Myanmar Climb: Life at Base Camp – Dispatch #7


Read all the Myanmar Climb dispatches.

It’s 11 a.m. The screeching white noise of the radio interrupts my quiet base camp scene. “Renan, do you copy?” It was Hilaree. The concern in her voice was masked, but I heard it. “Renan … radio check?”

I was told that I only needed to turn my radio on between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. here at base camp. At that time, the team and I would have a daily check-in. One missed check-in was O.K. Two missed check-ins in a row meant I was allowed to be worried, but then and only then. Like a child unable to resist pressing the red button, I kept the radio on all day today and listened to bits and pieces of the team’s communication up high. With no one to talk to here at base camp, hearing the scattered voices of my friends keeps me sane. (All nine cooks and helpers at base camp speak only Rawang, a tribal language of the northern Kachin region. Our local fixer Iyin speaks some English, but he is often MIA—a story for another time.)

Thirty minutes pass after Hilaree’s initial call. I deduced that Renan had probably gone ahead of the team to lead a long pitch, or perhaps to route-find the way to the next camp. Apparently he had gone out of sight and out of communication for longer than anyone felt comfortable with. “Renan, this is Hilaree. Repeat. Do you copy?”

Another hour passed. I wanted to jump on the radio, every bone in my body urging to call for Renan myself. I resisted and kept quiet—3,500 feet below and miles away from where the team was climbing, there would be little help by me intervening. For the first time in these three of ten days I will spend solo at base camp, I felt irrationally terrified, alone, and suddenly very, very cold. The hot tears falling down my frosted checks shook me into the moment. I should never have turned on the radio. This is a normal incident for an alpine climbing ascent. Right?

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally heard Renan’s voice crackle loudly through the radio (which I had turned up to level ten and set about three inches from my head as I lay on the cold ground, my gaze bleary and fixed on the jagged west ridge of Hkakabo Razi). “Copy. This is Renan. No visibility, but I am at the top of the line and anchoring for Mark. You guys should gear up to follow our route, meet at Camp II in a few hours.”

It’s hard enough to be in love with a mountaineer and miss them from thousands of miles away while they are on an expedition. Never could I have imagined the intensity of fear and immediacy of feeling that comes with being at the base of the very vertical spires and icy slopes up which they ascend.

Inhale. Exhale.

The rest of the afternoon picked up its normal cadence after I caught my breath. I set-up a 5D motion time-lapse of the summit of Hkakabo, the fog drifting in and out, swirling clockwise and counterclockwise like flames of white fire. Using the H6N, I recorded some audio of the bubbling mountain stream, incidentally capturing the thunderous echoes of small avalanches and rock falls as they rumbled down Hkakabo’s many ridges. The occasional sun-ray poked through the mist and I would run to reorient a solar panel in its direction—a vain attempt to charge our GoalZero Yeti400 battery. No luck today. This may mean that I’m off the grid for a few days if the sun doesn’t return. I could probably benefit from some time away from the technological junkshow that is our film production.

For dinner, the Rawang cooks made fried rice, the tasty staple we have come to expect for breakfast and dinner. Sometimes they mix it up and cook wheat pasta. (This expedition is not for the gluten-free or low-carb dieters out there.) We eat huddled together around a small fire under a large plastic tarp, the hot smoke trapped and stinging our eyes. Everyone laughs when I bury my head into my knees to escape the burning smoke. They teach me the Rawang words for “eyes,” “ears,” “nose,” and “mouth.” I teach them the English words for “sun,” “clouds,” “fingers,” and “toes”—the extent of our verbal communication, although the shared experience transcends language. As I retreat back to my tent and plush 900-fill down sleeping bag, it pains me to know that they will all be sleeping under that tarp. One boy from Putao has only shorts and sandals. It seems futile but I give them Renan’s extra socks, a few of Emily and Hilaree’s t-shirts, my raincoat, and anything left that we aren’t wearing on our bodies. Even here curled up in my cocoon of goose feathers, it’s freezing cold. Icy sleet begins to hammer the tent walls. The wind howls. Just as I feel I could drift into slumber, the cavernous thunder of another avalanche falls.

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Maybe I’ll sleep with the radio on.

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.

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