Kanchenjunga is the third-tallest mountain in the world. Only Everest and K2 are taller. It sits in the eastern Himalayas, on the border between Nepal and Sikkim. According to many who have seen it, as well as to those who have climbed it, Kanchenjunga is not only one of the tallest mountains in the world, but one of the most dangerous as well.
The Lepcha, the people who live at its base, believe that the first couple, from whom all mankind descends, was created from the snow on Kanchenjunga’s peak. Because of this, the Lepcha call themselves the Children of the Snowy Peaks. In Tibetan, the mountain’s name means “The Five Treasures of the Great Snow.” The number five comes from its five prominent peaks. The treasures are salt, gold, precious stones, sacred scriptures and invincible armor. They will be revealed to the devout only when the world is in peril. Out of respect for the spirits who live at Kanchenjunga’s peak, those who climb it stop just short of the summit. No one has ever stood on its peak. About two hundred people have come close. About a quarter of those who have tried died in the attempt.
In 1963, a Tibetan priest named Tulshuk Lingpa led a dozen people up Kanchenjunga. They were searching for a gateway, a cleft in reality that would deliver them into a hidden land of perpetual bliss. He was killed in an avalanche. In 1992, a Polish mountain climber named Wanda Rutkiewicz tried to climb Kanchenjunga. She was hoping to be the first woman to earn the Himalayan Crown, by climbing all fourteen of the world peaks that stand over eight thousand meters (26,247 feet) tall. She vanished, and her body was never found. She is presumed to have frozen to death.
My dad loved the mountains, and I grew up hearing stories of the so-called Polish School, the group of elite climbers who, starting in the late Fifties, revolutionized mountaineering as an endurance sport. He used to take me hiking in the Tatras, the same mountains in which the legends trained. We would plan dream trips for the future. Climbing Elbrus. Mount Whitney. Cycling the Karakoram Highway, one of the highest paved roads in the world (National Geographic ran a story once that made that one seem especially appealing). I can close my eyes and see all the routes in my mind. It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve been there, but I could get out of the train in Zakopane and walk up to the top of Rysy blindfolded.
I’m never going to climb an eight-thousander. I’m probably not even going to come close. I’m a smoker. I get headaches at altitude. The biggest mountain I regularly get up tops out at just under four thousand feet. But over the couch in my living room, I have a map of northeast Nepal. It’s a beautiful old map, German, from the Fifties. It shows four of the fourteen eight-thousand-meter peaks: Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu and Makalu. It marks all the glaciers, snow fields, ice walls and moraines. On it, the valleys are brown and the peaks are blue.