From almost any direction it looks like a vast tent,” one author wrote of Kangchenjunga, “the massif being created by four ridges radiating virtually on the cardinal points from the summit.” Straddling the mountainous domains of the Kingdom of Nepal and the north Indian state of Sikkim, Kangchenjunga (8586 m) forms the easternmost of the world’s fourteen 8000 m peaks.
On May 26, 1955, two climbers reached the apex of this colossal mountain. One of them was Briton Tony Streather; the other, New Zealander Norman Hardie. Both belonged to a British expedition that succeeded in placing four men on the summit. No one would stand there again for another 22 years.
To the north the pair could glimpse the high dry plateau of Tibet. Westwards lay Nepal, where the great pyramids of Everest and Lhotse rose in the distance. And eastwards stretched the mountainous and heavily forested terrain of Sikkim.
Clad in beige down suits and carrying awkward oxygen apparatus, the two climbers halted just short of the summit. “The screaming winds held their peace, and in the tranquil sunshine the gleaming peak of Kangchenjunga was as sacred as Olympus itself—a true dwelling place of the gods,” Hardie later wrote of the occasion. Breaking the silence, he turned to Streather and simply said, “We made it, Tony.”
As the first summit pair, George Band and Joe Brown, had done the day before, Hardie and Streather left the remaining few steps unsullied by human footprints. This gesture they made in deference to the people of Sikkim, who believe the summit to be the home of sacred deities.
After 55 minutes on the mountain top, Hardie and Streather began a careful descent towards Camp VI, where their tent perched precariously on a slope at 8200 m. Remarkably, Streather made the descent largely without oxygen, after a nearly full bottle had accidentally been dropped on the ascent.
In just two years, New Zealanders had climbed the world’s highest and third-highest peaks, confirming the country’s reputation for producing some of the finest mountaineers on the planet. Edmund Hillary, rightfully, became world famous. But Hardie’s climb received comparatively little attention, and 50 years on his feat remains largely forgotten, even by many in the mountaineering community.
One reason, Hardie admits, is that his climb came so soon after the ascent of Everest and the attendant hype. Another is the reluctance of expedition leader Charles Evans to beat the drum of their success. Despite considerable achievements (including being deputy leader of the 1953 Everest expedition), Evans was, according to Hardie, “a quiet, shy chap” who didn’t relish or seek publicity.
But perhaps the most significant factor was the mountain’s unwieldy name. “Kangchenjunga” hardly rolls off the tongue, and many of those who have heard of the mountain can’t spell its name. Kangchenjunga is also confused with other “K” mountains, such as Kilimanjaro. Hardie recalls a Rotary Club talk he once gave at which he was introduced as “the conqueror of Mt Kathmandu”.
How come New Zealanders played such a prominent role in Himalayan high-altitude mountaineering in the 1950s? Hardie says it was partly a quirk of fate.
During the 1930s depression, the only British mountaineers who could afford to indulge their passion for climbing in the European Alps were those who were wealthy. Then came the World War II (1939–45), which prevented access for all, regardless of affluence. After the war, five years of currency restrictions further denied many British mountaineers the chance to visit their most important alpine training ground, and by the early 1950s, few had much experience in glacier travel or ice-craft.
The war shattered the dreams of many New Zealand mountaineers too. One of the casualties was a 1940 expedition to climb Kangchenjunga planned by Canterbury climber Stan Conway.
For a new generation of younger Kiwi climbers, however, the 1940s provided the opportunity to learn solid skills in the Southern Alps. Essentially the war and its aftermath created a vacuum among skilled British alpinists, a void that New Zealanders found themselves well-positioned to fill. Evans once commented of post-war Kiwi mountaineers: “On snow and ice New Zealanders showed a practical competence and professional touch rare at that time in climbers from the UK.”
