt like killing my companian. The only reason for my not doing so was how would I face the public after the return”. The last but not the least consideration in my mind was that I wanted the summit party to be a combination of NCOs and Officers who were in equal number in the team. Maj Prem Chand and Naik Nima Dorji Sherpa, to my mind, fulfilled most of these considerations and were selected for the first summit party. I had no doubt as far as Maj Prem Chand was concerned, but Nima Dorji had an attack of “ High altitudre piles” and lost a lot of blood. In fact, once doctors had almost evacuated him out of the base Camp but Maj Sen, out senior doctor, assured me that he had fully recovered. Even though there was a possibility of the piles erupting again, I decided to take the chance, but made sure that a reserve was at hand to replace him. Once the first summit party was announced, I took them off the mountain and sent them down to the base camp where Maj Sen almost “ overhauled” them by giving them all types of injections to offset the deficiencies caused by long exposure to high altitude and exhaustion.
Capt K.I. Kumar and CHM Norbu were selected to support this party and also make a second attempt on the mountain. There was a hard task as a lot is demanded of a support party. These two were taken off the mountain as soon as the route to camp V was opened. The itinerary of these two teams had to be carefully worked out to ensure that they did not spend too much time at a high altitude before the summit attempts. While they were resting, the stocking of camps was carried on under extremely bad weather. The Sherpas were carrying less and less as we went higher and higher. There were doubts all round if we would ever make it. Monsoon showers were forecast for June 1 the time was running out.
I had intended to establish Camp VI at the col between the North East ridge but it was placed a kilometer short of it. If it had been placed at the planned height, the last camp would have been set up at 8,060 metres, leaving the summiteers to do only 455 metres on the last day. However, done was done, and we had to take our chance with the summit. On May 25, the summit party went to Camp V. at this stage I was forced to induct Nima Dorji to open the route to the north ridge which should have been done by Maj Pushkar Chand. In case Nima was too exhausted, he would have been replaced by Norbu.
The high altitude ferryof seven top most Sherpas from Nepal were sent to Camp VI to carry loads to Camp Vii. The monsoon clouds were rising. There was a thick, grey carpet spread all over the valley but, from Camp III onwards, the weather gave us a break in the early hours of the morning. At this time, when the race was against time and it was a matter of touch and go, the expedition suffered a big blow. There was a kilometer long thin ridge between Camp VI and the Col. The Sherpas who were at Camp VI reached their own conclusion that it would take at least ten days to fix a rope along the ridge, without which they were not prepared to carry loads. Having made up their mind, they came down from Camp VI.
I vividly remember the expression on their faces when they told me at camp V, “ sorry, Bnara Sahib, we must go down:. Their moist eyes frightened me – what they were actually saying was that the eexpedition had come to an end. They had taken tremendous risk, stood by me all along, done a wonderful job and now, the time for parting had come. They came one by one to me, held my hand and looked sadly into my eyes, as if saying, “ it is all finished. Call it off”., they put on their rucksacks and left. This was the saddest day. For the first time, even I harboured doubts about the success of the expedition. Even if we managed to clear the route now, we did not have the manpower to carry the loads the route now, we did not have the man power to carry the loads to camp VII. All my plans were shattered.
The next day May 26, Maj Prem Chand and I went up to Camp VI and beyond to see for ourselves the obstacle which had sent the Sherpas back. When I reached camp VI, I vomited. The streaks of blood in my vomit did not alarm me. This is natural at high altitudes. Despite my physical condition, I had to go higher to see the thin ridge. I retsde for a while, borrowed an oxygen set from Prem Chand and went up.
While standing on the wind blown ridge, I felt satisfied that it was not much of an obstacle compared to the route we had already opened between Camp-I and IV. I could have stood there for hours. I imagined the feelings of the earlier German climbers who had also stood here ( in fact, 20 metrees higher) and had to call it off. Would the history repeat itself? At last, I returned as I had to go down to Camp V. at Camp VI, I had discussions with MaJ Prem Chand, who was confident that he would hit the North ridge in two days’ time. But what about the Sherpas to carry the euipment to Camp VII? With all sorts of doubts I returned to camp V, where I was to stay for eight days.
