Himalaya | History | Kangchenjunga
The third highest mountain in the world, 8,586m Kangchenjunga lies in one of the most remote and fascinating parts of the Himalaya. It is almost impossible for a single photo of Kangchenjunga to convey all the exciting details of the massif.
In the spring of 1991, a strong Slovenian-Croatian-Polish team came here to carry out several climbs.
Under the leadership of Slovenian Tone Skarja, the team was composed of 14 climbers: Slovenians Joze Rozman, Robert Drzan, Marija Frantar, Bojan Pockar, Vanja Furlan, Marko Prezelj, Uros Rupar, Dare Jahant, Viktor Groselj, Andrej Stremfelj, and Damijan Mesko; Croatian Stipe Bozic; and Wanda Rutkiewicz and Ewa Paneiko-Pankiewicz of Poland. They were assisted by a Tamang and three Sherpa high-altitude porters.
The 15-member team had three objectives: to ascend several of the summits of Kangchenjunga from the west (primarily by already explored routes); to make the first ascent of Jannu East (7,460m) by its East Face; and to climb a new, difficult route alpine style on the Southwest Ridge of Kangchenjunga.
They left Kathmandu on Mar. 25, and the first climbers reached Kangchenjunga Base Camp on April 12, 1991.
The first confirmed ascent of Boktoh Peak
Two days before arriving at Base Camp, three men — Marko Prezelj, Uros Rupar, and Andrej Stremfelj — targeted unclimbed 6,114m Boktoh Peak for acclimatization.
On April 10, the three topped out after ascending the Southeast Ridge-East Ridge route in six hours. From its summit, they had beautiful views of Kangchenjunga, Jannu (7,710m), and Dhormo Peak (6,850m).
Interestingly, Boktoh still has only one official ascent. According to The Himalayan Database, it was attempted by John Kempe and Gilmour C. Lewis in 1953, but because of the difficulty of the route, they gave up at 6,000m on the East Ridge.
Though unconfirmed, it’s possible that Lionel Terray and Rene Desmaison climbed Boktoh in 1959, during their exploration of the southwestern side of Jannu.
In 2014, French climbers Helias Millerioux, Remi Sfilio, and Jonathan Crison climbed the 6,037m secondary peak of Boktoh. The main summit is Boktoh East at 6,114m. The French trio measured 6,074m on the central summit.
Talung’s second ascent
On April 20, 1991, 25-year-old Marko Prezelj summited Talung (7,349m) by the Northwest Face-West Face route in hurricane winds. It was the second ascent of this difficult subpeak of Kabru mountain.
Prezelj started the ascent with partner Andrej Stremfelj, who had joined him 10 days earlier on Boktoh. They bivouacked at 6,500m on the Northwest Face. Strempfelj, who was already ill with flu, retreated only 50m from the summit in strong winds.
The Himalayan Database registered this climb but noted that it was an illegal ascent. Talung — including its first ascent in the spring of 1964 by Franz Lindner and Tenzing Nanda Sherpa and its most recent ascent by Nikita Balabanov and Mikhail Fomin in October 2015 — has been summited by only eight climbers in total.
After reaching Base Camp, the team divided into small groups. On April 15, Groselj and Bozic established Camp 1 at 6,200m. Five days later, they set up Camp 2 at 6,700m on Kangchenjunga’s western flank.
On April 22, four other members, Frantar, Rupar, Drzan, and Rozman established Camp 3 at 7,250m. Then everyone descended to Base Camp to rest for three days. Afterward, Bozic and Groselj left Base Camp and started to push for the summit via the 1953 British route.
But the weather soured during their ascent. They had to stop at Camp 3 until April 30, when they finally managed to put up Camp 4 at 7,600m. The next day, Bozic and Groselj topped out on the main summit, using supplemental oxygen. Because of the harsh weather, the descent was hairy. They missed Camp 4, arriving in Camp 3 exhausted.
Kangchenjunga Central, 8,473m
Meanwhile, Rupar left Camp 3 on April 30 at 10 pm. During the night, he ascended the Polish route to reach the Central Summit of Kangchenjunga. He topped out alone on May 1 at 10:40 am, without bottled oxygen.
Rupar became the 27th climber to reach the Central Summit of Kangchenjunga but was the first to reach it without oxygen. Kangchenjunga Central has had no ascents since then.
After summiting, he descended to Camp 3 in fog and snow. There, he met Frantar and Rozman, who were heading for the main summit. Frantar was trying to become the first woman ever to climb Kangchenjunga.
After spending the night of May 1 at Camp 3, Frantar and Rozman continued toward Camp 4 on May 2. The Frantar-Rozman duo planned to leave Camp 4 at 10 pm, but they did not radio to announce that they were leaving, so it is unclear what time they actually started the last section of the climb.