Norman David Hardie was one of these up-and-coming New Zealand mountaineers, many of whom, like Hillary, would make their mark in the Himalaya. Born in Timaru in 1924, he was too young to fight in World War II. For a while he seemed destined to become a hunter rather than a mountaineer. He recalls his parents being “if anything opposed to mountaineering”. His father viewed the activity as “purposeless”, especially when there were deer to shoot. After leaving school at a young age, Hardie spent a couple of seasons in the early war years working as a government deer culler, mostly in Canterbury’s Boyle and Hurunui valleys. There he gained a lot of experience of “good high country”.
A local engineer in Timaru talked Hardie into going back to school, and in 1943 he enrolled in an engineering degree course at Canterbury University College. He was soon involved in the college tramping club, but continued hunting as money from skins provided a means of paying his way through university. On one shooting trip at Arthur’s Pass, Hardie met Jim McFarlane, also an engineering student, and so began a lifelong friendship. While hunting was their initial focus, increasingly the two friends took to tramping and mountaineering. The apprenticeship in ice-craft they served at this time would ultimately lead both young men to the Himalaya.
After the end of the war Hardie and McFarlane began a series of long expedition-style trips in the Southern Alps, notably in Westland’s Landsborough Valley, where they made some original and still rarely repeated climbs. One of the more striking mountains flanking the Landsborough River is Dechen (2643 m), a peak sporting a dome-shaped summit from which radiate a number of glaciers like custard dribbled over a plum pudding. In January 1947, Hardie and McFarlane made a fine climb of Dechen—only the second ever, and the first from the Landsborough side.
On a second Landsborough trip the next month, Hardie and McFarlane teamed up with another engineering student, Bill Beaven, and the trio set their sights on the unclimbed Mt Elliot. Complex route-finding was required on the steep ice-fields of the Strachan Glacier, as Hardie described in an article: “…gaping crevasses came in rapid succession… and jumbled seracs put rapid finishing touches to several of our hard won approaches”. It took them nearly six hours to surmount the last 300 metres, but finally “the summit felt the bite of our clinkers”.
Not wanting to descend potentially avalanche-prone slopes in the heat of the afternoon, the three men opted to traverse nearby Mt Strachan instead, where a safer route down existed. However, having bagged two summits in one day, the young climbers found themselves rapidly running out of daylight and were forced to make an uncomfortable bivvy on a tussock terrace above the bushline.
Although Elliot and Strachan are of unremarkable height (around 2500 m) even by Southern Alps standards, their modest stature belies how tough they are to climb. An ascent from the low-lying Landsborough entails climbing almost two vertical kilometres, while there is also a significant combination of other challenges: navigating through trackless bush, crossing the formidable Landsborough River, and extreme remoteness.
Beaven says he and his companions shared both leadership and leading while on the mountain: “We were a team of reasonably even capability and set out to enjoy ourselves… Norman and Jim were great to climb with; always cheerful, optimistic, never any complaints in bad weather, wet tents or cold conditions.”
Later in 1947 Hardie graduated as an engineer, and for the next couple of years he worked on the Lake Pukaki hydro-electricity scheme. Entry into the workforce did not diminish his climbing ambitions, however. In December 1947 he, McFarlane and Beaven joined Earle Riddiford, a lawyer from Wellington, on an ambitious climb of Mt Sefton’s south ridge. One writer described it as “a line of sheer towers…then a steep, knife edge ice arête, with blood-chilling exposure… on the Hermitage side”. After finding an approach from the east impracticable, the four climbers returned to Hardie and McFarlane’s old stamping ground, the Landsborough, and found their way into the Douglas Valley, from where they made an excellent ascent.
They celebrated their triumph on this remote route with a successful assault on Mt Hopkins, then scampered down the full 60 km length of the Landsborough to Haast Pass. As well as achieving an enviable number of firsts, the foursome had cemented an important friendship.