The next day, Maj Prem Chand crossed the ridge and hit the col an open place where I had intended to put camp-VI. Now he faced the steep face of the north ridge. It was this face which had sent the Germans back. I knew he would do it but what about the Sherpas for camp VII? They had by now reached the base camp and to get those seven best Sherpas back would mean a delay of another four days which we could not afford the monsoon was on top of us. Maj Prem Chand and NK Nima Dorji Sherpa crossed the dangerous face on May 28 and left five oxygen bottles on the “ ring contour”- a small hump on the north ridge. Despite the big set back we had suufered, this was a day for celebrations. We had overcome the last obstacle. There was nothing which could hold us back noe except the monsoon and the lack of ferry support, on May 29, Prem Chand and Nima rested.
My consent advice to maj Prem Chand was to set up Camp VII as high as possible. In the circumstances, it was not possible to stick to our plan to have it at 8,060 metres. But I decided to have a try. In case they did not make it, the second sumit party would shift the camp up. By then our stalwart Sherpas from the base camp would also come up.
Camp VII was established at 7,995 metres, approximately 575 metres below the summit. I had my misgiving but when I compared it to the Everest Expedition, when we climbed 600 meteres from 7,880 metres to 8,480 metres – in five hours, I thought we still had a chance. On top of it, Maj Prem Chand and Naik Nima Dorji were in excellent condition. Our hopes sore again. I could not speak to Prem Chand directly as we had small wireless sets, but both of us could speak to Maj SS Singh at Camp I as he had bigger set. Maj Singh was controlling the signal net and also looking after the ferries up to the camp III. There Capt Cruze, our second doctor, was managing the loads, at camp IV young Capt bahuguna was looking after the logistics and at Ca,mp V, I had established my headquarters. At camp VI, Capt K. I. Kumar was in support. It is a pity that bahuguna, who had done excellent work during the last stage of the Expedition, got frostbite and had to be sent back. Cruz took hid place and maj Sen moved up to Camp III. Our numerical strength was so short that doctors had to be given the work of climbers.
On May 30, Prem Chand and Nima Dorji had a very uncomfortable night. Their tent was torn by the wind. Their stoves would not burn owing to the gale. However,they were able to melt some snow to make tea and slept as they were. The morning was no better on the wind swept ridge. When they tried to put up on their Oxygen set they found one of the regulators leaking. Luckily, they had carried a spoare regulator, which normally is not done. This saved the situation.
About 5 a.m on May 31, they left their camp and started climbing. They crossed a snow field in which their feet sank 30 cm. They thought of going up the west ridge but later decided to stick to the north rocky ridge. The strong winds had also left their mark on the stones, which were bare of snow, and showed heavy erosion.
The Sherpas who had left the summit party at Camp VII had told us that it would not take the climbers more than for four to five hours to get to the summit and so, when we did not get any news till 4 p.m, we started getting worried. More worried than us were our sponsors. Theu keptasking us abot the progress but we knoew nothing as the climbers had left their wireless set at camp Vii. As Maj Prem Chandnarrated later “ At 1230 hrs came the trime to make a decision. The summit as not in sigh. Sould we carry on, or return? Carrying on meant danger : if we could not get back to Camp VII before nightfall, we would have to spend the night out on the windy ridge. If we returned, three months of hard work, the tremendous risks taken – a life lost – would come to nothing ? they took a wise decision to postpone the decision for some more time.
As they climbed further they suddenly found themselves on the summit ridge of the Kanchenjunga dome. At 2.45 p.m they got to the summit. In reverence to the sikkimese sentiments – they worship this mountain – the summit party laft the last two metres to the top untrodden. They fixed an aliminium piquet near the summit and hoisted the tri colour and the Army flag. Then they took out other flags of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the II Corps and the regiments and took pictures.
After some time, they started back. The weather all around, expect on the ridge, was bad, at one place they had a fall and roled down for severeal metres. Then the night overtook them. Sun sets early in the east. But again their ,luck held – a ray of moon lighted their ridge. Finding their way with difficulty, they reached their camp at 8.15 p.m a .it was a great relief not only for them but for all of us.
Their descent from Camp VII was not an easy one either Nima Dorji was a truck with snow blindness. He cpould see with great difficulty and pain. On June 1, they reached Camp VI where they were welcomed by Capt Kumar and others.
