Kangchenjunga: The Himalayan Giant

By Doug Scott CBE
Published by Vertebrate Publishing, July 2021

Kangchenjunga is Doug Scott’s last work, completed before he died of cancer in December 2020. It is the second book in a series that he hoped to write in a distinctive style. I reviewed the first, ‘The Ogre,’ in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Cloudburst .

For most readers, Doug Scott needs no introduction. He was an English mountaineer, recognized as one of the World’s great Himalayan climbers. He was a recipient of one of mountaineering’s highest honours, the Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award for his personal climbs and style. Described as ‘visionary’, Scott was no stranger to Canada and to British Columbia and I once had the pleasure of hosting him for two days in Prince George. Two hours before his on-stage presentation at the University of Northern British Columbia, his first words on picking him up at the airport were “Take me to a climbing gym”. Climbing was his way of relaxing from the stress of his schedule but – alas! – the gym had just closed for a long weekend.

Scott’s creative approach to his last two books reflects his deep appreciation for the places he travelled and climbed and the people there. After experiencing the “spontaneous generosity of people who had so little” he founded the Community Action Nepal charity, to which he devoted much of his energy in his later years. At least half of these final works is a well-researched history of the respective regions, from geological underpinnings through centuries of human history and into the colonial periods with pioneering Western explorers, surveyors, scientists, artists, writers, photographers and climbers. Only towards the end of each book does Scott indulge in dramatic accounts of his own mountaineering feats. He had hoped to write seven books in the series, the others being Makalu, K2, Nanga Parbat, Everest, and Canada’s Baffin Island. While these will not now happen, we are fortunate to have the first two; and perhaps other writers will adopt a similar approach blending natural and human history with their personal stories.

In The Ogre, Scott opened with the history of the Karakoram Range in Pakistan and Afghanistan before moving on to a gripping account of his ascent and desperate retreat from the mountain with two broken legs. In Kangchenjunga, he begins with the complex history of the Himalayas of northern India, Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet. Again he starts with the geology and natural history of the region around Kanchenjunga. He then moves on to the peoples of Sikkim and eastern Nepal over nearly 3,000 years. We meet the traders and missionaries who appeared from the sixteenth century; and in ‘Measuring the Heights,’ the early British surveyors and ‘pundits’ (clandestine surveyors and spies) of the nineteenth century.

From this base, Scott describes the first Western expeditions of the early modern era, beginning with Joseph Hooker in the mid-nineteenth century. He dives into fascinating squabbles among early Himalayan mountaineers over who did what – some of which are still contentious today. Intrigue, for example, swirls around William Graham’s claim for his 1883 record-breaking ascent of 7,412m Kabru, south of Kangchenjunga; and culpability is still debated over the deaths that occurred on Aleister Crowley’s first attempt to climb Kangchenjunga in 1905. Scott concludes “We see in hindsight that [Crowley] had all the instinct of an incisive great pioneer climber.” Scott combines reason and forensic analysis with his personal knowledge of the land to shed light on these actors, who were more often victims of their own arrogance rather than fabricators of their accomplishments.

Many early to mid-twentieth century climbers and expeditions are described in the pages that follow, with three chapters devoted to the period between the world wars, especially the rapid growth of German Himalayan ambitions and the uneasy relationship with German nationalism.

It is not surprising that Kangchenjunga attracted so much attention. It is highly visible from the Indian hill city of Darjeeling, and is the world’s third highest mountain after Everest and K2. For a long time it was thought to be the highest. Access to the mountain was a continuing problem in the first half of the 20th Century as complex geopolitics swirled around Britain, India, Sikkim, Nepal, Tibet and China. Nepal to the west of the mountain, and Sikkim to the east variously refused entry to explorers and climbers. After World War 2 however, concern in Nepal and Sikkim over their borders with Tibet and the growing influence of China resulted in a relaxation of travel restrictions for Western countries. Nepal saw itself as like Switzerland, a small mountain state sandwiched between larger entities but with the prospect of increased wealth from its natural amenities through tourism and mountaineering.

Doug Scott’s accomplished the third successful climb of the mountain with a small team via a new northwesterly route on the Nepalese side. It was the first ascent of Kangchenjunga (and of almost any 8,000-metre mountain) without supplementary oxygen. Scott, with famed British climbers Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman, reached the top in May 1979, four years after Scott and Dougal Haston became the first British climbers to reach the summit of Everest via a pioneering route on its southwest face.

In my review of The Ogre, I described it as a fast read and “…probably the best-illustrated expedition account that I have read.” Kangchenjunga is arranged more traditionally, with lengthier text befitting the complex histories of the region, and colour plates grouped into fixed sections instead of placed in-line with the text. It is an historical work, with only the last chapter dedicated to Scott’s own ascent of Kangchenjunga. The drama of that ascent doesn’t disappoint however, with Scott finding himself at his closest ever to death on a mountain. He desperately retreats from his first summit attempt, revelling in the intensity of the moment and the drive to go for it. In summary, Kangchenjunga is a fitting legacy for a remarkable man, and I recommend it for anyone interested in Himalayan climbing history.

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