George Band: Member of the triumphant 1953 Everest expedition and conqueror of Kangchenjunga
Friday 02 September 2011
With the death of George Band, the "family" of British mountaineers who forged close bonds in the 1950s, notably on the crowning 1953 Everest expedition, suddenly seems much depleted. Band was the youngest of the climbers taken to Everest by Colonel John Hunt, and though Hunt, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary died some years ago, Band tirelessly kept the Everesters' show on the road at anniversary galas, lectures and through charitable work.
Band played an important role in forcing a route through the Khumbu Icefall, the chaos of ice cliffs and crevasses that bars the way to the upper reaches of Everest. But his greatest achievement came two years later on another Himalayan giant. On 25 May 1955, he and the Manchester climber Joe Brown became the first to stand – almost – on the summit of Kangchenjunga, at 8,586m the third highest mountain in the world. In deference to Sikkimese beliefs, they stopped several yards short of the summit cone, leaving its sacred snows undefiled.
Everest and Kangchenjunga confirmed Band as one of the top alpinists of his day and provided the nexus for a network of climbers, their families and friends who in essence would constitute the British mountaineering establishment for the next half-century.
Born in 1929 in Taiwan, where his parents were missionaries, Band was educated at Eltham College, south London, and Queens' College, Cambridge, where he studied geology. At the forefront of a mainly Oxbridge set pushing the standard of British climbing in the Alps, Band's 1952 season included a string of first British or first British guideless ascents. Hunt was impressed; additionally, national service in the Royal Corps of Signals appeared to make the athletic young man a natural for radio duties. When Band pointed out he had actually been a messing officer, Hunt responded, "Better still, then you can also help with the food."
At Base Camp, to vary the daily "compo" diet, Band's mess duties on one occasion entailed holding the tether of a yak as it was shot, then helping to gut it. "At least there was no shortage of cold storage around," he recalled in Everest: the Official History (HarperCollins, 2003). "To celebrate, we had scones for tea and then a tremendous supper of yak brains and liver, followed by jam omelette."
Band's cheery writing style tends to obscure the committing nature of some of the climbing he did on Everest and elsewhere. He spent a week in the hazardous Khumbu Icefall, along with a small group of other climbers, weaving between ice walls and bridging crevasses, opening the way into the Western Cwm, the great glacier trench that leads to the final ramparts of Everest.
A bout of flu obliged Band to descend to the valley, but he returned to help ferry loads up the Cwm and on to the Lhotse Face, as well as performing his radio duties, monitoring weather reports, and dishing out rations. His high point was escorting a group of Sherpas to Camp VII at 7,300m. He was at Advanced Base Camp with Hunt and others for the emotional moment when Hillary and Tenzing were escorted in, having, as Hillary put it: "knocked the bastard off".
Three days later, on 2 June, at Base Camp, Band tuned in the radio to the Overseas Service and the team listened to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Then came an extra announcement: "Crowds waiting in the Mall also heard that Mount Everest had been climbed by the British Expedition." The climbers were dumbfounded that the news had got back so soon – a scoop for James (now Jan) Morris of The Times who accompanied the expedition. Band recorded in his diary: "A lively evening. Finished off the rum. Sick as a dog!"
Back home, the Everesters were feted as heroes; Band returned to Cambridge for his final year and five days after his last practical examination headed for Pakistan and an attempt on 7,788m Rakaposhi in the Karakoram. The CUMC team reached a feature called the Monk's Head, 6,340m on the southwest spur, before being thwarted by days of fresh snow. Band told the story in engaging style in his first book, Road to Rakaposhi (1955).
He wrote the preface while on Kangchenjunga. Led by Charles Evans, a Liverpool surgeon, "Kangch" was a compact and low-key expedition compared to Everest '53, with less national pride at stake. As the climbers would be exploring new and dangerous ground there was no expectation of reaching the top; it was termed a "reconnaissance in force". The team was also more socially mixed, exemplified by the pairing of Band with Joe Brown, a jobbing builder from Manchester and rock-climbing phenomenon.
Ascent would be via the 3,000m Yalung Face. The team endured screaming winds and blizzards, but eventually Band and Brown pitched their tent on an inadequate ledge at 8,200m. Next day dawned fine and after a couple of pints of tea and a biscuit the pair set off for the summit. Shortly before the top they came to a wall broken by vertical cracks – an irresistible temptation to Brown. Cranking up the flow on his oxygen bottle, he disposed of the highest rock pitch ever attempted, though it would have been a modest Very Difficult grade at sea level; Band followed, and there, 20ft away and 5ft higher, was the summit snow cone. They respectfully left it untrammelled.
Lecturing and writing kept Band independent until 1957 when he pleased his parents by getting "a proper job", beginning a long career with Shell, initially as a petroleum engineer. Oil and gas development took him to seven different countries before his return to England, where, in 1983, he was appointed director general of the UK Offshore Operators Association.
After retirement in 1990, Band immersed himself in the affairs of bodies including the Alpine Club, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Geographical Society (serving as president of all three) and the Himalayan Trust, the charity founded by Edmund Hillary to provide education and healthcare to the Sherpa people of Nepal. He took over as chairman of the UK arm of the Trust in 2003 and worked ceaselessly as its ambassador even as his health was failing. He authored two more books, the Everest history and Summit: 150 Years of the Alpine Club (2006) and led adventurous treks in the Himalayas for the company Far Frontiers, of which he was chairman. In 2008 he was appointed OBE for services to mountaineering and charity.
News of Band's cancer came as a shock to the mountaineering community. While other Everesters had aged and many passed on, Band seemed to defy the years. When the Alpine Club celebrated its 150th anniversary in Zermatt in 2007, Band was in his element. For the media, AC leaders and their celebrity guests made a mass ascent of the Breithorn, a 4,164m snow summit. Band had climbed it in 1963 during the club's centenary celebrations, via the tricky Younggrat. Fifty years later he reached the summit again, albeit by the easier standard route, but at 78 a testimony to Band's unquenchable enthusiasm for the mountains.
George Christopher Band, mountaineer, oil industry executive, author: born Taiwan 2 February 1929; married 1959 Susan Goodenough (two sons, one daughter); died Hartley Wintney, Hampshire 26 August 2011.
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