The second summit party was poised at camp VI and was to move out on June 2, but when I got up in the morning I found the cloud base had risen from 6,960 metres to 7,574 m,etres. I did not want to spoil the success with tragedy and called off the expedition. It was lucky that I did so for, the very next day, we had a very heavy sbnowfall and we could come off the mountain with great difficulty, On June 6 we reached the base camp, abandioning a lot of equipment on the mountain.
When we reached Lachen, the road head, there were heavy rains and the road to Gangtok had been washed awaty. We were waiting for it to be put right when we got a message that the vice chief of the Army Staff, Lt. Gen >O. P. Malhotra, was coming to receive us on June 16. it was a matter of great honour for us. We took our boots out once again and strted marching, leaving behind all our luggage. After spending some time at Gangtok, we reached Delhi on June 24.
As you all know Kanchenjunga is India’s highest mountain and the world’s 3rd highest. It rises 5 ½ miles above the sea level. The word Kanchenjunga means treasurers of 5 snows depicting salt, holy books, crops, gold an d weapons. Kanchenjunga lies on the boarder of Sikkim state of India and North Sikkim, as you all know, is surrounded by North, Tibet and Bhutan. Contrary to common belief does not lie on the great Himlayan range which forms the boundry between Sikkim and Tibet but is a separate group of mountains 10 kms south of the main range. Even though attempts on this mountain started before even everest was discovered it remained unclimbed much after Everest led by conquered Sir Datton Joseph Hooker- the renouned British Botanist visited its slopes in 1848. 50 years later Sir, Douglas Freshfield went around Kanchenjunga to find a suitable way to its summits. His considered opinion was that this mountain is surrounded by a “Demon of Inaccessiblility “.
In 1905 a European Expedition led by Alister Crowley ended in a shameful disaster, because 4 lives were lost and shameful Crowley who had benn removed from the leadership for his madness and inhuman treatment of porters refused to help dig out the people caught in the avalanche. He proceeded to Darj all by himself. After this shameful and tragic incident Kanchenjunga was left alone for nearly a centuary until a lone American Climber of NYEF former made an attempt in 1929. The experienced of the earlier Everest expedition who were with him did their best to disscuade him but he vanished in the upper mists of the mountain and never returned. So far the attempts on Kanchenjunga had been of such a weak nature that Kanchenjunga did not have to use its weapons like storms, blizzards, stormy avalanches, falling overhanding masses of snow at high altitudes. However its complacency was rudely shaken by a group of 5 strong German climbers led by Paul Bauer in Aug 1929 they attempted the mountain from the Sikkim side and gained the crest of the East Spur safely only to find its whole length covered with towers of ice of overhanging masses of snow. For 4 weeks they cut steps and live away up the spur when weather became extremely bad and they had to retreat after throwing away all the equipment including their rucksacks. The entire team was frost bitten and some them were snow blinded. Their’s retreat is one of the epic passages in Mountaineering Histroy.
In 1730 an International Expedition led by prof Durheafurth and including stalwarts like frank Smyth attempted this mountain from the Kanchenjunga glacier from the Nepalese side. It was a dangerous route and they did not get far. When one of the many ice avalanches had narrowly escaped killing the whole party and had swept a Sherpa to his death the attempts was called off.
Next year in 1931 Paul Bauer brought a strongest team and made an attempt from the same route- the N-E Spur. They had to retreat from 25,000 ft. one German were killed in an effort to get to the crest of the spur.
In 1936 L Hunt brought a reconnaissance experienced from the Sikkim side. They did not comment on the possibility of climbing the mountain from the North east spur. Smyth wrote that only histry will tell if a Himalayan giant can be called from such a difficult route.
In 1954 John Kempe of Hyderabad Public School brought a small British reconnaissance team from the Nepalese side and saw a route in the Upper Zemu glacier which he thought possible. Next year in 1955 a strong team led by Charles Evans who was the first man in the world to reach the height of 28,800 ft brought a very strong British team. The mountain was climbed on the first time from the Nepalese side route followed by the Ger,mans and considered impossible was still virgin.
