What do you do with an old windproof smock, speckled with emulsion paint and well past its best? Charity shops wouldn’t thank you for it, but the Mountain Heritage Trust will – if it’s the jacket that George Band wore when he and Joe Brown made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga in 1955.
The conquest of Everest in 1953 spurred mountaineers on to climb Kangchenjunga, or The Five Treasure-Houses of the Snows as it is known locally. At 8,586m it is the third highest mountain in the world. Situated in the East Himalayas, it dominates the sky north of Darjeeling. There is no ‘easy’ route to the summit and the threat of avalanche is high. The icefall makes the Khumbu below Everest seem like a child’s playground, as George Band observed. He kept a tally of the number of avalanches by chalking them up on the canvas of his tent and reckoned there was one every 20 minutes.
There had been earlier attempts to reach the summit. Douglas Freshfield was the first explorer to circumnavigate the mountain in 1899. In 1905, Aleister Crowley, the ‘great beast’, reached a height of 6,500m but disgraced himself when he failed to help some porters caught by an avalanche. Further attempts, including those of a German climber, Paul Bauer, also failed. Then on 25th May 1955, George Band and Joe Brown made the first ascent as part of a British expedition led by Charles Evans. Tony Streather and Norman Hardie followed the next day, improving the route by discovering a ridge to help them round Brown’s ‘rock step’, thus ensuring that Brown’s record for leading the highest rock climb in the world still exists. The last twenty feet to the summit were left untrodden, fulfilling a promise that had been made to the people of Sikkim who believe the mountain top is sacred.
Following a further successful ascent by an Indian military style expedition led by Colonel N Kumar in 1977, another British team reached the summit in 1979. Doug Scott, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker climbed the mountain in alpine style and without artificial oxygen. This was the first time that one of the three highest peaks in the world (Everest and K2 being the other two) was climbed by a small team without others present using oxygen. This lightweight expedition encouraged others to emulate the feat on the remaining 8,000m peaks.
To mark the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Kangchenjunga the Mountain Heritage Trust is mounting an exhibition at the newly refurbished Keswick Museum running till 15th May 2016. George Band’s jacket and many other artefacts used on ‘Kanch’ as it is affectionately known, will be there – go along and see them.
Letters from Sir Charles Evans, Charles Evans Collection, copyright MHT