Kangchenjunga, The five treasures of snow.
All I see is my ski boots and the snow swirling around them with the wind. I take one step at the time. I try to look for Fredrik’s footprints. He’s only 20 meters ahead of me but his footprints has already disssapeared in the snow. The snow is solid and good to climb in but the thin air keeps my heart pumping and my breathing heavy. I can feel the the wind catch my skis and push me backwards. I lean a bit more forward and stick my ice axe deep into the snow to fight the wind. We are only halfway up to the summit of the mountain and have at least two more days to climb.
This is the story about an attempt to ski the worlds third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga.
Fredrik at 6200 meters on Kangchenjunga
Kangchenjunga, the five treasures of snow
In Northeastern Nepal lies Kangchenjunga. Like a lone majesty the 8586 meter high mountain thrones on the border to India in east and Tibet in north. The mountain was first climbed in 1955 by the Britons. The alpinists Joe Brown and George Band could use valuable experience from Mount Everest, that was scaled two years before, for the climb on Kangchenjunga. In sanskrit Kangchenjunga means The Five Treasures of Snow, referring to its five summits. Four of the peaks are over 8400 meters high. According to Tibetan mythology the five summits holds the treasures of the Gods: Gold, Silver, Copper, Barley and Holy books. To not upset the local people Band and Brown didn’t step up on to the actual summit. The book about the first ascent got the title: ”Kangchenjunga, The untrodden peak”.
Shortly after Fredrik Ericsson and I visited Pakistan three years ago and skied Gasherbrum 2 (8035m), we started planning for a new ski expedition to one of Himalayas giants. We had our ideas, but the choise wasn’t made until I spoke to Finish alpinist Veikka Gustavson. With 11 of the 14 8000-meters peaks under his belt he could give us first class information. He thought Annapurna was too dangerous, Manaslu not challenging enough and Fredrik had already been on Dhaulagiri. ”Kangchenjunga is the mountain for you”, he said. ”One of the highest, not much people and possible to ski”. Veikka sent us photos and wishing good luck. We had a plan.
Kathmandu is one the most crowded cities in the world. The number of inhabitants has increased with more than six times over the last ten years. Resulting in overloading the infrastructure like roads, water, sewers, apartments, fuel and electricity. Even though Nepal has one of the worlds greatest potential for hydroelectric power the capital has to turn off the electricity for 8 hours every day. The political instability has resulted in the people from the villages moving to the city in hope of a life in anomity.
For us, two scandinavians, it took a few days to acclimatize to the pace of Asian big city life. Following the pace of the local people we made the final preparations and necessary shopping in record speed. After a week in Nepal we had already left the last road and where on the 14 days long trek towards the Yalung glacier at the foot of Kangchenjunga.
Even though Nepal is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world we didn’t see any poverty along the trek. In the fertile landscape we met happy people who lived in harmony with themselves and nature. Among endless tea- and ricefields, wild chilli bushes and banana trees with monkeys swinging between the branches, the countryside life is like in Norway a hundred years ago. All transports are made by foot or with the help of animals and the people live off the land. The trek has an altitude difference of 4000 meters and is 100 km long from the jungle up to the glacier. A long trek like this is perfect acclimatization before a climb on an 8000-meter peak.
Along on the trip was our kitchen crew, Buddhi, Kansha and Mohan. Buddhi was the head cook, his brother Kansha his right-hand man and assistant in the kitchen. Mohan, the youngest on the team, was their apprentice. Buddhi had gathered 15 strong men to help us carry all our gear up to base camp. They made a great effort to help us but unfortunately they weren’t prepared for the mountains. With an equipment of sandals, t-shirts and wool pants they abruptly stopped when we reached the Yalung glacier. Temperatures below zero and 15 cm of snow on the glacier was not acceptable working conditions for them. We thanked them for their help and with only two days, in distance, away from base camp we managed to move all our gear by ourselves. We learned that not everything goes as planned in Nepal but with a bit of effort everything is possible.
While setting up our tents in base camp we did for the first time realize how grandiose this mountain range is. The Yalung glacier is surrounded by mountains like an amphi-theatre. The ridge that starts with Jannu followed by Yalung Kang goes all the way to Talung and Kabru forming an horse-shoe. In the middle and the highest of them all, Kangchenjunga. A mountain that in five kilometers rises more than 3500 vertical meters up towards the sky.
It was in the middle of October, we where at 5200 meters, our base camp was established, we where both at good health and the mountain was waiting for us. The feeling of approaching such a big mountain with only one partner was tempting but at the same time very deterrent. We were all alone on Kangchenjunga, or in fact we were the only expedition in the whole region this Autumn. There was no help to get and therefore this would be the most serious expedition I ever been on.
The first challenge was to find out where the route goes by looking at photos and books that we had brought. The climb up the southwest side of Kangchenjunga begins with a steep and cracked up glacierface up to a ridge that was named ”The Hump” by the British. We spent many hours with the binoculars to find a safe way up the face. Constant icefalls and avalanches on nearby mountains disturbed the silence in base camp. Some of them predictable and some not. Fortunately the area around our route didn’t have any activity.
