Have a team of American and Burmese climbers just made the first ascent of the highest peak in Southeast Asia?
Story by Andy Tyson; Photography by Mark Fisher
Stepping off the Machinbaw Bridge and looking back, I was filled with disbelief. There must have been at least 50 porters jockeying to be selected to carry a huge load for our expedition. Meanwhile a line of team members were already trotting past me – seven climbers including myself, 10 supporting trekkers, 10 cooks and two military escorts. It hadn’t been clear until this moment just how many people had been caught up by this madcap idea of mine. Somehow my dream had become reality and had manifested as 79 people heading into the remote northern tip of Myanmar to make an attempt on an unknown and unclimbed peak.
I had discovered this peak two years previously, sat in my living room in Idaho, scanning the globe on Google Earth. Remembering accounts of the ascent of Hkakabo Razi – said to be the highest peak in Myanmar at 5,881 metres (19,295 feet), and therefore the tallest in all of Southeast Asia – by Takashi Ozaki in 1996, I wondered what the mountains of that distant and little-known area were like.
Satellite photos on the net allowed glimpses of the geography and I quickly noticed a few peaks that seemed very similar in height to Hkakabo. On closer inspection, one even appeared to be higher: Gamlang Razi. Could that be? My research began in earnest.
Despite my best efforts, I could not get a solid scientific answer. Hkakabo Razi was widely accepted as the highest, but I had a Russian map, a Chinese map and a US map all showing lower heights than that widely quoted for Hkakabo. Google Earth also offers a different figure, as does data from two major NASA sources: the SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) and ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer). The actual height of Hkakabo Razi appeared to be very much in question.
Seeking more information as well as a permit to climb in Myanmar led, via a series of online connections, to Steve Davis, who has lived in the country for four years and had helped start its Technical Climbing Club. A partnership was formed and a recce trip to organise and train for a full-scale expedition swiftly followed.
Back in the US after the recce, I put the finishing touches to the team and we added gear sponsors and others. Besides myself and my partner Molly, we could call on the skills of climbers Chris Nance, Mark Fisher and Eric Daft, as well as the knowhow of two local climbers, Pyae Phyo Aung and Win Ko Ko.
From me committing to the idea, to the full team getting off the plane into the August heat of Yangon took around 18 months all told. Five days after that, I was stepping off the Machinbaw Bridge.
This was to be the first-ever Myanmar-US climbing expedition, with sponsorship from the Htoo Foundation, a charitable organisation set up by a local group of companies of the same name. Styled ‘The Myanmar American Friendship Expedition’, we took our grand title seriously: us Americans would share our technical skills and mountain experience with the two Burmese climbers, while we in turn had a golden chance to be immersed in a culture only now venturing back onto the world stage.
We were also just as quickly immersed in the jungle which seemed to close around us as we hiked, wiping its plants and insects against us in a determined effort to turn us native or absorb us into its circle of life. The travel was hot, wet and dirty, but thankfully there were village bathing spots at the end of each day to rejuvenate us. Gratefully setting our bags down, we would quickly head for the water where we were able to purge just enough heat, mud, itching and stress to wake up and gladly do it again the next day.
While cooling off we could also chat with locals who we found universally welcoming and friendly, without being overly curious or solicitous. These people earned our respect and we were happy to have the Htoo Foundation doctor along with us to tend what was often a steady stream of villagers in need of care. Htoo was also providing financial assistance to each village along our route, offering elders funding for the local development projects that they felt deserved it most.
After hiking for 11 days, we reached Tahawndam, the most northerly village in Myanmar where we said good-bye to the porters who had carried loads all the way from Machinbaw. From here we would hire local Tibetans – more accustomed to the high elevations, colder temperatures and more comfortable with off-trail travel – to ferry our equipment on the difficult path up to our base camp at 3,600 metres. Some porters even signed up to take two loads at a time: they got paid per load and were happy to make more money. We were impressed by their strength, if a little worried for the long-term effects of such efforts.
Despite the heat and consistent rain, everyone set off in good spirits for our base camp site and the final push into the big mountains. To a climber, base camp is home. It is comfortable and easy living compared to the privations of camps higher on a mountain. Stocked up and relatively cosy, it is a place to prepare for, and rejuvenate from, efforts higher up.
Unfortunately, the jungle, still present at these altitudes, meant it was pouring rain most of the time which made this base camp a fairly miserable and un-restful place on our arrival. We had to send porters with some of our equipment further up the mountain as soon as we arrived, including our three best tents. That left just two other single-wall alpine tents at base camp – tents that are awesomely light and efficient for high on a climbing route, but small, cramped and very wet for a base camp enveloped in downpour and 100% humidity.
This was a low point for me. My vision of reaching base camp and getting a good look at our long-sought objective to help finalise our plans was dashed by the difficult conditions. Still, our limited climbing window was closing and we needed to keep moving forward despite this.
The prospect of more comfortable tents up high were now added motivation to get out of base camp and above the rain and clouds – maybe even out of the jungle! Our focus was on deciding which way to try and climb the mountain. Poring over satellite images back in Idaho had given me ideas, but now it was time to focus our efforts based on actual conditions and, hopefully, visual and physical scouting.
The weather was at least consistent now – a low cloud ceiling occasionally clearing until around noon, followed by increasing rain and fog until dark. In the morning, visibility was just enough for us to plan a route and keep moving supplies forward. We were moving big loads. Unsure of the conditions ahead, we wanted plenty of climbing gear to meet likely challenges and enough food for the effort. The weeks of jungle rations and hiking to this point had slimmed us down and we were fighting to cram in enough calories to sustain ourselves for the climb.
