Myanmar Climb: Reflections on Enduring the “Anti-Everest”

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This expedition will be featured in the July 2015 edition of National Geographic magazine.

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I’ve been home from Myanmar for nearly three weeks. The first week I was running on adrenaline—taking my kids skiing every day, enjoying Thanksgiving with friends and dinner out with my husband. The second week I slept a lot. Now that I am moving into week three, my body is no longer obeying my mind. I feel weak and emaciated, tired to the bone. Even my brain seems to be shutting down. My willpower, which was on high alert for the last two months, has entirely dissipated. But in the recovery of my mind and body, I find myself starting to process the insanity of living out an “anti-Everest” expedition.

As the leader of a seven-week National Geographic-sponsored expedition into remote parts of northern Myanmar to attempt an unknown route on a formidable mountain, this expedition took more than two years of hard and often grueling work to put together. And now it’s done. I am again sitting at the very desk I labored at in preparation for this trip. I’m in my comfortable home, sleeping in my comfortable bed, my kids are in school, my husband is at work, dinner is waiting to be cooked, and laundry needs to be folded. But my mind continues to wander back to Myanmar. As a team, we failed to summit Hkakabo Razi. Does that mean the expedition was a failure, riddled with mistakes? Or should I simply have been more tempered in my expectations knowing we were walking into so many unknowns?

I recall sitting at my computer before our departure, calculating our food needs, the weight of our bags, and how many porters we would need. I relayed all of this again and again to our Mandalay-based outfitter, and her confidence gave me confidence that we would have sufficient support on the ground to transport our gear. Writer Mark Jenkins and I studied the route by pouring over Google Earth and various Russian and British maps circa World War II. The two of us dreamed up this expedition while climbing Mount Everest in 2012 when we were faced with dangerous crowds. We both missed the creativity of climbing on a lesser-known mountain in a more remote region. We fantasized about a potential new route on the west ridge of Hkakabo Razi. This area of the eastern Himalaya was so unexplored that it was still a geographical mystery as to which was the highest peak of Southeast Asia—Hkakabo Razi or Gamlang Razi. The route we were exploring would potentially allow us to climb both. We planned to carry Juniper GPS devices to track our route and give us the most accurate elevations possible.

Mark researched weather data for the region, and we made the decision to go later in the year, post-monsoon, so that we weren’t hiking through the jungle in a constant downpour. It would also mean that the mountain would have less precipitation, which translates to less avalanche danger and firmer snow making for better climbing conditions and better visibility. Our goals were lofty but, in my experience, that is how all good adventures begin. Before leaving the U.S., Mark and I discussed how to properly size our team to be the most effective in reaching our goals. We eventually agreed on five people for two reasons. First, we really thought the chance of losing a climber to illness or insanity (yes—this was really a conversation) on the 130-mile, physically and mentally grueling jungle approach was a distinct possibility. Second, if we ended up being short on time, we could split the team, and one group could climb Hkakabo while the other attempted Gamlang.

Two major things happened in September, just before we arrived in Myanmar, that gave me pause. First, two climbers on a Burmese team that was attempting Hkakabo went missing on their final summit push. This launched a massive national rescue effort. A few weeks into the search, a rescue helicopter crashed creating extended chaos in the region through the middle of October, when our team was just reaching Putao, the final town before our long approach began in earnest. Second, a Japanese climbing team had set out a month ahead of us to climb the same route on the west ridge. Not only did this further deplete the reserve of porters and local resources, most specifically food, but it meant, if they were successful, we would no longer be climbing a new route nor would we be the ones to solve the elevation mystery of Hkakabo Razi. As this was the premise for our story with National Geographic magazine, it added a tremendous amount of pressure on Mark and me in that we wouldn’t be able to deliver the story we had pitched upon our return from Everest two years prior to setting foot in Burma.

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The reality, once our feet were on the ground in Myanmar, was far from our imaginings when plotting and planning from the comfort of our homes in the U.S. I quickly learned what it truly meant to stage an “anti-Everest” expedition. From a pre-trip planning perspective, Everest is a well-oiled machine, a known entity in terms of route, porters, Sherpa support and food (this is not to imply that it is an easy climb or without massive risks, I am speaking merely to the logistical side of Everest). The northern reaches of Myanmar have no history with mountaineering. Alas, our best-laid plans began to disintegrate with a town arrest enforced by the Kachin state government upon our arrival in Putao. While we were never given a clear reason as to why we were placed under arrest for those four days, we could only hypothesize that the local government had been overwhelmed by the bad publicity of two dead Burmese climbers and one helicopter crash resulting in yet another death and a severely injured pilot. Regardless of the reasoning, it was at this point that things went awry. As team leader, I didn’t foresee the domino effect that a four-day delay would have for the rest of our trip. I was still buoyed up by my preconceived notions from Nepal and India, Pakistan and Argentina, where large expeditions, porters, and infrastructure for climbers, are part of the local culture.

First, we began to lose our motorcycle drivers, crucial to the first leg of our journey in that they were to transport us 80 miles up the trail, saving us three days of walking, days we desperately needed in order to have enough time on the mountain. They had better things to do in their home villages than wait for an indeterminate number of days for some tourists to escape the clutches of the government. With an insufficient number of drivers, we had too much gear, food and film equipment. Organizing all of this cost us another day on the motorcycles. When it came time to start walking the 130 miles through the jungle to our base camp, we had no porters. When we didn’t show up on the day we were expected, they all returned to their remote villages to continue their work on their farms.

