Myanmar Climb: Welcome to the Jungle – Dispatch #1

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.

Read all the Myanmar Climb dispatches.

The white-lipped pit viper, one of the most venomous snakes on Earth, was coiled on the trail, waiting. A slick, lime-green snake, its fangs could inject enough poison to kill a human in the space of one hour. We were only two hours into on our two-week trek to base camp in far northern Myanmar (Burma), marching single-file through a dark tunnel of jungle, when I saw expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill leap approximately 15 feet in the air and simultaneously shriek. The three-foot long snake clenched into a writhing knot and slowly swung its flat head side-to-side. We could easily recognize its namesake, a thin white stripe extending from mouth to tail on both sides of its slender, smooth-scaled body.


Trimeresurus albolabris was just one of a dozen deadly snakes venomologist Zoltan Takacs told us we might encounter on our expedition to climb the highest peak in Burma. There were also Medo pit vipers, Mountain pit vipers, King cobras, Himalayan kraits and coral snakes—a veritable garden of mortal serpents. Takacs got the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute in Bangkok to express us an especially large supply of antivenom with detailed, complicated instructions. Had Hilaree actually been bitten, we were supposed to watch for nasty signs of envenomation—spontaneous bleeding from the mouth and ears, black urine, ballooning lymph nodes—and if present, quickly mix up the antivenom, stab a syringe into her thigh à la Pulp Fiction and press in 1 milligram of life-saving serum every minute for twenty minutes. If she had an allergic reaction to the antivenom (which can cause death as easily as the snake bite itself), say her throat was swelling shut, then stab her with an Epipen of adrenaline several times. Naturally, this is all supposed to be done in a sterile hospital not a dank, bacteria-rich jungle, but we are on an expedition.


After the snake posed for pictures, our indefatigable, lightfooted 66-year-old mountain guide, Langwasin, nonchalantly killed the reptile with a stick, crushing the head in a single blow, then swept it off the trail. No point in a local ten-year-old girl collecting firewood getting bit, and perhaps dying, for there is not only no antivenom within a thousand miles, but no medical care here of any kind, not even aspirin.

Hilaree’s heart was still pounding in her ears as we carried on ever deeper into the jungle.

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.

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