Myanmar Climb: The Climb Begins – Dispatch #6

Read all the Myanmar Climb dispatches.

We can see the object of our obsession from base camp. Far, far above us—6,000 feet above, two El Capitans stacked on top of each other—the icy pyramid stabs into the sky. The mountain’s own flag, a plume of blaring white snow, marks the summit. Our base camp is on the north side of the massif and the north face looms forebodingly above our tiny tents. It is a shattered black wall with dagger-like buttresses separated by deep fissures choked with snow and ice. Along the crest of Hkakabo Razi’s north face are suspended a series of fiendish hanging glaciers. Today one calved and sent a blooming avalanche down the face. Indeed we hear avalanches smashing down the face every few hours. With its sawtooth towers of dark rock and killing couloirs, the north face isn’t appealing to the mountaineer’s eye—and yet this is where both Ozaki and the ill-fated Burmese expedition ascended the mountain. We have a different plan.

Like the Japanese, we intend to move westward up the valley along the base of the north face, gaining altitude easily and gradually. At the head of the valley, we will veer south up a relatively benign couloir. (I had a good look at it today during a reconnaissance.) We will put camp I near this couloir, but sheltered by overhanging rock. We expect to chop out tent platforms in the snow at approximately 16,300 feet—3,000 feet above base camp. After supplying camp I, we’ll ascend to the base of the west ridge, traverse around jagged gendarmes, and hopefully put camp II at around 17,500 feet. The west ridge appears to be both technical and treacherous, not to mention over a mile long, so we are expecting the necessity of placing one more camp at perhaps 18,500 feet. Because we have only 12 hours of daylight, Camp III seems prudent. From here we hope to make a bid for the summit.

Everyone spent today preparing for our departure tomorrow morning. We anticipate the ascent to take seven to ten days. Hilaree and Emily organized all the food; Cory got his camera gear in order, and Renan his film gear. Taylor spread out all our solar panels and charged batteries; I did a recce to find the route to Camp I. We also received a hear-lifting weather report: For the coming week, skies are expected to be mostly clear with only a small chance of precipitation. Winds will be strong—50 mph at times—but are expected to abate around November 7. Temps will range from 0 to 15 degrees F. We couldn’t ask for more.

It is an odd thing preparing for a serious climb. We are simultaneously exhilarated and apprehensive, optimistic but realistic, hopeful but not too hopeful. It has been 21 years since I first attempted this mountain and two years that Hilaree and I have spent planning this expedition. Now it all comes down to a little more than a week. We speculate about the route incessantly. Will the couloir above Camp I be avalanche prone? Will the west ridge have insurmountable spires? Will the snow be too soft or too hollow or too deep? Will the wind tear us to shreds? Mountaineering, at its core, is a game of unknowns. Yes, we have the requisite skills and a depth of experience few teams have, but in climbing mountains you always need a little luck—not merely to summit, but more saliently, to get down safely. In the end, the mountain always decides.

Love to all our loved ones.

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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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