Not long after this adventure, the skills of Hardie, Beaven and Riddiford were called on in a dramatic rescue. In February 1948, climber Ruth Adams sustained serious injuries after a fall on La Perouse, near Aoraki/Mt Cook, resulting in “the most arduous rescue operation in the history of the Southern Alps”, as one writer put it. Owing to the difficulty of La Perouse’s eastern side, a bold decision was made to evacuate Adams over the summit and down Westland’s boulder-choked, densely forested Cook River. This necessitated cutting a track, an exercise that involved dozens of mountaineers and bushmen, followed by the gruelling business of bearing the stretcher out. As one account put it: “Carrying would hardly be the word…as the stretcher was passed along from hand to hand for considerable periods. The men left behind would then have to get in front…and as there was no room for passing on the track, some rare Tarzan acts through bush and vine were witnessed…”
During the rescue Hardie, Beaven and Riddiford became acquainted with one of Adams’ three climbing companions, Edmund Hillary. As Philip Temple notes in his excellent history of New Zealand mountaineers, The World at Their Feet: “This rescue saw a small group of fit, competent young men together, destined to take a leading part in the royal flush of Himalayan mountaineering that was to begin within three short years.”
The fabulous foursome of Hardie, McFarlane, Beaven and Riddiford were again active in December 1948, when, during a three-week trans-alpine trip, they pioneered a new route on Mt Tasman, New Zealand’s second-highest peak, using the remote Balfour Glacier. In an account of the climb Riddiford wrote: “It was something of a thrill to know that this broken icefield below us, which we hoped to traverse the next day, had never been trodden before. In fact, it seemed amazing that such a state of affairs should exist right in the heart of the Alps.”
As the party traversed rugged terrain towards La Perouse Glacier, their concerns were not confined to rockfall and avalanche. After climbing La Perouse, they returned to their camp to find a “sorry sight”, as Riddiford recorded in an article. “The keas had scattered everything over a ten-yard radius, eaten most of the food, punctured a red plastic ground sheet for the snow cave in hundreds of places, and worst of all, had opened exposed films and flown away with two others.”
A year later, on the first day of 1950, McFarlane and Hardie made a novel ascent of Aoraki/Mt Cook, becoming the first to complete a double traverse of all three of the mountain’s peaks, along its mile-long summit ridge, in a single day.
While altitude was obviously not a factor, these pioneer climbs had many ingredients that meant they served as ideal training for Himalayan expeditions: remoteness, a dearth of huts and tracks, difficult route-finding and significant ice-work. The inventiveness and daring Beaven, Riddiford, McFarlane and Hardie displayed placed them among the top New Zealand climbers of their generation. All began to feel the lure of bigger mountains overseas.
In late 1950, at the end of a stint working in Wellington, Hardie left New Zealand for England. After working his passage as a steward, he arrived on the first day of 1951. Soon he was living in an old Georgian house in London with a group of New Zealand mountaineers. The house often attracted visits from British climbers, one of whom was Charles Evans, future leader of the Kangchenjunga expedition. For Hardie, it proved a crucial connection.
First steps towards the Himalaya, however, were being made back in New Zealand. In Wellington, Riddiford was launching ambitious plans for a wholly New Zealand Himalayan expedition. Despite his formidable organisational and legal skills, he found red tape prevented him from securing permits for an attempt on either Everest or Kangchenjunga. Instead, he settled for some lesser but still challenging peaks in the Garhwal Himalaya of India. Naturally, he invited his old climbing friends Hardie, McFarlane and Beaven to join the expedition, but various commitments prevented any of them being able to accept. Hardie’s recent marriage to Enid Hurst and a lack of funds meant he would have to wait a little longer for a chance at the Himalaya.
In the end, Riddiford left for the Himalaya in 1951 with a team that comprised George Lowe, Ed Cotter and Edmund Hillary. Cotter and Riddiford succeeded in climbing Mukat Parbat, at 7130 m the highest unclimbed peak in the Garhwal Himalaya. The trip proved New Zealanders were competent at high-altitude climbing, and the achievement of Riddiford, Lowe and Hillary soon opened doors for them, resulting in their inclusion on a string of British-led Himalayan expeditions, culminating in Hillary’s triumph on Everest in 1953.
Everest certainly catapulted New Zealanders onto the world stage of mountaineering like nothing before or since. Climbing—until then something of a fringe activity gained prestige in New Zealand. Mountaineers, as Philip Temple wrote, “graduated from the status of rough crackpot and [their] efforts and achievements appeared more worthwhile”. Ultimately the sudden high profile of New Zealand mountaineers opened an opportunity for Hardie to visit the Himalaya, too.
