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In peak condition

I was just 26, and had many things on my mind,' said the tall and rangy mountaineer. 'And one of them was to summit Kangchenjunga. I knew almost nothing about the mountain, not even that it's considered one of the most difficult to ascend,' recalled George Band, now 76 years old, as his powerful hands got busy with the neatly arranged slides on a tray. 'I'd heard that Charles Evans was going to lead an expedition in the spring of 1955 and I just had to be in the team. Thank God for that. Otherwise, I might have backed out.'

Ten minutes later, the whole audience at Calcutta's Ashutosh Birth Centenary Hall was on its way up Kangchenjunga. Playing the navigators at a programme organised by the Calcutta Section of the Himalaya Club were Band and 80-year-old Norman Hardie, two climbers from the team that ascended Kangchenjunga for the first time in May 1955. Through a 90-minute presentation (featuring 120 slides) titled 'Kangchenjunga Climbed', the two veterans guided the viewers through the route they took to that vast and snowy range that reaches 8,586 metres into the sky, its conquerors reliving a 50-year-old journey.

'Our team was a strange mix,' narrated Band as the first slide featuring the team came alive on the screen. 'There was a doctor, an engineer, a rock-climber and even a schoolteacher,' said Band. 'And we had the most wonderful sherpas with us, most efficient and most entertaining,' he went on, referring to the Nepali songs they'd sing to keep the 'sahibs' in high spirits.

March 14, 1955. That's the day Evans' team started from Darjeeling with a number of 'dilapidated trucks bursting with baggage and piled with chattering coolies', 300 of whom had been engaged for the journey upwards. 'Choosing the right equipment was one of the most difficult tasks at hand, even more than the climb,' said Hardie, formerly a civil engineer, who made it to the summit just a day after Band had peaked, along with Joe Brown, the youngest member of Evans' team. 'And on the last leg of the journey ' when I was just a while away from the peak ' I lost a large oxygen cylinder. It just slid out of my jacket and plunged into the depths. I still remember the loud hissing it made as its valve was knocked open,' he recalled, adding that he survived on the two blue cylinders that Tony Streather, his teammate, had taken along.

Apart from losing oxygen cylinders and even their entire food rations at times, Evans' team ' that took the route along Yalung Glacier (considered to be a more devious march) ' went through many more unpleasant surprises. 'We were suddenly caught in a hailstorm, just on the second day of our journey. It was depressing but our sherpas rose to the occasion. We still remember how we downed rakshi to liven our spirits,' said Band, laughing as he displayed a representative shot inside a tent.

But while some hitches in the schedule could be tackled right ('with or without rakshi'), there were some that torpedoed many a plan. 'Continuous snow was one such problem. At some places (during the first attempt at Rock Buttress), we could hardly get two feet off the ground. We had to retreat to the camp several times and just wait for the gods to answers our prayers,' said Hardie, while explaining how they used artificial means to negotiate steep ice walls, rock faces and crevasses. 'There was also the fear of running into accidents, say, avalanches. And at places, the snow cracked under our feet,' he added. Very soon, health problems cropped up and things got tougher for Evans and his eight men. Brown, for instance, started suffering from loss of appetite but would still insist on having his fill of cheddar cheese laced with tomato ketchup every morning. A couple of Mars bars were what he ate next. 'But he still managed to hold it for half and hour,' Band remembered with amusement.

Happily, the climb ended on a jubilant note. Weeks of snow, hail and hardship finally gave away to the day that found Band and Brown close to their destination. The west and south peaks of Kanchenjunga way below them, Band and Brown moved on to the main summit. 'George, we're there!' shouted Brown as they finally reached the peak late in the afternoon of May 25. At quarter past noon the next day, Hardie and Streather joined them. The giant had been baptised.

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