I became interested in Kanchenjunga when I was posted to Himalayan Mountaineering Institute Darjeeling. I gazed at this mountain day in and day out. I saw its glory and I saw its fury and harboured a secret desire to climb it one day. Fully realizing the superstitions about this mountain I called on the Chogyl, then the Maharaja of Sikkim. When I made a mention of an Indo Sikkimese Expedition to Kanchenjunga Maharaja got up indicationg that the audience was over, by saying “ how dare you climb the mountain we worship”. I ventured that like the Britishers we will leave the top 6 ft untrodden. His sarcaism was biting when he said “ I have heard that one before the tallest Sherpa who got to the summit was 6 ft 3” and his head was above my God’s head.” I had no answer to bring ho,me the point further. A few weeks later he invited me to Gangtok to witness Lama dances held in worship of the deitry of Kanchenjunga. I knew then that I had no chance of ever approaching this mountain. As you all know, due to recent political changes the Chogyal lost his power and Sikkim became an intyegral part of India and I once again started dreaming of an expedition materialized due to a chance meeting with Gen Raina. I was after my Trishul Ski Down that I was passing through Joshimath that I came to know that Gen Raina was there after a tour of the forward areas. I was invited by the Formation Commander to join in the dinner. I could not accept invitation as I had no descent clothes with me to wear for the occasion. In the next hours 3 officers of various heights and sizes were made to call on me. One of them was as short and stocky as me and surprisingly his suit fitted me better than my own clothes. During the dinner conversation the General remarked that helf of the Army is deployed in forward areas and yet no big expedition Kanchenjunga from the Sikkim side. General has always followed my mountaineering expedition with great interest. He is perhaps one of the few who encouraged me with lengthy messages at the end of every venture. He without any hesitation consented to sponsor our expedition.
The preprations for the Expedition started strainght away, we held a selection camp in the Nov of 76 in the Zemu glacier area. The best of the army was selected. While hectic preprations were affort some of the leading mountaineers of India thought that India had not yet reached a stage in technical climbing to take on the world’s most difficult mountain from its most difficult side. But the Army hierarchy and particularly the Chief, put implicit faith in us and let us carry on with the expedition. I personally cherish those moments for more than even the final success on the mountain.
The main problems during the preparatory stage were the selection of the season for the climb, finances, equipment , food, porters and Sherpas.
For any leader the most important decision regards the selection of the correct season of the climb. And it was more so difficult in this case as everyone who had attempted Kanchenjunga from the east had done so in the months of September and October such as Dalton hooker in 1848.
Dr. fresh Field in 1899, in 1929, Hant in 1936. It was a general belief that Kanchenjunga could not be climbed in the pre monsoon season. However reading the accounts of the above mentioned expeditions I found that all these expeditions had run into terrible weather for 3-4 days which was something like a catavlysm of snows. It showed continuously for those days I had also experienced this cataclysm in weru Sikkim myself in 1968. I was in remote interiors of Weru Sikkim with 40 MHI students when it snowed continuously for 3-4 days. This was a thing I had not experiences ever before. When it snowed at the higher altitudes it was obvious that it rained at the lower altitudes. Where there had been a trickle of water in the nallas, we found turbulent gushing streams. The earth had become so wet that many villages were furied in landslides. Almost all the bridges in Sikkim had been washed away. Even teesta Bridge which lay a 100 ft above water level had crumbled like a house of cards. We were successful in bringing out the students safely but a mail runner, was washed away. Recollecting to my calculations that the end of Sep and beginning of Oct we would be on the most difficult portion on the ridge. And it would be well high impossible to get off the mountain safely if a similar thing happened. Having consulted the meteorologists in Delhi I decided again all advice to attempt the mountain in the pre monsoon season of 100 years of climbing in the curs was the 1st expedition to go before the monsoons. The next problem was finances. Despite the fact that we were getting free food, free equipment, free transport from the army we still needed 5 lakhs of rupees. To raise this, like the congress party we also floated a soveiner. All went well and we collected about a lakh of rupees from advertisements till the election were announced and this source also dried up. However, Seru came to our rescue and held a premier of A.A.A and collected a lakh of rupees for us. Similarly the gave us a lakh of rupees from the proceeds of their horse show. The deficit of 2 lakh rupees is yet to be made up and this is expected from a book on the expedition which is yet to be written.