In 1954, the New Zealand Alpine Club decided to capitalise on the momentum provided by the Everest success and launched an expedition into Nepal’s Barun valley, which drains the southern slopes of Mt Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest mountain. Hillary was appointed leader, and his team comprised the crème de la crème of New Zealand mountaineers, including Hardie, McFarlane, Beaven and Lowe. In acknowledgment of the debt New Zealand climbers now owed the British, invitations were extended to two climbers from the UK, one of whom was Evans.
Although the Barun expedition enjoyed modest success, this came at considerable cost. McFarlane suffered a bad fall into a crevasse whilst on an acclimatisation climb. During the ensuing rescue, Hillary broke three ribs and McFarlane suffered frostbite so severe that he eventually lost all the outer tendons on his hands and toes.
After Hillary and McFarlane had been evacuated, the expedition achieved some climbing firsts and established a feasible route onto Makalu. Hardie’s major role was that of surveyor and mapper, using skills he’d acquired with theodolite and compass during his engineering days at Lake Pukaki. More significantly, however, he developed an enduring friendship with Evans, who had assumed leadership following Hillary’s departure.
Hardie soon found that he got on exceptionally well with Evans, who displayed the sort of leadership qualities that appealed to the New Zealander: “I like a gentle sort of fellow who talks things over.”
Near the end of the Barun expedition, Evans received a cable inviting him to lead a reconnaissance expedition to Kangchenjunga the following year. He immediately asked Hardie to join him. The delighted New Zealander barely needed to think it over. Kangchenjunga was then the highest unclimbed mountain in the world, K2 having fallen to the Italians earlier in the year. “It was the biggest invitation one could possibly get in the mountaineering field,” Hardie recalls.
He had reached this point in his climbing career only after many factors had fallen into place: his bold, expedition-style climbs in New Zealand; his connections with other prominent New Zealand climbers; his decision to work in London. The stage was set for Kangchenjunga.
No one was under any illusions about how difficult the mountain would be. Determined efforts by the Germans in the late 1920s and early 1930s to climb it from the Sikkim side had earned it a reputation as dangerous and difficult. After his success leading the 1953 Everest expedition, John Hunt later commented:
There is no doubt that those who first climb Kangchenjunga will achieve the greatest feat in mountaineering, for it is a mountain which combines in its defences not only the severe handicaps of wind, weather and very high altitude, but technical problems and objective dangers of an order even higher than those encountered on Everest.
Evans invited a number of Everest veterans to take part in the reconnaissance of Kangchenjunga, but almost all declined, preferring instead to save their efforts for the full-blown assault under John Hunt planned for 1956. However, George Band, youngest of the Everest vets, accepted, reasoning he might not receive a second offer.
Also among the nine expedition members was Joe Brown, a well-known British rock-climber, and Tony Streather, who, despite claiming he wasn’t really a mountaineer, had managed to reach the top of the 7590 m Tirich Mir in Pakistan. (As transport officer for a Norwegian team, he had found himself at the top camp the day after the main party had made the summit, and so, “undaunted, unroped, without an ice-axe and wearing a golf jacket”, he had made a solo climb.) All except Hardie were climbers from the UK.
As the oxygen expert from the Everest expedition had declined an invitation, this role now fell to the engineering-minded Hardie. He spent the next few months working with a company called Normalair, in Somerset, to develop oxygen sets for the climb. One of the advances on the design used for Everest was considerably lighter oxygen bottles.
The expedition departed from England in early 1955 and travelled by ship to India. There, a train to the town of Darjeeling put the party in a position to begin the long trudge onto the base of the mountain, with 300 porters and some 40 Sherpa. Approaches to the Nepalese side of Kangchenjunga proved somewhat convoluted, involving several valleys and much pass-hopping. Evans had by now appointed Hardie deputy leader, a decision other expedition members happily accepted. As Band later wrote: “We regarded him as a very experienced and proficient ice climber with sound judgement.”
