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What's a Few Hundred Feet?

Why five Americans spent more than a month trekking through a jungle to summit an unclimbed peak in Myanmar

By Molly Loomis

I lie sweating in my silk sleeping sack, fighting the urge to itch. Sand fly, mosquito, and leech bites cover my body in tight braille dots. I am hotter than I've ever been in my life, stuffed with 17 men in a bamboo hut that feels like a kiln.

And this is only the first day of our expedition to summit Gamlang Razi. We still have 44 days, 300 miles, and 80,000 feet of climbing ahead of us. I lock the pillow over my head to dampen the sounds of a generator, snoring, and roosters, wondering whether traveling through remote tribal villages and dense forest to summit an unclimbed peak will be worth all of 100 feet.

Hkakabo Razi, located in an eastern splinter of the Himalayas straddling the Myanmar-Chinese border, has long been regarded as Myanmar's (and Southeast Asia's) highest mountain—and is thus its most famous. Schoolkids chant songs about Hkakabo, and the Khampa Tibetans who inhabit the area consider it sacred. Even the surrounding national park bears the mountain's name. But new mapping data based on the latest satellite and radar technology that was dug up by our expedition leader, Andy Tyson, indicates that just five miles away, another mountain, Gamlang Razi, might actually be several hundred feet higher.

Intrigued that such geographical uncertainty still exists, Andy, Chris Nance, Mark Fisher, Eric Daft, and I—whose friendship was cemented while climbing in places like the Northern Rockies, Alaska, and Antarctica—have arrived in Myanmar armed with specialized GPS equipment to see for ourselves.

To get to the summit, we have to walk hundreds of miles and cross five tribal areas.

Hidden behind the curtain of a brutal military regime since 1962, Myanmar (also known as Burma) has been all but cut off from the outside world. It has been nearly 20 years since Japan's Takashi Ozaki, the first and only climber to attempt technical mountaineering in Myanmar, made his ascent of Hkakabo, pegged at 19,294 feet high in ground-based triangulation surveys conducted by the Indian army in 1925.

Andy, who'd rather surf Google Earth, online topographical maps, and satellite images than watch the latest blockbuster, found a discrepancy between Hkakabo's alleged 19,294 feet (a height popularized by noted naturalist Frank Kingdon Ward and later Ozaki, who relied on Ward's writings) and American, Chinese, and Russian topographical maps, as well as recent satellite images that place Hkakabo at elevations ranging from 18,671 to 18,963 feet. Prompted during the visits Andy and I made to their basement office, Harvard University Library's Map Collection staff concluded that Hkakabo could be 18,891 feet high, while Gamlang could be 18,989, making the latter Myanmar's highest peak.

But it's never just about climbing—or measuring—a mountain. Our reasons for coming are as varied as the terrain. For me, it's a return to the mountains after two years of being sidelined with a father fighting cancer and my own knee and spinal cord injuries and subsequent surgeries. For others, it's the last big trip before the obligations of new families take over. To get to the summit, we have to walk hundreds of miles through Hkakabo Razi National Park and cross five tribal areas and a handful of ecological zones, just as early Himalayan expeditions did, aiming for the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River and the flanks of Gamlang. Back home in Idaho, we anticipated that the trek in—with barking deer, rare orchids, and pygmy hunters with poison-tipped arrows—would be as challenging as the climb.

Two decades earlier, Ozaki teamed with Namar Jainsen, a Myanmar Tibetan he'd met in Ta Haung Dam, the last village en route to the two peaks. While a Tibetan's legendary strength at altitude is appealing, our team has opted to include Win Ko Ko and Pyae Phyo Aung, relatively inexperienced climbers from the nascent Technical Climbing Club of Myanmar. The two are part of a posse of young Myanmar eager to climb without hewing to the old-school traditions of the government-controlled Hiking and Mountaineering Federation, whose trips are modeled after slow-moving, high-impact military expeditions, burdened with hierarchical structure and a resistance to new ideas.

As former mountain guides and outdoor educators, we're eager to share our experience. Andy even led a free 10-day mountaineering training course with the Technical Climbing Club earlier in the year. In a country with such a traumatic and tumultuous history—where interactions with the outside world have been severely limited until recently, dissenting citizens can simply "disappear," and multiple civil wars rage between minority tribes and the military—the fact that the climbing club even exists humbles us.

"Ahhhhhh!" yells Win Ko Ko, dropping like a coconut from a bamboo suspension bridge into the cool jade water of the Nantee River. With a week of walking behind us, midday swim breaks, where the guys strip to their Jockeys and I drape myself in a cotton lungi, have become an integral part of our routine. Although we are carrying nothing more than trekking packs (porters schlep our gear and provisions), we still move slowly. We've planned to arrive at Gamlang just in time for a short window of good weather, but as a result, we're caught in one of Myanmar's hottest, wettest times of year. The river's cool respite is key to carrying on—along with umbrellas and hydration tablets.

When boys from a nearby village show up, we coax them into jumping off the rickety bridge too. We teach them how to high-five and fist-bump with varying degrees of success. Our Myanmar liaison, Thet Tun, tells us that most of them have never seen a white person. Although the Rawang, Lisu, Kachin, and Taron tribes we meet were converted to Christianity by an American missionary in the 1920s, very few Westerners or even other Myanmar have been here since. There are none of the "hallos," waves, or smiles that most kids in the underdeveloped world unleash to greet foreigners. Instead they usually stare, or simply run away. Our expedition hopes to change Myanmar's mountaineering history and share modern climbing techniques, but I didn't anticipate the potential for significant cultural impact. I struggle under the weight of something so delicate.

Thet Tun says that not much has changed since he first came here with Ozaki's 1996 expedition—other than there being a few more bamboo huts in one village, a few less in another. But at our departure point, an outpost called Putao, Hkakabo Razi National Park's manager tells me that his hopes for the park's future include a road running from Putao some 150 miles to Ta Haung Dam. I can't imagine the effort of building a road that would traverse the park's countless ravines, which resemble an accordion, or one that could survive the constant onslaught of rain and landslides.

 

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