Myanmar Climb: Live to Fight Another Day – Dispatch #11
Mountaineering is indubitably an unhealthy, sometimes even deadly, disease. Like malaria, once you get it, you have for life. You’ll be going along just fine, living a solid normal life, when you’re suddenly struck down by a severe bout of mountaineering melancholy: a lust so powerful the only cure is to start planning your next expedition. In some of us, the sickness is chronic. Hilaree and I started scheming to climb Hkakabo Razi before we were even home from Everest in 2012. Two and a half years later—after months worth of phone calls, writing and receiving a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant, obtaining all the necessary government permits, working our way overland up through Myanmar, hiking for two weeks in the interminable jungle on the most treacherous trail any of us had ever encountered, putting in four camps on the mountain—here we are poised for the summit attempt. We struggle out of the tent, freeze our fingers strapping on our crampons, take up our ice axes, and begin climbing. Our feet and fingers are already numb, but moving is better than lying in the tent trembling. At least blood starts pumping and warmth returns to the core.
Together we traverse around the first of a series of snow-armored rock spires, trudging up and down. Standing right on the razor’s edge, the mountain falls away on either side for 5,000 feet. The exposure could hardly be more extreme. A layer of clouds is a mile below us. It looks deceptively soft, deceptively inviting, like a vast feather bed. But one trip, one slip, and a climber would begin plunging through space. The only way to save his life would be for the mountaineer closest to him to leap off the other side, both men praying in the milliseconds of potential oblivion that the rope won’t get pulled over a knife-sharp rock and be instantly severed. The snow on the north side of the arête is hollow and insecure, so we try to climb along the south side whenever possible, where the snow is like styrofoam and grips the fangs of our crampons. The summit of Hkakabo Razi looms above us but doesn’t appear to be drawing nearer as we climb. What comes closer is one obstacle after another.
After a steep blocky arête we gather on a little perch of snow. Cory, who’s most admirable quality is utter honesty, says bravely, “I’m scared. I’m really f****** scared.” He suggests that perhaps we should turn around. I drop down around the next boulder to have a look at the way forward. Returning, I report that it looks possible. Renan checks it out himself and agrees. Cory says he’s game to keep going if Renan and I want to.
I lead down around the block, up through a narrow hallway between two tombstone-like slabs, and then downclimb to the next step. I continue down a steep snow ramp and suddenly the entire route to the summit appears before me. I am taken back. We knew we had one more deep notch in the ridge to negotiate, but I see now that it is filled with pointy stone towers, like the teeth of a dinosaur. I realize that it will take us hours to climb through this wind-gnashed maw. Then we would still need to somehow traverse around to the south side, climb up to the last col, then climb the steep snow ridge to the summit. We were already strung out and lead-limb weary. The route is too complex to find our way in the dark. Another bivy would be required, but this time we would not have the tent, our flimsy sleeping bags, or a stove. Given how cold we were with a hot meal inside us and a tent to protect us last night, an open bivy could easily kill us. Even if we somehow survived the night, with no water, the dehydration would make our blood as thick as sludge; and severe frostbite, especially for Renan, who’s feet were already fairing poorly, would be a certainty.
No mountain is worth dying for. No mountain is worth becoming an amputee for. I started working my way back to Renan and Cory. When I got there they already knew: the expedition was over.
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.
- Nat Geo Expeditions