There is no doubt that the equipment used by the Army for high Altitudes is very durable and warm but it is little heavier than the equipment required for expedition purposes. On a high mountain like Kanchenjunga where every ounce matters we had to use some imported equipment for the very high camps. Total sets needed for members and shepas were 60. we decided to impart 20 sets. Most of this equipment was purchased second hand from Nepal. However, I must confess that this system of having separate eqpt for high altitudes and La is not good. It was very embarrassing to ask people returning from the higher camps to strip and to give their imported equipment to people who were tro go up. The Sherpas from Nepal resented it the most. According to the Nepalese govt rules the expeditions are obliged to leave the set of equipment being used by the Sherpas with them. In this case the Sherpas were not sure if they were to get the imported or Indian set.
My biggest worry was the procurement of oxygen cylinders. No mountain above, 28,000 ft has been climbed without oxygen and we were not going to be any exception. According to international rules no air lines can airlift any gas cylinders and there was not enough time to get them by sea. Luckily, we found a heap of cylinders in one of the medical stores. I got these filled by Indian oxygen.
The same problem arose for our cooking gas. The Indian manufacturing federation came to our rescue and gave us 20 imported cylinders. They also helped us out with other technical equipment.
On the food front we facedgreat problems. It is very easy to organize food for an expedition in and developed country as various types of light, dehydrated food is available. In India, apart from a couple couple of items there is hardly anything we can depend upon. The only dehydrated food available in abundance is AFD meat, which is particularly not liked by the climbers. We are grateful to the Army service corps for not pushing it down our throats. The defence food laboratory in Mysore came to our rescue and gave us various food items which had been pre cooked and dehydrated but the quantities were so little for a big expedition that these had to be strictly rationed.
The next problem was enrolment of the Sherpas for High Altitudes. No mountain in the world above 27,000 ft has ever been climbed without the help of Sherpas. Here I would like to clarify the role of Sherpas in an expedition. Contrary to general belief they do not pull up climbers to the summit. The route is found and made by the members and the Sherpas only augment the ferrying capacities of the team. In our expedition, in particular, members carried as much weight as the Sherpa if not more - right upto the last camp.
Once upon a time Darjeeling was the home town of Sherpa. In 1920s one hundreds of Sherpa had migrated to Darjeeling in search of jobs as ll expeditions to Everest were organized in Darjeeling. But in 1960, ITBP and BSF enrolled almost all good Sherpas. At present there are not more than 5-6 sherpas in the entire of Darjeeling. Our requirement was of 40 sherpas. We thought of getting all these from Nepal. The total costr of each Sherpa comes to about Rs. 10,000 with the equipment that we were to give let that juncture this was money we could ill afford. Then it strucks me that people from Ladakh are born and live at the same altitudes as the Sherpas and should have the same living capacity and acclimatization power as Sherpa. And as an experiment I took 10 boys from the ladakh scouts and some porters from Lahoul and Spiti. I am glad to inform you that these boys did as well if not better than the Nepal Sherpas.
The last but not the least problem was transportation of 20 tonnes of luggage from roadhead to base Camp. Our total requirement was 14,00 porters whereas only 200 were available from North Sikkim. We collected another 400 Nepali porters from gangtok and Darjeeling and planned to move in 2 shifts, but these Darjeeling porters let us down. On the very first day of our approach march when they hit the snow line they left their luggage wherever they could and ran back. Some of them even did not collect their wages and instead ran away with our equipment. The expedition was in a crisis. But crisis like these had been anticipated during the preliminary stafes and we had arranged for an alternative to get out loads dropped by air at the Base Camp. For this we are grateful to IAF.
All preprations made, the main party left Delhi on the 7th of March 1977. we established our Base Camp in the area around Green lake at the height of 18,000 ft. we found no technical problem to reach the advance Base Camp and Camp I,which was established on 4th of April at the height of 18,000 ft. this obstacle was in the form of an ice fall. As the name implies an ice fall is a thing of ice and is falling. When a glacier comes over a steep step it topples over forming a labyrinth of Ice. This Ice fall technically speaking was not as bad as the one on Everest but was far more dangerous due to the constant hazard of Ice avalanches had narrow escapes from the bombardment of stones and ice avalanches. Once we had created a store dump at the foot of the Ice fall. A huge avalanche broke off and buried few ever our 50 loads. This effected broke off and buried for ever our 50 loads. This affected our logistics tremendously.