Equipped with a 30 kg backpack and a bunch of bamboo-sticks we moved slowly up towards ”The Hump” where we would set our first camp. After sunny mornings a thick fog moved in around noon every day leaving only a few hours to climb. It took us four days to navigate through the labyrinth of seracs and crevasses and climb the 1000 vertical meters up to Camp 1 at 6200 meters. Moving slowly was good for our acclimatization but also gave us plenty of time check out the route that we later were to ski down. Most of the way looked excellent for skiing and only a few tricky sections with ice patches that would be difficult to ski. Camp one was situated on a ridge with a great view of the route above and over the Yalung glacier flowing down the valley.
After four days on the mountain and one night above 6000 meters without problems with the altitude we returned happily to our nepalese friends in base camp. We were at good mood and felt we were acclimatizing well and had good progress on the mountain. Life in base camp is relaxed, a time to eat food and rest. The days starts with a cup of tea in the sleeping bag and continues with reading books and listening to music. Only interrupted by the meals served by Buddhi and Kansha.
The weather was stable. Not since we arrived on the Yalung glacier had there been precipitation and the weather forecast we received from meteorologists in Switzerland didn’t show any change in the near future. The only worry was the long white tail of snow that was hanging off the summits of the mountains. Even though it was long time until we would go on the summit push we started to realize that the wind at high altitude could be a problem.
After three days of rest it was time to head up the mountain again. Our plan was to climb up to and spend a night in Camp 2 at 7000 meters. We knew the route up to C1 and what took us four days to climb on out first trip we now managed in one day. From ”The Hump” the route descends for 100 meters before you reach the glacier that goes all the way to the top of the mountain.
We were greeted by an amazing view but as we were accustomed to the fog pulled in at noon and we had to set camp. The next two days we worked our way up the second ice fall and finally we could set up our tent in camp 2 at 7000 meters. We could feel the altitude in our heads but apart from loads of Fishermans friends we didn’t eat any other pills during the expedition. The wind started to show its powers and the night in camp 2 we slept with one eye open because of the fear of that the tent would blow away. The walls that we had built with snowblocks to protect us from the wind were all gone in the morning.
Next day it was finally time for skiing. The feeling of skiing down the steep slopes with the view over the Yalung glacier was pricelsess. The steepest sections we passed carefully to not make any misstakes and we followed our bamboo sticks to not end up in any unexpected crevasses. With a big smile on our faces we walked in to base camp for some days of rest and good meals.
The last four hundred vertical meters towards the summit is the most technical part of Kangchenjunga. It gets steeper and the summit pyramid has many rocky sections. We knew this would be the hardest part with skis on our feet. Normally there is more snow in the mountains after the summer monsoon than in the spring. 2008 was no exception. Compared to all the photos we had viewed there was much more snow on the top now. After many hours of studies with our binoculars we agreed that it looked possible to ski from the summit all the way to base camp. We were eager to get going but we had to wait for jet winds that was blowing with gale force at the summit of Kangchenjunga to calm down. We had fourteen days to go before the porters returned and we had to leave the mountain. One week went past and we started to worry. We wanted to get at least one try on the summit but in as good weather as possible. With only five days left we got the forecast we were looking for. Four days of high pressure and low wind. The next day we left base camp for our summit push.
When we for the third time approached ”The Hump” I started to get a weird feeling, something was wrong. A moment later Fredrik who was ahead of me shouted: ”the tent is gone, nothing is left”. That was not the perfect start to our summit attempt and we had to act quickly. We decided to split up and check one side of the ridge each. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack since the steep slopes on both sides were perforated by crevasses. Fortunately for us the wind had only carried the tent hundred meters and dropped it on a snowbridge. After some high fives we repaired the tent with duct tape and were happy to crawl into our sleeping bags after a long day at work.
Next day was grey and the wind got stronger with the altitude gain. It was down clothes, balaclava and goggles on. The climbing was simple but every now and then we had to push the ice axe deep down in the snow not to be dragged off the mountain by the wind. When we were hundred meters from our previous camp 2 the wind was so strong that we didn’t think our already damaged tent could handle it. An overhanging serac became our resort where we could pitch our tent. During the night the wind calmed down but to our dissapointment it started snowing instead. The next day there was no visiblity and therefore not possible to continue upwards. All we could do was to sit in our tent and watch the snow piling up outside. After another night we woke up with blue sky and not much wind but it was also 50 cm of fresh snow on the ground. Conditions that made it impossible for us to continue upwards. It was just too much snow and too dangerous.
Our only way was down. We were almost 2000 vertical meters above base camp and between us was some very avalanche prone slopes. We used all our knowledge and experience to ski past the most exposed sections. Avalanches was triggered all around us but the work we put in to find a safe route paid off. Safe spots kept us away from the slides. On the way up we fixed ropes in exposed sections to be safe if this scenario would happen. While avalaches was triggered under our skis we were safely connected to the ropes. Not all the slopes were avalanche prone and on easier terrain we could relax and enjoy the snow. Not every day I get to ski Kangchenjunga in deep powder, it was an exclusive feeling. After a long day filled with experiences, descisons and focus we finally saw the light from the kitchen tent where our friends and the food was waiting for us.
Fredrik on the way down Kangchenjunga
The trek back to civilisation took a week and as a last goodbye from the giant we had visited the mountain showed itself in a beautiful pink evening dress when we looked out of the airplane window on the way to Kathmandu. Maybe we will meet again...
Text: Jörgen Aamot
Photos: Fredrik Ericsson and Jörgen Aamot
Click here to view more photos from Kangchenjunga