Myanmar Climb: Death and Disaster – Dispatch #4
Read all the Myanmar Climb dispatches.
Two Burmese climbers are dead. They disappeared on August 31 near the summit of Hkakabo Razi. An enormous search-and-rescue effort was mounted, funded by Burmese billionaire Tay Za. Choppers flew back and forth from Putao to base camp. Dozens of porters were recruited from mountain villages to supply rescue teams. After weeks of searching, neither the climbers nor their bodies were found. Then a rescue chopper went down in the jungle. The search for the climbers was abandoned—they were in all probability dead—and focus shifted to finding the lost chopper. It was never located. A week later, one of the three men aboard the downed chopper stumbled into a remote village. He subsequently led a rescue team back to the two heli pilots. One was dead, the other badly burned but would survive. After having only one ascent since it was measured by the British survey in 1925, Hkakabo Razi had taken the lives of three people in just one month. The tragedy was front-page news when we arrived in Burma in October, a sobering, cautionary reminder that mountaineering is a mortal sport. We also learned that there was a Japanese team en route to Hkakabo Razi. As we soon discovered, between the Burmese expedition, the rescue effort, and the Japanese expedition, all of the available porters for our two-week trek to base camp were already engaged. Without porters, it would not be possible to even reach the mountain. As a team, we could not carry all of our camera gear, food, and fuel without help—without a lot of help. If there’s one thing that can terminate an expedition before it ever gets started, it’s a dearth of porters.
There were no porters in the village of Gawle where we started our trek. It took our resourceful guide Ahyin two days to scrounge up around 20 people to carry loads for us. We had three girls, mothers, grandmothers, and grandfathers. It was pathetic and shameful. The next day they all went back to their own lives, as they should, and we were again without porters. It took another two days to round up new porters, most of whom went home after a few days of back-breaking labor. One day, we managed to get eight strong Tibetans who said they would carry for us for several days, but they left in the night.
Days later, we are closing in on base camp, hiring anyone and everyone who will porter for us. We have two sisters, sinewy and strong as college wrestlers, as well as their aunts and uncles. We have a 72-year-old hunter, Asiya, who can out-walk our team’s The North Face athletes. Asiya says he has snared over a hundred bears in his lifetime, selling the gall bladder and all other parts to the Chinese. Now that Hkakabo Razi is in a national park, he collects medicinal plants which he trades with Tibetans for yak butter. We have a Pygmy named Dawi who is four feet tall and can carry a load in a conical wicker basket that is three times his size and probably twice his weight. Dawi is 63 and one of only four pygmies left in far northern Burma.
We even have one of Ahyin’s nephews Amin, 21, who worked in one of Myanmar’s notorious jade mines west of Myitkyina. Jade mining is lethal work—breaking off giant blocks of stone by hand with a pry bar and pick—and many miners are now addicted to heroin. AIDS is also pervasive among jade miners. Amin worked in the mine for two years before being captured by the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and forced to carry weapons and heavy machinery on his back. He escaped his enslavement just this June and finds carrying a heavy load through the jungle all day for weeks good work if you can get it.
With any luck we should reach base camp in a few days, one month since we left the U.S. This afternoon we ran into the Japanese team descending the track. Led by Hiroyaki Kuraoka, 53, who had injured his buttocks in a fall on the trail, they are an experienced team and got to over 18,000 feet before being stopped by a knife-edge of snow and a series of gendarmes [pinnacles of rock on a mountain ridge]. The summit was less than a 1,000 feet away. A valiant effort , and they’ve come down alive, which is all that really matters in the end.
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.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Read all the Myanmar Climb dispatches.
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.