(Text by Andy Tyson. Photos by Mark Fisher)
Follow a team of seven on a quest to find the highest mountain peak of Southeast Asia – a title hitherto given to Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi. A new contender for the prestigious position rises in the form of Gamlang Razi.
No water? Really? Daily downpours, dense muddy jungle, endless river crossings, huge snow patches of avalanche debris, fog, sweat and 100 percent humidity – water was everywhere on this journey. Now, on a ridge at 4,876.8 metres, there was none. We were in a cloud, but there was not a drop of water within an hour of arduous travel. And this was just the first step toward discovering a route up the mountain.
We had already walked almost 266 kilometres through dense jungle to try and climb this unexplored peak and we knew there would be more challenges, but lack of water was not one that we expected and given the watery world we had been travelling through, it was a striking irony. This was day 18 of our approach to Gamlang Razi, a high, glaciated mountain, in northern Myanmar. Our team of seven was trying to establish the first of what would eventually be three camps above our base camp.
I have been fascinated with the relatively unexplored mountains of eastern India, southwestern China and northern Myanmar for 20 years. The geography of five massive rivers twisting sharply south with huge mountains and parallel gorges looks impenetrable even on a map. What is there? So little exploration; so hard to get there; jungle, permits, no roads or airports; it must be interesting – and located right in the heart of this intriguing geography is northern Myanmar.
In late 2012, after researching Takashi Ozaki’s climb of Hkakabo Razi in 1996, I enlisted a team of five climbers from the US and partnered up with two Burmese climbers through their local climbing club (TCCM), forming a group of seven intending to attempt Gamlang Razi, known (if at all) as the second highest peak in Myanmar. We hoped to have an amazing journey and also see if Gamlang might actually be higher than Hkakabo, currently considered not just the country’s highest peak, but also the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.
Access to maps and information has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. The ability to zoom in to any point on the globe and get an idea of the rivers and mountains is a luxury like no other for a perpetual terrestrial explorer like me. I have a degree in geology and worked on some of the earliest electronic maps during and after my studies in the early 1990s. I then became a mountain guide working all over the globe, from Alaska to Antarctica and the Andes to the Himalaya.
Digitally zooming in on northern Myanmar, I was excited to see the geography. Ozaki’s descriptions of his expedition to nearby Hkakabo made the region sound mysterious, difficult even to find the peak. Now, I could see the hiking route we would take and ponder climbing route difficulties in my living room.
TCCM suggested approaching the Htoo Foundation, a charitable organisation in Myanmar, for funding. They graciously and enthusiastically agreed to sponsor the expedition. Their experience in the region allowed us a competent cadre of expedition support team members, including porters, cooks, guides and a doctor to care for the locals. The Htoo Foundation became an important part of the team, securing the necessary permits and caring for much of the approach logistics of the expedition.
We knew we would have a long journey through jungle and villages just to reach the flanks of our objective, and we were all excited about this part of the trip, as much as the unknown of the climb itself. After we left the short motor road outside of the northern town of Putao, the jungle took over, with villages appearing like oases in the middle of overwhelming vegetation.
The footpath was rugged and surprisingly difficult even though it’s the only artery of connection between humans. After 10 days and as many villages, we were all surprised by the slightly reduced density of vegetation and an upswing in crops, goods and health in the last two villages. The climate seemed a notch better for corn, beans, barley and squash. In addition, China wasn’t far away for goods and supplies. Easier crops and foot trade with China gave the furthest northern villages we visited – Tasuhtu and Tahawndam – a somewhat stable and confident air despite their exceptionally remote location.
Four more days ascending up to the edges of the jungle at 3,657.6 metres and we arrived at base camp soaking wet and itching to climb – not to mention itching from incessant bug bites! Soon, we were on the ridge above base camp and stymied by the lack of water. This was the best place for our next camp. We needed to acclimatise to the increasing elevation and we needed the clouds to lift to allow us to figure out which way from here was the best way forward. We had ideas about the route ahead, but we were at a physical crossroads – stay on the ridge or drop down and up onto a different one.
We set camp and took stock of the water we had. Chris, Mark and Eric stayed in the ridge camp that night while Molly, Pyae Phyo Aung, Win Ko Ko and I descended to base camp to acclimatise and gather more equipment. On the ridge, they laid out unused tent covers to catch the light rain. Indeed, there was water; we just needed to work for it. The next day, we got a few great views of the route ahead and placed our second camp nearer our objective.
The third camp put us in position for our summit attempt. Despite some bad weather, we were excited by the technical challenges the looming mountain presented. We used a much-needed rest day to review technical skills with Win Ko Ko and Pyae Phyo Aung, our Burmese teammates, as well as organise our equipment and discuss our summit attempt. Our spirits were high as the weather seemed to be getting better and we were in perfect position.
On September 7, we rose around 3:30am. It was dark and lightly snowing, but we suited up and started climbing. After travelling over bare and crevassed glacial ice, we climbed high enough to transition onto the snow-covered glacier. At the transition, because Win Ko Ko had been moving slowly and having difficulty on the technical terrain, he went back to base camp and the rest of us continued. We were committed to achieving a joint Burmese-American ascent, including representatives from both countries on the summit. Pyae Phyo Aung was with us still. He seemed excited, but he was a novice on the glaciated and technical terrain compared to the rest of the team. We were concerned about what the mountain had in store for us, and hopeful that we could achieve the summit together.
The clouds swirled around us throughout our ascent, closing in and obscuring the route ahead, and then breaking just enough for us to push further. We needed to use snow protection on the steep slopes, and use our best route-finding skills to keep the whole team moving forward safely. The weather started improving and we could see where we needed to go and even the summit ahead. All six of us reached the snowy summit that afternoon. We hugged and shouted, relieving the stress that had built during the first 32 days of the expedition, not to mention the years of planning leading up to it. This was truly a Burmese-American expedition from start to summit.
On the summit we used a sub-metre GPS receiver to record position and elevation data for 30 minutes. After returning from the climb and submitting the data to international experts for processing, the recording showed that the summit is 5,870 metres. Once we finished our data collection, took photos, revelled in our excitement and paused to rest, we were ready to make our way down.