Myanmar Climb: Mutiny on the Mountain – Dispatch #9

EDITOR’S NOTE: To read Hilaree O’Neill’s first-person account of the same period of time described below, read the November 11 entry on The North Face’s expedition blog.

Democracy is a messy, inefficient form of governance albeit more equitable for more people. However, in mortal situations, autocratic rule remains commonplace. The captain of the ship calls the shots. The field marshal decides the fate of thousands of soldiers. Expeditions invariably involve dangerous, high-stress situations, and thus final decisions are sometimes still made by a single individual. The first ascent of Everest in 1953 was led by John Hunt. He had no intentions of summiting himself. His job was to put two people on top and get them down safely. Norman Dyhrenfurth, who led the first American ascent of Everest in 1963, like Hunt before him, never intended to be a summiteer—that was just not his role. Even when I first went to Everest in 1986, on the north face, our leader, Joseph Murphy, directed the ascent from base camp. This style of leadership however, began to change in mountaineering as expeditions became smaller, lighter, and faster. As two-, three-, or four-person teams became standard in non-guided alpine ascents, democracy—one person, one vote—became an acceptable if unavoidably contentious form of expedition management.

Our five-person climbing team is typical of the modern American expedition. Hilaree is the leader, but decisions are made by consensus. Before landing in Myanmar, everyone had team tasks. Hilaree had the monumental burden of organizing all in-country logistics. Emily, our quarter master, organized our mountain food. I did visas and maps. Cory did stoves. Renan did climbing equipment. All fairly democratic. But the test of a democracy is whether it survives a crisis, and we were about to have one. After our dead-end on the rock arête above Camp II, it was self-evident our only option was to descend to the glacier. I led around and across the multiple crevasses, a responsibility I have had on countless expeditions. The going was so easy I am sure Hilaree was wishing she had brought her skis, as ski mountaineering is her specialty. (In 2005, she skied off the summit of 8,000-meter Cho Oyu in Tibet.) At the head of the glacier rose a wide couloir where the southwest ridge joined the west ridge. Hilaree wanted to lead it, and did, putting in two fixed lines before running out of rope. I led through to the crest of the west ridge and brought up Hilaree and Emily, who were both badly shaken by the exposure and screeching wind. Renan and Cory simply soloed up. Going ropeless on steep terrain, blocking out one’s instinctual fear of falling, is de rigeur in alpine climbing. An hour later we reached Camp III, situated at 18,100 feet on a knuckle of snow along the slender ridge.

We had underestimated the seriousness of the technical climbing on the west ridge. Looking up from Camp III, we could see a series of gendarmes (rock towers) and knife-edge snow ridges that would require speed, equanimity, and boldness. The easy climbing was over. Here is where the business began. That night, Renan, Cory, and I huddled together in one tent. Hilaree and Emily huddled in another, both cabals discussing options for a summit attempt. The guys were seriously distressed about the safety of the team. In the past two days, Emily had admitted she was over her head, and Hilaree had demonstrated that she was at her limit. “We are essentially guiding,” said Renan. “This route is too serious to guide.” I was reminded of the graveyard in Zermatt, at the base of the Matterhorn, where dozens of mountain guides are buried, their tombstones adorned with ropes and ice axes carved in the marble. Almost all of them died when their clients slipped and pulled them off the mountain. Well-honed alpine skills were now essential for continuing any farther along the ridge. Only three of us had the requisite experience. But how to broach the issue with our team leader, Hilaree?

The next day was an acclimatization day. We were hanging out together for hours. There was no way around the conversation. As our spokesman, Renan, in his diplomatic, soft-spoken way, suggested that it was unsafe and thus unwise for Hilaree and Emily to continue the climb. Emily readily acknowledged that she did not want to go any higher; but Hilaree was deeply, furiously offended. It was only after a tearful, obscenity-laced scene that she reluctantly acquiesced. But this didn’t last ten minutes. Hilaree was too hurt, too incensed. As team leader, she felt she rightfully belonged on the summit team. She would accept nothing else. At different times over the course of the day, each of us talked to Hilaree. Would ego actually trump safety?

The team was disintegrating with dissension. Cory eventually could take it no longer and abdicated his place on the summit team. Renan and I were aghast. But that was it. Cory, the National Geographic photographer for the expedition, who has ten times the alpine climbing experience as Hilaree, was out. Hilaree was in. Neither Renan or I slept that night for worry.

Alas, the gods hate hubris perhaps more than any other human affliction. At three in the morning, as we prepared to leave, a vicious, hellish, relentless wind sprang up. As we began to rope up, Hilaree said it was too cold for her and told Cory he should go instead.

Democracy prevailed in the end.

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