To his utter amazement, Hardie discovered that neither Brown nor another team member, John Jackson, had ever used crampons before. Evans charged the New Zealander with teaching the two men how to use them during the hike in. The fact that Brown was ultimately to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga says something about Hardie’s instruction.
Eventually the expedition reached the Yalung Glacier, on the south-western side of the mountain, where base camp was established. The mountain looked formidable.
Menacing ice-falls straddle the slopes of Kangchenjunga, spilling from an enormous snow basin called the Great Shelf. Lower down, a rock ridge known as Kempe’s Buttress cleaves the lowest ice-fall in two. Finding a route up through this steep and potentially treacherous area was the expedition’s first major challenge. Hardie and Band soon set about it. At first they tackled the fall to the right of Kempe’s Buttress, but they found it too difficult for use by laden Sherpa, who were then stockpiling equipment and supplies at base camp. Band described the ice-fall as “worse than anything seen on Everest”.
Hardie then spied a possible way up to the left of the buttress, which Band later described as “the key to getting launched on the mountain”. The pair successfully opened a route to where the buttress could be crossed onto a comparatively flat ice-shelf.
From here, more work in the ice-fall led to the Great Shelf, where a large snow slope dubbed the Gangway led onto the mountain’s upper slopes. The Gangway eventually joined the Western Ridge, but a series of difficult pinnacles there looked certain to block access to the high peak of Kangchenjunga itself.
The expedition made steady progress, establishing camps at increasing altitude and relaying supplies, and found itself in a position to launch a summit attempt in late May. By now the climbers had been on the mountain for some two months, and it was clear that their reconnaissance had turned into an outright assault. But success remained far from certain. The monsoon, fast approaching from the south-east, would reach Kangchenjunga a few days earlier than other 8000 m peaks, and the thin air high on the mountain would cause difficulties even in the most benign weather.
At only 262 m lower than Everest, Kangchenjunga presents all the problems of climbing at high altitude. The lesser density of the air makes it impossible for humans to obtain enough oxygen to survive for long periods. In his book on the expedition Evans described some of the debilitating effects: “Above 23,000 feet [6900 m] the climber quickly loses weight and grows weak. He is like a sick man, always tired. To turn over in bed, to reach for a boot or a box of matches, brings an attack of breathlessness; every exertion calls for an effort.”
Even though the supplementary oxygen provided significant help, it came at the cost of carrying heavy and somewhat awkward apparatus. And if their oxygen ran out, the climbers could find themselves dangerously unacclimatised.
After some sterling efforts by the expedition Sherpa, Camps V and VI were established high on the mountain. From Camp VI, at 8200 m, the first summit team—George Band and Joe Brown—would strike across the south-western face to avoid the difficult pinnacles on the summit ridge. They set off on 25th May 1955.
Brown and Band followed a series of rock ledges to the ridge, where they found a rock tower blocking progress. This Brown climbed using his “trademark hand-jams”, getting the pair into a position from which they could easily complete the remaining short distance to the summit. However, twice during the rock-work the climbers had to remove their crampons—a torturous activity at such altitude—which resulted in a much slower ascent than anticipated.
Meanwhile the second summit team, Streather and Hardie, lay waiting at Camp VI. The original intention was that Band and Brown would descend to Camp V after their climb, successful or not, but by nightfall they hadn’t returned.
Growing anxious for their safety, Streather and Hardie began to plan a search for the following day. However, during the night Brown and Band finally appeared. They found Streather and Hardie ensconced in the tiny two-person tent with only two sleeping bags.
Despite obvious pleasure at Band and Brown’s success, Hardie says their arrival brought mixed emotions. He later wrote: “With the bedding shortage, the lack of space, and very little sleeping oxygen, it was a worse than miserable night, and our congratulations lacked warmth.” In addition, Hardie had been suffering from bronchitis, a common complaint at altitude, and had only recently quelled violent coughing of the sort that sometimes sees Himalayan climbers break ribs.
