We wanted an old fashioned expedition, something like what was done back in the day, and we got it. We arrived at base camp, 13,222 feet, today after 15 days in the dark, fetid, leach-infested jungle—the longest and most arduous mountain approach any of us has ever done. It did however serve a very valuable purpose. Hiking hard every day was a tempering process for our bodies and our minds. Our bodies became leaner and meaner, our minds more patient and yet more determined. The hike helped inure us to hardship and discomfort, both staples of mountaineering.
In many ways, it’s a wonder we even got here at all. Obstacles started early. In Myitkyina, the last point of civilization, the plane to Putao was leaving without us so Hilaree ran out on the tarmac, arms waving, and unbelievably stopped it. The aircraft turned around and picked us up. But then, when we arrived in Putao, we were told the Kachin state government had inexplicably put us under village arrest—this despite the fact that we had permits from the federal government of Myanmar. We languished for four days—doing pull-ups on the staircase and drinking bee—before the arrest was lifted. We rode for three days with a mini-motorcycle gang to the start of our trek, but luggage was lost along the way. The trek in began and has ended with innumerate porter problems. (God knows how we will ever get out.) Halfway in I had a look at our stove fuel and discovered, to our dismay, that our outfitter had brought butane, not white gas, the fuel our MSR stoves need. We experimented with spraying the pressurized butane into our fuel bottles but received an email from MSR saying they did not approve. This seemingly small issue could have easily ended our expedition. On the mountain we must melt snow for water. Without a functioning stove it would be impossible to get above base camp. Our fortuitous encounter with the Japanese team proved providential in this regard. They just happened to have 20 spare liters of petrol which will work in our stoves.
We made it to basecamp!! @hilareeoneill admiring Hkakabo Razi in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. We just spent the day packing and organizing and are itching to get up higher. #MyanmarClimb @thenorthface @natgeo @smithoptics @goalzero A photo posted by Emily Harrington (@emilyaharrington) on Oct 10, 2014 at 1:54am PDT
The Japanese team also provided us with detailed “beta” (climbing lingo for mountain information) about the route. They attempted the unclimbed west ridge, which is also our objective. Like us, they’d had to cut gear just to get to the mountain leaving a thousand feet of rope in one of the villages. It was the lack of rope to protect several spires of rock along the ridge, like steeples on a European church, that ended their expedition—so they generously gave us two of their ropes. These two gifts—the stove fuel and extra ropes—may very well prove fateful to the success of our expedition. I felt for the Japanese team. Here they were retreating without summiting, injured and demoralized, with a terrible jungle hike in front of them, and yet they had the nobleness of character to graciously do all they could to help us reach the summit they had been denied.
A summit whose height is still unknown. The Burmese climbers sent an elevation reading of 18,766 feet before vanishing. The Japanese got almost to the same elevation before being turned back. Osaki, the only person to summit and survive, didn’t record an elevation. According to the 1925 British survey, Hkakabo Razi is 19,294 feet high. (Tyson, using a GPS, put Gamlang’s summit elevation at 19,258 feet.) The most accurate Google Earth elevation I could zoom in on for Hkakabo was 18,950. The best topographical map I could find, the Russian 1:200,000, put the elevation at 18,671. NASA ran several satellite tests that accounted for the oblateness of the Earth for me and came up with an altitude of 18,878 feet—”give or take a few hundred feet.”
As it turns out, the only way to know the exact height of Hkakabo Razi is for someone to stand on top for about 20 minutes with a GPS. In other words, ground truthing is still required. And that’s our mission, to climb Hkakabo Razi and determine the true height of the highest peak in Burma.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The mystery remains.Read all the Myanmar Climb dispatches.
Check back here and on thenorthface.com 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.