Frantar and Rozman started the ascent moving quickly. But as the hours passed, they slowed dramatically. At 3 pm on May 3, they radioed Base Camp to say that they were still 150m from the main summit. By then, they had already used the two bottles of oxygen they were carrying (Frantar had one bottle in case of emergency, although she had planned to summit without it).
They were already very weak, and the pair disagreed on whether to continue or not. Frantar wanted to continue, Rozman wanted to turn around. Their colleagues at Base Camp recommended that they abort. The duo finally decided to retreat.
At 6 pm on May 3, they radioed to say that they could not see anything and could not find the descent route. This is the worst news that one can receive at Base Camp from above. On a mountain like Kangchejunga, this likely meant death for the climbers. The last time they contacted Base Camp was at 7 pm. They never returned.
Later, Wanda Rutkiewicz found the body of Rozman at 7,400m, and two other members of the expedition found Frantar’s body at 7,500m. Both climbers had fallen more than 700m to their death.
Rutkiewicz disappeared one year later on her next attempt at Kangchenjunga, in the spring of 1992. In the end, the first woman to summit Kangchenjunga was Ginette Harrison of the UK, in the spring of 1998, without O2.
A bold attempt on Jannu East
During this drama on Kangchenjunga, Vanja Furlan, and Bojan Pockar made a bold attempt on unclimbed Jannu East by its East Face. On May 1, the pair started their summit push from 6,900m. They left their bivy equipment behind, aiming to top out that day.
In bad weather and because of avalanche danger, they had to stop for nine hours at 7,050m. Eventually, they had to retreat. Climbing without oxygen, Furlan and Pockar each lost 10kg of their body weight. They ate only 200g of biscuits during the ascent.
Jannu East remains unclimbed. The last attempt was in autumn 2022, by a Spanish team led by Mikel Zabalza.
Wojciech Wroz and Genek Chrobak of Poland made the first ascent of 8,476m Kangchenjunga South on May 19, 1978, via the Southwest Face. They used supplemental oxygen. A Russian team made its first no-O2 ascent on April 17, 1989.
In the spring of 1991, the duo of Stremfelj and Prezelj set out to try Kangchenjunga South by its difficult Southwest Ridge, in alpine style.
Stremfelj and Prezelj understood each other and made an excellent team. “We had no worries over porters, food, Sherpas, and other minor matters which would have taken all our energy and nerves,” Prezelj wrote. “All we were concerned with was climbing.”
Loyal to a pure style, where the smallest failure could be fatal, Stremfelj and Prezelj left Base Camp on April 26. They took a tent, two sleeping bags, a stove, and two ropes. The duo faced huge technical challenges along the route. Its difficult pitches included a 650m wall (VI, A1), with ice averaging from 60° to 90°. They bivouacked at 6,200m amid thunder and lightning.
After the bivy, they climbed on through fresh snow. After 11 hours, they reached a relatively safe bivy place at 7,250m. Their third bivouac was at 7,900m, after another seven hours of climbing.
“The climbing is demanding until we reach the junction of the Russian and Polish routes, 250m below the summit of Kangchenjunga South,” Prezelj recalled. “Andrej [Stremfelj] goes ahead. When I reach a snowfield, just below the summit, I see him again. I can almost touch it but have to fight back a strange wish to quit and turn back.”
They finally topped out on April 30, 1991, at 4:45 pm.
Prezelj later described his impressions at the time. “The top! The top of what? Dead, cold rocks, chained together by ice. The only joy is the end of a tiresome climb. For a moment, I have a feeling of relaxation, and then emptiness. We take pictures, we talk, but I don’t know about what. Slowly, we set out to descend the Polish route.”
A tough lesson
Just before the summit, when a hesitant Prezelj was wondering whether to continue, he saw Stremfelj forge ahead. “I was filled with dread as I saw that he was already climbing, even though the route we had observed beforehand didn’t look promising. I felt betrayed,” Prezelj remembers.
Prezelj hurried to reach Stremfelj, full of anger and resentment. He wanted to confront his partner. They were on a glacial plateau when finally Prezelj reached Stremfelj. “Andrej immediately smiled and said, ‘You are doing great! Do you want to take the lead?’ In an instant, all my resentment disappeared,” Prezelj said.
That was how the master encouraged the young Prezelj.
As Prezelj remembers: “On a glacial plateau high above 7,000m, Andrej Stremfelj taught me a lesson that had an irreversible effect on me. Hear and forget. See and remember. Do and understand.”
Prezelj and Stremfelj were awarded the first-ever Piolet d’Or for their bold, alpine-style ascent of the South Ridge of Kangchenjunga to the South Summit.