Despite a sleepless night, the next day—May 26, 1955 Streather and Hardie headed off soon after sunrise. They roughly followed the route taken by Brown and Band, but wanted to keep their crampons on so avoided rock as much as possible. Hardie led expertly through a series of connecting snow ramps and ice couloirs, using all the experience he had gained in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
By noon they were five feet from the summit, looking down into Sikkim.
For Hardie the accomplishment was “an enormous thrill, and one of the major events of my lifetime”. He congratulated Streather for becoming the first person to have climbed two peaks above 25,000 ft (7500 m). Typical of his generation, Hardie remains modest but quietly proud about his role in the climb. He attributes much of the expedition’s success to the enormous effort made by the Sherpa and the congenial nature of the climbing team.
Two days later, after a careful descent from the upper slopes, the whole expedition convened at base camp. Devastating news awaited the summit party. One of the 16 high-altitude Sherpa, Pemi Dorje, had died from cerebral thrombosis. Dorje had played a significant role in the climb, carrying loads to establish Camp V without oxygen, and his loss was keenly felt. He was buried under a large flat stone near base camp, where his fellow Sherpa spent all day carving a memorial to him.
After their historic climb Hardie wrote:
I felt a strong reluctance to be the first to break away from the companions whose friendship had withstood the tests of Kangchenjunga. There are few whose society I would welcome after three months’ association continued through twenty four hours of each day, yet their company had become a pleasant and habitual necessity.
But Hardie would not be leaving the Himalaya just yet. He’d planned a private expedition through Nepal with three of the Kangchenjunga Sherpa—Urkien, Aila Tensing and Gyalgen. After saying their farewells, the small party set off in the monsoon rain, passing through rhododendron forests in vibrant flower, and slowly made their way towards Khumjung, the traditional centre of Sherpa life.
Hardie had begun to learn the local languages during a five-week stint roaming with Evans after the Barun expedition, and now sought to continue his immersion in Sherpa culture. He admired most the “stoic acceptance of difficulties” and “abandonment to gaiety at the slightest provocation”. By travelling light and relying on local food and accommodation, he could experience the full richness of the Sherpa way of life.
Cutting across the grain of the land, Hardie and his companions climbed high passes and negotiated rickety bridges over monsoon-swollen rivers. The New Zealander’s engineering knowledge made him especially dubious of these constructions: “The disturbing feature of all these bridges is the method of anchoring the main ropes…normally tied with only one simple looped knot. Occasional gaps in the walking logs are far from comforting, and bamboo bridges have much more deflection and sway than those of steel rope suspension bridges.”
During several months living with the Sherpa, Hardie observed everything from harvests to religious ceremonies. He recorded his impressions with diligent diary entries—at least, whenever Sherpa hospitality didn’t force too much chang [Tibetan beer] into him.
After reaching Khumjung, the New Zealand “sahib” faced a painful task: breaking the news of Pemi Dorje’s death to his family. Urkien made the initial announcement, and two hours later Hardie approached Dorje’s house with trepidation:
I was guided… by female wailing, audible three hundred yards away. The grief of all the relatives was pitiful to see. I was given chang and when I had finished, a great outflow of wrath was poured in my direction… The dead man’s mother asked how a man good enough to climb to 25,000 feet could die amongst the comforts and medical assistance available at Base Camp. How could I explain cerebral thrombosis? I tried.
Evans arranged significant compensation for Dorje’s widow, which together with Hardie’s personal acknowledgement of the invaluable contribution made by the Sherpa helped relieve the family’s anguish.
Joined by his wife, Enid, and a New Zealand friend, Joe Macdonald, Hardie next made sorties into previously unmapped regions south of Everest. As on the Barun expedition and the approach to Kangchenjunga, his skills with theodolite and compass advanced the process of mapping Nepal. According to Michael Ward, an expert on Himalayan surveying, the New Zealander’s work “completed the last major piece of exploration of the Everest region”.