After Camp I we had to gain the crest of the deadly north East Spur. The face was very steep with fluted ice gullies and was swept regularly by avalanches. Gigantic blocks and bergs of solid ice breaking off high above, swept down the shoots and spirals down the two kilometer drops of hundering destruction. It looked so dangerous that in 1829 the Germans almost returned without climbing it. There was great jubiliation in our camps when we overcome this obstacle on the 8th of April and established Camp 2 at the height of 19,500 ft. but this jubiliation was short lived. When a group of five consisting of Capt Kumar, CHM Norbu, CHM Kura Ram, Hav Sukhvinder Singh and self was coming down the crest Kanchenjunga struck its first deadly blow. It was while coming down the fixed rope I heard shouts for help from Capt Kumarwho was just ahead of me. And then I saw a rucksack bulleting its way down one of the shoots. I knew that some serious accident had happened and my heart sank. When I was 10 metres away from the spot of accident I saw Capt Kumar standing hale and hearty with a lot of blood splashed on the snow. I was confused. When I came down the vertical rock step I found to my horror Hav Sukhvinder Singh lying dead. The Rumtek Lama’s prediction had come true. Normally the expeditions bury their dead in the snows as was done in the case of Major Jayal on Chooyu. But we being an Army Expedition we had to bring our dead down at the cost of their lives, as the Indian Army never leaves its dead behind even in war. The tremendous risks we took were justified as it was taken to uphold the finest traditions of the Army. It took us three days to bring the body down to the base camp where it was given a military funeral. The morale of the team reached its lowest ebb. It was here that the Army discipline and the fine training inculcated in its soldiers over the years came to the fore. And we were once again able to muster up courage and carry on with the work. This cost us a precious loss of 15 days from the already very short period of climbing available to us. We regained the ridge with heavy hearts, but committed spirits. With that state of mind we had to face the deadly spur, which climbs skywards for thousands of feet in one unending spire of broken twisted ice. There were towers piled upon towers, cliff upon cliffs, huge vertical columns which tapered like spires and shining curtains festooned with icicles, hanging down the precipices from the cornices above. There were great mushroom shapes, which had the likeness of night monsters. The next four weeks saw climbing such as which has never been attempted before on any other mountain. Tons of ice had to be hacked away from sheer faces to make routes. The nylon ropes were flung all over the place to secure the climbers from falling into the sheer depths below. There were cornices, which could not be climbed in any way. The climbers made tunnels to surmount these. It was one of the greatest fights between man and mountain while this fight was in progress Kanchenjunga used another weapon blizzards and storms. Day in and day out weather was furious. Later we found that this was not only confined to us but was true all over the Himalayas in the East. According to experts it was the worst weather seen in living memory. Nine major expeditions in Nepal were sent back. But the brave members of my team inched forward. They suffered cold feet and great privations. Two of them had to be evacuated with second degree frost bites. But this did not deter the others and finally on the 12th of May we established camp 4 on top of this deadly spur at a height of 21,700 ft. These 2,000 ft of climb at this altitude took us 27 days. In normal climbing this can be covered in four to 5 hours. Now our hopes for the summit rose. We still had a chance. For the first time I began to think about the summit at tempt. I pulled down the first summit party consisting of Maj Prem Chasnd and N. D Sherpa to the Base Camp to recoup. I must say to the credit of our doctors that they completely overhauled them. This was by far the best medical team seen in the mountain ever.
