In September 1959 a five-foot whisper of a woman, the French swimwear designer and alpinist Claude Kogan, set out for the 8,188-meter (26,864 ft) summit of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain. She was joined by her friend Claudine van der Stratten of Belgium and Ang Norbu Sherpa in what was to be the culmination of the first all-female expedition to an 8,000-meter Himalayan giant.
The pioneering mission to Cho Oyu was notable not only for its ostensibly all-female cast of climbers (they employed nearly a dozen male Sherpas) but also for its international composition, with 12 women hailing from France, Belgium, Switzerland, the U.K. and Nepal, including two daughters and a niece of Tenzing Norgay.
The expedition was Kogan’s obsession, born of her frustration on the same mountain five years before. Together with the Swiss alpinist Raymond Lambert, Kogan had climbed above 25,600 feet – a women’s altitude record that would stand for many years – before extreme cold and driving winds forced a retreat. Stymied within reach of the summit, Kogan felt they had not tried hard enough and was left with what she called “a boiling, impotent rage.” It fueled her determination to prove that female mountaineers were every bit as determined and tough as their male counterparts.
The diminuitive Kogan 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 first began to climb in the Belgian Ardennes before the Second World War, and after the German invasion of France she moved to Nice and established a small business designing swimwear for women. There she met and married mountaineer Georges Kogan, with whom she joined Groupe de Haute Montagne after the war. Together the Kogans made ascents in the Dauphine and Chamonix, as well as the North Face of the Dru (1946) and the South Ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey (1949) with Claude in the lead.
In 1951 the Kogans joined a Franco-Belgian Expedition to the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Georges and Raymond Leininger made the first ascent of Alpamayo (19,511 ft), and a few days later Claude Kogan and Nicole Leininger went higher, completing the second ascent of Quitaraju (20,276 ft). Six months later, Georges fell ill and died. Claude, now a 32-year-old widow, promised herself the first ascent of her husband’s dream mountain, 20,574-foot Salcantay in the Peruvian Andes. She joined an expedition led by French mountaineer Bernard Pierre, and climbed with him to the summit.
The next year, 1953, she joined Pierre’s ambitious expedition to Nun (23,409 ft) in the Zanskar Himalaya. When the team arrived in Kashmir that July, Pierre told a Reuters reporter that Kogan “is worth every ounce of a man mountaineer and is probably the best climber in France.”
Kogan returned his confidence with hard labor and brilliant determination, first by fixing ropes and chopping steps into the steep black ice between camps and then, after an avalanche left Pierre and two other climbers injured, leading the way to the summit. Roped with Swiss missionary Pierre Vittoz, Kogan found a way across drifts so deep her crampons could not find purchase, and around “panes of ice scattered like thin glass,” Katie Ives wrote in an evocative Alpinist essay.
As the lightest climber, Kogan had volunteered to go first, reasoning that if she were to fall with one of the precarious wind slabs, Vittoz would at least have a chance of catching her. The first ascent was a tour-de-force by anyone’s reckoning, but coverage focused more on Kogan’s gender than her steady work at the front of the rope.
Kogan soon set her sights on a loftier prize, attempting Cho Oyu with Lambert’s 1954 Swiss expedition. Six of the party reached Camp IV, but only Kogan and Lambert had the appetite to climb higher in the wind and bitter cold. “Our companions were no longer putting up a fight; they could hardly struggle against the cold and were letting death creep upon them without striking a blow to defend themselves,” Lambert wrote. Kogan showed no such tendency, and soon after conditions forced their retreat she began plotting her return, this time with a team of strong-minded women.
Though she and Lambert stopped short of the summit, Kogan had climbed higher than any woman in history. On her return to France she was feted as “the highest woman in the world,” and featured in newspapers and magazines such as Elle. Financial backing for her women’s Cho Oyu expedition came from the popular magazine Paris-Match. With it she built a powerful team, including Eileen Healey, Dorothea Gravina, Margaret Darvall, Loulou Boulaz, Claudine van der Stratten, Jeanne Franco, Collette le Bret and Micheline Rambaud. In Kashmir they were joined by Pem Pem, Nima and Douma, two daughters and a niece of Tenzing Norgay.
Though billed as the first all-female Himalayan expedition, the team employed 11 male Sherpa climbers, notably Mingma Gyalgen and Ang Temba, who helped forge a new line up a face they called Gyalgen Peak. By the end of September they’d established Camp IV, where Kogan waited for good weather with van der Stratten and Ang Norbu. In her journal she wrote, To pursue, always higher, toward the summit. Fate is thus made.
The very next day an avalanche swept over their top camp, killing all three mountaineers. The slide brought a tragic end to the most ambitious mountaineering venture then undertaken by a female team, and to the life of one of France’s most striking and accomplished alpinists.
Portions of this Historical Badass are adapted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk.