In 1959 the diminutive French swimwear designer and accomplished alpinist Claude Kogan set out for the 8,200-meter summit of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest peak. She was joined by her friend, a Belgian, Claudine van der Stratten. They were never to return. Their top camp was struck by a devastating avalanche, killing the two women and their two Sherpas. It brought a tragic end to the most ambitious mountaineering venture then undertaken by an all-woman team and to the life of one of France’s most striking and accomplished female alpinists.
The pioneering trip to Cho Oyu – which was notable for not only its all-female contingent but by being international – was Kogan’s brainchild. It had been born from what Kogan described as “a boiling, impotent rage” after failing to climb the mountain with famed Swiss climber Raymond Lambert. Stymied, within reach of the summit, Kogan felt they had not tried hard enough and was left with a desire to prove that women were every bit as determined and tough as male mountaineers.
Kogan, at just over five feet tall, certainly did not fit the stereotypical image of the post-war testosterone-fuelled macho-mountaineer. Born in Paris to an impoverished mother, she left school at 15 and became a seamstress. She was introduced to climbing by her future husband George Kogan in Nice. When France was occupied by the Nazis, they sought refuge in the Mercantour massif. Following the war they resumed a clothing business in the south of France where they had a small clothing factory. Kogan designed the swimwear and among their early customers was Christian Dior.
In 1951 the Kogans joined a Franco-Belgian Expedition to the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Claude and Nicole Leiniger reached the summit of Alpamayo (5,947m) and Qjitaraju (6,100m). Later that year Claude was widowed after George died, but her passion for climbing remained undimmed. In 1952 she returned to the Andes and made the summit of Salcantay (6,081m) with Bernard Pierre and the following year she was part of his Himalayan expedition to Nun in the Kashmir. After most of the climbers had been caught in an avalanche, she and Pierre Vittoz successfully made the first ascent of the mountain.
Her second Himalayan expedition was the attempt on Cho Oyu in 1954 when she and Raymond Lambert were only some 500m from the top when turned back by bad conditions. Nevertheless, her altitude record for women of 7,600m lasted many years. The following year she achieved her second Himalayan summit climbing Ganesh I. Keen to return to Cho Oyu, Kogan secured financial backing from Paris-Match, and set about recruiting 12 women climbers from Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Nepal before meeting her untimely end, swept off the mountain by a wave of tumbling snow and ice.
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on Twitter check out @Polarworld.
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