Myanmar Climb: Solving the Mystery – Dispatch #2

Follow our National Geographic-The North Face team on a seven-week expedition in Myanmar (Burma) to attempt to determine the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. The adventure will take them overland by plane, train, bus, and motorbike to begin a 300-mile round-trip jungle trek across tiger reserves, into plunging gorges, over raging rivers, and through cultural areas that have only recently been opened to Westerners. From their base camp in the remote northern reaches of the country, the team—including expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill, writer Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, filmmaker Renan Ozturk, climber Emily Harrington, and video assistant Taylor Rees—will climb to the summits of 5,800-meter (19,140-foot) peaks Hkakabo Razi and, if time allows, to Gamlang Razi with a calibrated Juniper GPS system to determine their true heights and solve the mystery. This story will appear in an upcoming edition of National Geographic magazine and was supported by a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant.

I first tried to climb the highest peak in Burma in 1993. I’d been inspired by the exploratory expeditions of an obscure and eccentric English botanist named Francis Kingdon-Ward. Back in the 1930s, Ward had done over a dozen long, daring journeys into the mountainous regions of Yunnan, Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh, and northern Burma. He discovered an untold number of previously unknown plants. In his book Burma’s Icy Mountains, he tells of his failed attempt to climb Hkakabo Razi, which, rising on the border between Tibet and Burma, towering over 19,000 feet above the steaming jungle, was determined by the British Survey to be the highest peak in the country. No foreigner even saw the mysterious peak again for another half century.  

My attempts to get permission to climb Hkakabo Razi in the early ’90s collapsed when the Burmese junta offered me a permit if I would train their military in mountaineering. This is back when henchmen of the junta were arresting, jailing, and sometimes torturing to death leaders of the pro-democracy. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi was already under house arrest in Yangon. Instead, my Wyoming climbing buddies and I decided we would take a shot at making the first ascent of Hkakabo by the very roundabout way of coming in from the north through Tibet. We flew to Lhasa and under cover of darkness, clandestinely set off. At the time, all of eastern Tibet was closed to foreigners, so we spent two months moving at night, hiding in trucks, and bribing our way out of multiple arrests. We got to within a stone’s throw of Hkakabo Razi, right near the sensitive Indian border (after taking Tibet in the 1950s, the Chinese tried to capture northeast India), before we were arrested for the last time (Tasers held to our necks), stripped, interrogated, forced to sign a long confession written in Chinese, and deported.

Three years later, in 1996, a Japanese climber, Takashi Ozaki and his partner Nyima Gyaltsen made the first ascent of Hkakabo Razi. A veteran mountaineer who had climbed throughout the Himalayas, Ozaki described Hkakabo as more “difficult and more dangerous than climbing Everest.” Ozaki would later die on Everest. End of story. Well, not quite. Last year, another Wyoming climber, Andy Tyson, led an expedition into northern Burma and climbed a peak just south of Hkakabo, called Gamlang Razi, which he believes to be, in fact, higher. Tyson used a sophisticated GPS and measured the summit elevation of Gamlang at 19,258 feet. Unfortunately, Ozaki did not bring a GPS to the summit of Hkakabo in 1996, so its exact height is still unknown.

The goal of our expedition is to solve the mystery: What is the highest peak in Burma? (There’s actually another peak north of Hkakabo, utterly unseen and obviously never climbed, that is also a contender.) Sponsored by National Geographic, we are a rough-and-tumble, six-person team. Four of us were on Everest together two years ago, survived its madness and mediocrity, and desperately wanted an anti-Everest experience. Burma’s unknown icy mountains, which would require almost a month of overland travel just to get to base camp, with old-fashioned travel by boat and train and motorcycle, with a two-week hike in and two-week hike out in a jungle where everything is out to bite or sting or stab you, fit the bill nicely. Or so it seemed sitting and talking big in our comfortable living rooms in the U.S.

Team leader is The North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill, 41, who has done over two dozen global expeditions. Team writer is yours truly. Team photographer is Cory Richards, 33, a National Geographic Fellow, whose piece about Franz Josef Land recently appeared in National Geographic. Team cinematographer is Renan Ozturk, 34, also an athlete for The North Face who is known for his work in alpine environments. Team strong girl is The North Face athlete Emily Harrington, 28, who has won five national sport-climbing championships. And last but not least is our ever-smiling base-camp manager and general team factotum, 28-year-old Taylor Rees.

Check back here and on for updates from the field. The team will also be posting to Instagram using #MyanmarClimb to document their travels.