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By opting to go post-monsoon, we had amazing weather but we didn’t realize that our timing coincided with the seasonal rice and corn harvest. This equated to villagers who didn’t give a damn about portering foreigners’ gear from point A to point B on, what in their eyes, must have seemed like a fool’s errand. Compounding this problem, our porters were clearly weary from working for the rescue effort prior to our arrival. Alas, this began the drastic cutting of gear, camera and photo equipment, clothes, and food in order to make any headway through the jungle. These stresses—combined with the toil of moving every day—took their toll on each one of us. No one broke through the jungle to the base of Hkakabo unscathed. The jungle was a new environment. I had almost romantic notions about what it would mean to tromp through this arena, but I had no idea how claustrophobic and oppressive it would be in reality. How the insects and plant life—the leeches, bees and gnats, spiders, ticks, fleas, stingy nettles, and thorn bushes—could wear you down. A slip or fall on the punji sticks, a term from the Vietnam War for the spear-shaped bamboo spikes that lined our trail, would have easily resulted in being pierced and ending the trip. By the time we reached base camp at 13,100 feet, the sanctity of each team member’s sanity was at risk.

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But there was no rest for the weary. We had to push on. Again, as team leader, perhaps I should have forced a down day on all of us but there was no time and, despite our wearied state, no one was willing to stop moving.

We were so entangled with battling the elements of the jungle that we all assumed the mountain, with its ridges and steep faces of snow and ice, would be more familiar and, therefore, easier. This was not the case. In hindsight, I realize that we were all not only battling the visible, external hardships of our environment but we each were waging our own internal battles as well. For me, I was struggling with being away from home. My intermittent contact with my husband revealed that my two boys were not thriving in my absence. In addition, I was leading a team of strong, independent climbers, and I was fearful every day of coming up short.

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We had one day at base camp to switch gears in our bodies and our brains. Mark scouted ahead to snow line with two porters and dropped some climbing gear and food for the mountain near our potential Camp 1. The rest of us organized the remaining climbing equipment, divied the meals and snacks, tested our tents and coiled ropes. All of our gear had been shifted and stashed for nearly three weeks—many things needed to be dried and other items simply needed to be found. The following day, November 1, with the help of our porters and cooks, we were able to get everything we needed for the next ten days to our Camp 1. We were, for better or for worse, on our own.

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Coincidentally, it was during the climbing portion of our expedition that our internal team dynamics shifted and some of our personal struggles surfaced causing turmoil within the team. I strongly believe, having been on dozens of expeditions in my life, that no matter how public an expedition is through social media and realtime blogging, personal team struggles don’t go beyond the team—much like the saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Each of us had bright and beautiful moments, we shared amazing stories and thoughtful conversations as we trudged through the jungle. But each of us also had days inherent with discomfort, frustration, anger, and sadness. Such is the way of expedition life where each day is an intense struggle to survive, where there is no privacy to hide your tears, and where every personal fear or struggle or perceived slight is laid to bare in front of your teammates.

It took us five days to go from base camp to Camp 3, my high point on this trip at 18,200 feet. From there, Emily and I waited for two days while Mark, Renan and Cory pushed themselves to reach the summit. Despite my desire to be on the summit team, I was quick to realize that the best place for me was with Emily. Camp 3 was a pretty terrifying place and Emily and I have a very unique partnership.

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The winds were gusting so hard that Emily and I feared being blown off of our narrow perch. We were down to just a few packs of dehydrated dinners, some shot blocks, gels, and a few packets of peanut butter. We opted to save as much of it as we could for the summit team, knowing that they would be starving and exhausted upon their return. The stoves were constantly rejecting the dirty petrol and needed persistent maintenance. There were some intense moments when our communications with the summit team were poor; the temps and winds were so ferocious that during those communication lapses I was worried the guys had frozen to death or had been blown off the exposed ridge. While the summit managed to elude the team, despite our best efforts, I breathed a huge sigh of relief watching Cory, Mark, and Renan as they descended to Camp 3.

The following morning, Emily and I headed out first thing to descend to base camp. It was November 9, we left at the first sign of sun, and I had the best day of the entire trip. Perhaps it was because we were finally heading home which meant no more climbing into the unknown, or perhaps it was because we finally descended below the mind-numbing winds, but Emily and I worked like a well-oiled machine as we built anchors to descend, broke trail and down climbed. It felt so good to be in motion.

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Reflecting back on the mountain portion of our trip, from the comfort of my home, it occurs to me that I never considered that we wouldn’t reach the summit of Hkakabo Razi. Yet that is exactly what happened. On our long walk back to civilization, there was day after day in which to digest our failures and our successes. We came into the expedition with lofty goals and, in the jungle and on the mountain, we got it handed to us. With that said, I know that every single individual on our team put their heart and soul into this expedition. We left everything on that trail and on that mountain. The way I see it, there is no failure in the proud effort we put forth.

I realize only in hindsight the risk we took by attempting a truly “anti-Everest” expedition, how much more compounded are the chances for failure when there are so many unknowns. I now know why it took Takashi Ozaki three tries and a total of six months over two years to finally reach the summit. In his words, “We are always looking for the more difficult climb—this is the spirit of alpinism… I can say absolutely that Hkakabo Razi is one of the most difficult and dangerous mountains in the world. I was never scared like this before, like this time–I wanted to always run away from this mountain.” (Ironically, Ozaki lost his life on the slopes of Mount Everest in 2011.) Perhaps my biggest mistake was not properly heeding the warning of Osaki who, with Niyma Gyaltsen, were the first and only team to ever reach the summit. Alas, the mystery of the highest peak in Southeast Asia still stands, and I came home raw, stripped to the bone physically and emotionally. I am slowly piecing myself back together, and I can honestly say, despite not summiting, this was truly one of the greatest adventures of my life.

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On January 14, 2015
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