‘We must have one of them for Kanchenjunga,’ said Titty.
We might wonder why Titty chooses the name Kanchenjunga rather than Everest. At the time of writing, and when the stories are set, the great early attempts on Everest, which of course culminated in the loss of Mallory and Irvine in 1924, were fresh in the memory. But then, Kanchenjunga was also extremely well-known – probably, in relative terms, much more so than today. Search Amazon for books with Everest in the title and you get over 3000 hits. Search for Kangchenjunga and you get 78.
Unlike Everest and K2, Kanchenjunga is highly visible from relatively populous areas, notably from Darjeeling. It had seen a strong German attempt in 1928 and an international team including Frank Smythe attempted it in 1930. Despite their lack of success, Smythe’s book The Kangchenjunga Adventure was widely read and did much to establish his reputation. It was one of very few books in my own grandparents home. This may explain the choice of the name, or it might just be that – as John says – ‘Kanchenjunga’s a gorgeous name anyhow.’
Smythe’s book has been republished as an ebook by Vertebrate Publishing and what follows is my review of it. It’s quite long, but then it’s quite a long book, and quite a significant one.
There weren’t many books in my grandparents’ home. One of the few that I remember was The Kangchenjunga Adventure by Frank Smythe. Sadly they died while I was still quite young, before I discovered mountaineering for myself, and I never had the chance to ask how they came by it. Nor do I know what happened to the book. Given their age it could well have been an early edition (and might now be quite collectable).
I was too young to make a serious go at reading the book, but I certainly looked through it in search of pictures. Anyway, however it came to be there, it left some kind of mark on me and predisposed me to the impression that it was one of the classics of mountain literature, certainly of the prolific period between the wars, if not of all time. So I was both intrigued and delighted to see that Vertebrate has digitally republished The Kangchenjunga Adventure, as part of its outstanding effort to keep such classics available to new generations of readers. And I was both intrigued and slightly nervous to see how the real thing stood up to my misty conception of it.
The short answer is that it stands up pretty well. The long answer is, as you’d expect, slightly more nuanced. The title may raise expectations that the book is all about a bold but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to climb the world’s third highest peak. In fact what it delivers is either less than that – if you’re only interested in the glamour of what we now call the 8000-metre peaks – or more, if you are interested in a wider story of exploration and exploratory mountaineering.
In 1930 Frank Smythe joined a German-led expedition to the Kangchenjunga region. Within the time constraints of the pre-monsoon period – especially bearing in mind that the monsoon tends to strike Kangchenjunga earlier and with more force than Everest – the full list of its achievements is impressive, with several peaks climbed and cols crossed for the first time. Two assaults on Kangchenjunga itself were not very successful, and sadly one saw the death of the Sherpa Chettan in an avalanche.
The crowning achievement was the first ascent of Jonsong Peak (now officially spelled Jongsong). Smythe records its height as 24344ft but it is now given as 7,462 metres (24,482 ft). At the time, this was the highest summit yet reached, though climbers had been considerably higher on Everest. As such, it is an underrated achievement, for several reasons. One is because Jon(g)song Peak was not the primary objective of the expedition. Another is that the record was short-lived, being broken the following year when a team (also including Frank Smythe) climbed Kamet.
As Smythe himself notes, “The ascent of Jonsong Peak proved that four men backed up by good porters are capable of overcoming a great peak.” The expedition may have started from Darjeeling with around 400 porters and 85 mule loads, yet Jongsong Peak was climbed in something approximating to what we’d now call Alpine style.
All this is related, for the most part, in a very straightforward manner. Naturally some elements will seem dated to us now, almost 90 years on. To me, Smythe is a decent writer but not in the same class as his near contemporary Tilman. Some of the descriptive passages may seem florid to modern tastes: “Most fine mornings see the cloudy galleons sweeping up from the steamy Plain of Bengal. Slowly they sail over the green foothills or float in lazy stateliness on the blue hazes of the deep valleys, their keels in shadow, their sails of massive cumuli bellying thousands of feet aloft in the sunlight. As they advance, they are augmented by the warm, moist air currents from the valleys. Magically they grow larger; their girth and height increases every moment; they are sifted by the upward breezes, broken and distorted into all manner of queer forms by vagrant winds; momentarily dissipated by unexpected blasts. They become a mighty fleet and pass in splendid line ahead towards the huge wall of the Himalayas, where they assault in misty surges the snowy bastions of Kangchenjunga.”
It’s also undeniable that some observations will grate on modern sensibilities: “Narsang waved a hand with characteristic native vagueness.” “The native, of course, lives only in the present; the future holds no interest for him.” And so on; but this apparently patronising attitude does not extend to the Sherpas and there is genuine grief at the death of Chettan: “So died a genuine lover of the mountains, a real adventurer at heart, and one whom members of several Himalayan expeditions will mourn.”
The text is scattered with idiosyncrasies of punctuation. I had to read these sentences more than once: “Suffice to say that Mont Blanc is little more than half the height of Mount Everest, 29,002 feet, Kilimanjaro, 19,700 feet and Mount McKinley, 20,454 feet. The highest peaks of Africa and North America would rank as minor peaks in the Sikkim Himalayas…” Without access to the original, it’s impossible to know whether these errors are down to Smythe and his editors or have crept in during the preparation of the digital edition.
Above all what I will retain from this book is a renewed sense of how much mountaineering techniques and technology have changed. Frequent references to step-cutting are just one example. Smythe describes the ‘official’ expedition boots like this: “They weighed six and a half pounds a pair and each was nailed with sixty clinker and tricouni nails. The soles were built up of layers of felt, rubber and leather and the uppers, which came halfway to the knee, were felt-lined. Crampons supplied with these boots were proportionately heavy and weighed four pounds a pair.” He wore them once, as an experiment, and never again.
As a photographer (with my own memories of taking 25 rolls of 35mm film for a six-week trip to the Karakoram), I was struck by the note that, “I do not think that less than fifty porters were utilised in carrying our cinematographic and photographic apparatus and materials.” I did, however, find the following entirely familiar: “The principal advantage of taking photographs on a mountain is that the mountaineer is thus enabled to stop at frequent intervals and recover his breath. That is why most elderly mountaineers carry cameras. Taking a photograph is a much more convincing excuse for a halt than a bootlace or braces that need adjusting.”
Expeditions like this certainly paved the way for later success on the highest peaks, but Smythe’s power of prediction leaves something to be desired: “Curiously enough, Everest is the only great Himalayan peak which can definitely be said to be accessible to mountaineers. Other great peaks may defy all comers for many generations, and among these I would number Kangchenjunga.” Kangchenjunga was first climbed 25 years later.
In the same vein, he suggests, “The only route offering any hope would appear to be that attempted in 1929 by the Munich Expedition.” This was the NE spur, not climbed until 1977; the first ascent was made on the opposite side of the mountain.
Still, the expedition achieved a great deal and added significantly to understanding of the topography of the region as well as to thinking on best practice in climbing high mountains – though I don’t think the concentrated liver pills ever caught on.