Eventually Hardie’s diaries of his private expedition coalesced into a book, In Highest Nepal, published in 1957 by Allen & Unwin of London. Interest in the book soon resulted in a German edition (translated by the son of a German climber who’d made an attempt on Kangchenjunga in 1930). Hardie later learned of another translation after receiving a letter from a polite Japanese writer inquiring about the meaning of a Hindi word in the text. However, when he asked his publishers about the Japanese edition, they knew nothing of it. For decades afterwards, Hardie says with a rueful smile, Japanese trekkers visiting Nepal carried a small, plagiarised version of his book.
In an era rich in mountaineering books, In Highest Nepal provided an interesting record of life in the Himalayan kingdom only a short time after it had opened its borders to the world. Even nearly 50 years on, the text is full of insight, lightened by a pervasive sense of humour at the sometimes unusual situations in which the author found himself.
I was later to observe another reason against whistling inside a house…wishing her baby to pass urine [Urkien’s wife] will whistle to it on one high-pitched soft note. In Khumjung I gave Urkien a pressure cooker, only to find that when it emitted steam, the noise it made had a disastrous effect on the bedding of his infant son.
Hardie’s fondness for Nepal and the Sherpa people led him later to serve on the board of Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust for 21 years, mainly helping to raise funds in New Zealand for the trust’s projects—building schools and hospitals for the Sherpa. The New Zealand government has not allowed tax exemptions on money donated to the trust, and this, Hardie says, has hampered funding.
Altogether, Hardie went on to make another nine trips to the Himalayas. On one six-week sojourn in 1974 he was part of a three-person delegation from New Zealand that advised on the formation of Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park. Later he involved the Himalayan Trust in planting trees in the area as part of an afforestation programme.
May 2005 is the 50th anniversary of the Kangchenjunga climb, which in The World at Their Feet Philip Temple called “one of the greatest in Himalayan history”. Hardie, now 80, travelled to India in February, where he and George Band gave presentations on their Himalayan expeditions as part of celebrations there.
How can New Zealanders, 50 years after the event, appreciate the significance of Hardie’s Kangchenjunga climb? It will always be obscured under Everest’s long shadow. After all, Everest was the first of the two mountains to be climbed, and as the highest naturally captures more attention. After their determined assaults of the 1930s, the Germans appreciated the difficulty of the mountain, and the ascent of Kangchenjunga aroused great interest there. Elsewhere, Hardie says, the climb was less noticed. “[It] really did surprise me. I thought amongst the mountaineering world particularly that it would have made a big noise.”
Comparisons are not always useful or valid, but some facts point towards the scale of Hardie’s achievement. From a technical mountaineering point of view, Kangchenjunga offers more challenges than Everest, as George Band, a veteran of both mountains, could testify. This fact is reflected in modern climbing statistics: according to a book published in 2000, of all fourteen 8000 m peaks, only two—Lhotse and Annapurna—have been climbed less often than Kangchenjunga.
Perhaps even more significant was the lack of knowledge about the Yalung Glacier route on Kangchenjunga. The route by which Everest would finally be conquered had been well established by the time of the 1953 ascent, by, firstly, a British expedition in 1951 and then a 1952 Swiss expedition in which Tenzing Norgay and Raymond Lambert reached as high as 8600 m. In contrast, Kangchenjunga’s Yalung face was almost totally unexplored. As George Band noted: “…nobody had been much above 20,000 ft [6000 m] so there was 8,000 ft of virgin territory on which to pioneer a safe route. [Kangchenjunga] had acquired a reputation as a difficult and dangerous mountain…”
It is remarkable, therefore, that Kangchenjunga was climbed on an expedition intended essentially as a trial run for a full-blown attempt the following year. This somewhat startling fact, somehow omitted from the book Evans wrote on the expedition, Kangchenjunga: The Untrodden Peak, is perhaps another reason why the whole endeavour has been underplayed.
Currently Hardie is abroad again, attending more 50th-anniversary functions in Wales, London and Kathmandu with six of the eight surviving expedition members. For a brief few weeks, they will remember a remarkable enterprise that put men on the third-highest mountain in the world and left the summit untrodden. They will remember Urkien and Pemi Dorje too, and other Sherpas who played a role in their success.
And they will remember the thin, cold air of Kangchenjunga.