While the summit team was resting at base Camp work on Camp 6 & 7 was being done by other members. And now Kanchenjunga used yet another weapon – high altitude. People suffered from leak of oxygen. Every now and then the parties returned sick and done in. five people in all were evacuated due to high Altitude sickness. But the team laboured up. When camp 5 was opened the second summit team of Cap Kumar and CHM Norbu was also pulled down for rest. Camp 7 was established on 26th of May at a height of 25,000 ft. now we needed only one temporary camp to be established by the summit party on their way to the top. And then another catastrophy took place. Eight top Sherpas were sent to campo 7 for carrying loads with the summit party to the last camp. These people returned to Base Camp on their own as they found an obstacle beyond camp 7 which they thought would take at least seven days to rope up. I still remember that fateful day when they came to my tent at Camp 5, clutched my hands with tears in their eyes, as if saying thbat the 3 months of hard work, the risks taken, the life lost had all been in vein. They were quite convinced we could not open the route to camp 7 before the monsoons would hit us within the next 5 days time. Next day Maj Prem Prem chand and I went up to camp 7 and beyond and concluded that the obstacle – a one km long knife edged ridge – should not take us more than 2 days. But how were we to carry the loads to camp 7. our top most Sherpas were at Base Camp and it would take them 6 days to return. By then it would be too late as we were racing against the monsoons. We had available with us two members and two Sherpas. They were constituted into an ad hoc support party and on the 30th of may the summit party and the support party established camp 7 on the North ridge at the height of 28,000 ft. and now they were getting the full blast of the westerlies over 100 kms an hour. Their light tent could not stand these winds and was torn while it wasbeing pitched.the support party returned leaving maj Prem chand and ND Sherpa at camp 7. these two had a very uncomfortable night. They slept with their boots on, get up in the morning at four, tried to burn their stoves but failed. In desperation they decided to leave without drinking anything. When they tried to fix their oxygen regulators they found that oine of them was leaking. Luckily, the support party was carrying a spare one which saved the situation. Carrying two oxygen cylinders they started climbing. Very soon ND Sherpa collapsed saying that he could go no further and asked Prem chand to go on alone. Maj. Prem chand checked ND’s Oxygen apparatue and found that he was not getting any oxygen flow. He set it right and they began climbing again. At 7 o clock they left one of their half used oxygen cylinders to be used on the return journey. They slogged on and on deep snow and fierce winds. Some times the winds were so strong that they were pushed off their feet. At 12:30 they found that they were still nowhere near the summit. They paused. The time for greatest decision of their lives had come. Should they carry on and risk the fate of Mallory and Irwine and never return to tell the tale or should they return and put to thought all the efforts of the last three months.
They took the wise decision to postpone the decision for a little longer. In half an hour they found themselves on the dome of the summit. Now the final decision was taken. They would only return after climbing the summit. They remembered their promise the team had given to the people of Sikkim. They left the last 6 feet untrodden. They hoisted the flags, took pictures and returned to Camp 7 in darkness at 8:20 in the night.
The second summit party consisting of Cap Kumar and CHM Norbu was pointed at Camp 6 to make the next attempt. But by now the weather deteriorated further. It was now my turn to take the hard decision. I decided for the safety of the second summit party and the others on the mountain to close down the expedition. I thus called down Cap Kumar and Norbu.
ARMY KANCHENJUNGA EXPEDITION –1977
BY COLONEL N. KUMAR, AVSM (LEADER)
Having read Sir John Hunt’s statement, “there is no doubt, that those who first climb Kanchenjunga will achieve the greatest feat of mountaineering, for it is a mountain which combines in its defence not only severe handcaps of wind, weather, and very high altitude, but techninal climbing problems and objective dangers of an order even higher than we found on “ Everest”, and knowing that its Eastern side was still unclimbed, I felt that there could not be a bigger mountaineering challenge in the world than this. With the help of General TN Raina, MVC< Chief of the Army Staff, Indian Army, we launched an Expedition purely of Army Climbers in 1977 march. The selection of the season to climb the mountain was difficult one to make difficult one to make as ll the expeditions from the Eastern side had gone in the post monsoon season. However, when I read books on the mountain by Sir Joseph Hooker, Fresh Field, Paul Bauer and an article by Lord Hunt, I found that, there is a period, end September to first week of October, during which Kanchenjungas gets terrible weather which is like cataclysm at heights, something like could burst. I also had the personal experience of this weather when on first week of October 1968 I was in west Sikkim where rain continued for four days and thousands of people were killed due to land slide and almost all the bridges were washed away in Sikkim. According to my calculations if we had to be of successful on Kanchenjunga, by first week of October we would be somewhere on the north East Spur which in this weather would be deadly. Therefore, despite tremendous administrative difficulties of reaching the base camp in the early March as the valley is still under heavy snow, I decided to attempt the mountain during the pre monsoon season. The team consisted of 16 members and two doctors, the names are as follows :-
