Before leaving our high point, 18,840 feet, I left a photo of two close friends in the snow. They had both been on the first expedition to Hkakabo Razi in the early days when the mountain was unknown and unclimbed. Both now, like too many of my friends, were dead. One died on an expedition to the Arctic, the other died with me when we were hit by an avalanche while ice climbing. Their deaths left holes in my soul that can never be filled. The common platitude is that they “died doing what they loved,” as if this were some kind of justification. This is unthinkingly idiotic. At a young age, they left families that never recover from the loss. There is only inviolable rule for every expedition: Come home alive.
After turning around, getting back down to camp III was our sole motivating thought. The problem with a serrated ridge is that it is just as difficult to retreat as it is to climb in the first place. We would have to climb back up the false summits we rappelled down and rappel what we’d climbed up. Unlike on a kinder mountain with the route largely up, and the going down much faster, on the West Ridge of Hkakabo Razi, there was no way to go any faster going down. Besides we were more exhausted and the psyche for the summit, a driving energy, had been stripped from us. Now it was just a fight to get back. We made good progress for a while then a rope got hung up and Cory eventually just had to cut it. I dropped my belay device and then somehow managed to drop the rack of gear, howling curses as it slid right out of sight off the south face (Cory graciously gave me his belay device, and he would do the Sherpa rappel, a more dangerous form of descent, for the rest of the mountain). We made it back to camp III right at dusk. To our everlasting gratitude, Emily and Hilaree had prepared the three-person tent for us. They’d put three hot water bottles in our three puffed-up down sleeping bags and had the stove roaring for dinner. We collapsed inside.
The next morning Hilaree and Emily left early to set up the rappels down to camp II and camp I. Renan, Cory, and I didn’t get out of camp until 11:30. We all stumbled back into base camp by dark, weary to the marrow, emaciated, psychologically spent. And yet the following day we packed up base camp and began the ten-day trek (death march) back down through the jungle. Because we didn’t summit, the true height of Hkakabo Razi is still unknown. That mystery remains. A goal for another team, another expedition. But we have no regrets. When you give it everything you’ve got you don’t have regrets. Everyone is already planning their next adventure. Hilaree wants to climb a big wall in Yosemite. Emily wants to free climb El Capitan. Taylor wants to move further into her film career. Cory would like to return to Makalu. Renan has his secret projects on big alpine walls in Alaska. As for me, I have a few mountains of the mind I’d like to climb.
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.
- Nat Geo Expeditions