A crucial scouting day on one of the rainiest days of the climb provided some much-needed clarity among all the clouds. Striking out alone, I was able to identify the best location for our high camp and returned to the team with renewed confidence, excited to finally commit to a route up the mountain. It disappeared into the clouds higher up, and the section that I had been able to see looked icy, snowed-in and crevassed, but it was still the best approach we had seen and I knew with the skills we had to draw on, that we had a good shot at the summit.
We moved into our new high camp and were immediately heartened by the weather forecast we received by text on our satellite phone. The next day was to be drier, followed by a supposedly good day after that. It lined up perfectly for a rest, scout and organisation day, followed by a summit attempt. We were in position, ready to seize the favourable weather window.
Mountaineering makes many demands but experience brings familiarity with certain of them. We had each put a lot on the line to reach this point, carving out a couple of months from our jobs to hike into challenging and foreign terrain for a chance to attempt this unexplored peak. As accomplished climbers, we were quite prepared for the challenges of the alpine terrain above us. But the approach and climb up to high camp had been more taxing than most of us expected and we still could not tell exactly what the climb would entail. What we could see looked reasonable enough, but we were concerned about the narrow window of opportunity for a summit attempt.
In the early hours of September 7, our team began moving up the mountain. After climbing through boulder fields and bare ice, we roped together to traverse a crevassed glacier and move onto another, more consistently snow-covered, glacier.
Even as we neared the final, crucial stage, we had to make the tough decision to send Win back to wait for us in high camp as he was moving slowly and having difficulty with the technical terrain. The rest of us pushed on as two rope teams of three.
Deep snow made breaking trail a hard slog. Fog and light snow complicated route-finding. But higher on the mountain the weather started to lift enough that we could finally see where we were going and the challenges ahead. We roped up and put on crampons to protect against a long fall down the exposed slopes. Alternating the lead, we shared out the effort of forcing a trail through the snow. Spirits rose steadily with the weather and our upward progress.
From looking at satellite images and through our binoculars, we had been concerned about a spot just before the summit. We were worried that we might get close, only to find a dangerous step blocking our path. But now there came a shout of joy from photographer Mark Fisher who was breaking trail: he could see the spot and, though it posed a challenge, he knew it was doable. Everyone became excited as we closed on our goal.
The final ridge was steep and narrow with huge exposure on both sides where we could see straight down rocky and icy walls to the clouds below. Swirling and lifting, the cloud gave glimpses in all directions which heightened our anticipation. Finally we all topped out together at 2pm in the afternoon. Hugs and high fives were swapped and for a time the flush of success overtook any anxiety over the impending long and technical descent ahead of us.
Then came the crux of the whole expedition as we made as accurate a record as possible of the height of Gamlang Razi using our specially ruggedised Juniper Archer GPS. The data collected would be post-processed to increase accuracy once we returned from the climb and eventually this yielded an official new height of 5,870 metres (19,258 feet).
Thirty minutes of relative ease on the summit came to an end as we turned back down the mountain. Conditions were changing: the weather was improving, but that meant the snow was getting softer and we were already tired. Pyae became exhausted and uncoordinated on the descent, falling and being saved only by those who shared his rope five times on the way down. One of these falls even pulled his rope-mates off their feet and took all three on an uncontrolled slide down hundreds of feet and across the mouth of a large crevasse. Amazingly all were fine and the descent continued without further incident. Back at high camp after dark, we were reunited with Win who had descended earlier, and we all celebrated our success.
At this point, instead of continuing our descent down the mountain as originally planned, we decided to spend another day in high camp recuperating before heading back down to base camp in one long day. We were blessed then with the nicest weather of the trip. Warm, sunny and calm, it felt like a gift for our perseverance and ultimate success. We were able to dry out our equipment, take photos and revel in what we had achieved.
The rest was needed, for the following day proved to be one of the more challenging of the whole trip with massive loads to move back down to base camp. At least the weather continued to be fine enough to make our return to the jungle a more comfortable one as we began our long journey home.
Despite our success on Gamlang, we are only halfway to solving the mystery. Our measurement of its height is accurate to within two metres. Hkakabo was given a height of 5,881 metres by an Indian team in 1925 using triangulation, a common surveying method of its time, but data since then indicates it is almost certainly lower than that. There is, of course, only one definitive solution: climb Hkakabo to measure it with the same survey-grade technology we used on Gamlang. AA
When to go
The best time for general trekking in the country is November to April, while mountaineering in the high peaks is best attempted in August or September.
How to get there
Air Bagan offers bi-weekly flights to Putao from Yangon and Mandalay throughout the year. www.airbagan.com
Where to stay
Malikha Lodge in Putao is a luxury retreat for either end of your trip into the surrounding wilderness. www.malikhalodge.net
Contact local operators for additional places to stay – mostly homestays and simple guesthouses – in the Putao area.
What to take
For trekking – warm weather trekking clothes, umbrella, bug net for sleeping. Sturdy shoes for daily travel. Going beyond Putao you should be prepared to be self-sufficient in terms of first-aid supplies and any more technical gear.
Technical Climbing Club of Myanmar (TCCM),
tel: (95-9) 732 39737, (95-1) 572 306
Htoo Foundation, www.htoofoundation.org