- Colonel. N. Kumar, AVSM
- Maj. S.S. Singh, SM
- Major Prem Chand, VSM
- Maj. Pushkar Chand
- Captain K I Kumar
- Cap JL Cruz
- Capt Jai Bahuguna
- CHM Kura Ram, SM
- CHM Cheering Norbu, VSM,SM
- Hav Nirmal Singh
- Hav gurcharan Singh
- l/Hav Jawahar Singh
- L/ Hav kushal Singh
- naik ND Sherpa, SM
- U/L/Naik Punchuk Angchuk
- U/L/Naik Tashi Dorji
- Maj S. Sen
- Cap SA Cruz
The advance party left Lachen the road head on 07 March and reached Base Camp on the 24th March. The Expedition followed the same route followed by paul baurs German Expeditions. The stages of approach March were Tamen, Poke and Rest Camp. We established Base Camp in the area Green lake at the height of 4935 metres and advance Base Camp at the junction of Zemu and Twins glaciers at 5100 metres height. Camp I was located on the high plateau next to the rock island above 700 ft of ice fall which was found in terrible conditions not from the climbing point of view but from the avalanches point of view. The expedition followed the route by Germans and established camp II at the height of 5940 metres on 06 April on top of the cox comb ridge known as North east spur. The horozontal traverse was successfully negotiated but was found difficult for the loaded porters. On return journey Hav Sukhvinder singh fell off a cliff which is below camp II and died, due to head injuries and broken neck on the spot. His body was carried right to the Base camp and cremated with full military honours. After the cremation on 18th, the climbing started again and we found a new route to the top of the crest of North east Spur. This route went diagonally from the foot of “Eagle’s Nest” across the south face of north east Spur to the point just before the North East Spur rises up, very steeply. This was called ‘col’ by germans. This point was reached through a very steep 400 feet long ice gully with lot of hanging mushrooms on the top. On this bit many of us and Sherpas were hit by falling snow masses but nothing serious happened as we were jumarred to fixed ropes. However, this part was one of the most dangerous parts of the entire climb. The new camp II was established just below the col on the base where the steep ice gully starts but it was only useful till campIII was opened after which it become almost rebundant. Camp III was established at the height of 6300 metres and on 30th April, on the only flat place available in the vertical jungle of snow. The ridge was very badly broken with steep fluted sides. At places it was only a foot wide generally we kept to the Zemu side, i.e the southern side of the spur, about 3 to 4 metres below the crest but many time we had to walk on the crest of the deadly ridge which fell steeply on both the sides- Zemu side aand twin glacier side. Camp III could only be established after temporary camp was established between col and camp III. From camp III to camp IV a vertical distance of about 1000 feet took us 13 days. We had to hack away tons of ice to make the way and at times were forced to tunnel through the mushrooms. The traverses on the sheer ice cliffs were the worst. Camp IV was established at the height of 6630 metres on 12th May at the point where the easy going on the mountain starts. At these easy slopes the greatest difficulty was the white outs and blizzards which obliterated our track with in few hours of its opening. Camp V was established at the height of 7230 metres on 18th of mMay just below the third hump as seen from camp I and also in the picture taken by German expedition.
From Camp V to Camp VI we followed the broad ridge. Camp VI was established at the height of 7630 metres on 24th of May just before a very thin kilometers long ridge which ends at the col which separated North- east Spur from the main North ridge. After the col there is 300 to 400 feet fairly steep face which during the German expedition was found to be in a very bad snow conditions and the expedition was called off by the Germans diue to the danger of avalanches. In our case it did not create much problem. We hit the north ridge after crossing this face and then followed the Northern ridge and placed camp VII at the height of 799f metres on 30th May.
This year all over the himalaya there was terrible weather during pre monsoon season which effected our ferries tremendously as it was almost a case of touch ango against the race with the monsoons. Ne were lucky to support our summit party by 4 men to carry oxygen, food and tent to the last camp. The last camp was placed much lower than planned. But considering that on 1965 everest expedition, we had gone from 26,000 feet to 28,000 feet in 6 hours time. The summit party still had a chance. On 31st of May, the summit party first crossed a long snow field which comes down from the face of the western ridge and then took to the rocks of Northern ridge. It was very long climb and a great feet on part of the summitters Major Prem Chand and Naik ND Sharma to make it. They had left the last camp at 0500 Am and reached the summit at 1454 PM. They carried two oxygen bottles fresh Himalaya type with them and used the oxygen at the rate of two litres a minute. The summit party returned to camp VII at 2020 hrs in the evening. They were extremely lucky that the weather remained good on the ridge and the moon light helped them find the last camp on the return journey. The second party consisting of Captain KI Kumar and CHM Norbu had to be called back from camp VI as weasther had deteriorated. The team reached Lachen on 12th June under extremely bad weather conditions.