After spending the last few weeks packing and preparing, it’s finally departure day for a trip to another far away place on the other side of the Earth. I packed all the usual suspects: tent, down jacket, sleeping bag, crampons, boots, ice axes, and ten pounds of coffee, plus a few items I travel with less frequently, like a mosquito sleeping net, malaria pills, anti-venom for snake bites, and plenty of DEET.
I’m going to Myanmar (formerly Burma) with my The North Face teammates Hilaree O’Neill (our expedition leader), Cory Richards, and Renan Ozturk, along with National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins and film assistant Taylor Rees. We’re about to experience what may turn out to be the most real adventure I’ve ever had.
Our objective in Myanmar is to climb the tallest peaks in Southeast Asia, which form the rightmost corner of the Himalaya. These jagged peaks in reach elevations as high as 5,800 meters, and they share the border between China, India, and Myanmar.
Due to the long history of political strife and violent warfare in the northern part of Myanmar, these mountains have been relatively isolated and untouched from climbers and Western travelers for the majority of the second half of the 20th century, finally beginning to recover and open up more in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
The plan is to climb Hkakabo Razi — long touted the tallest peak in the area at 5,881 meters — followed by Gamlang Razi, another peak around the same height (supposedly 5,870 meters). Since previous teams have been unable to extract exact measurements from both peaks to compare them effectively, our goal is to measure the most accurate elevation of each peak using GPS equipment in order to determine which peak is in fact the highest. Our objective is unique in today’s modern world — finding a geological mystery that’s still out there to be solved.
However, perhaps one of the toughest elements of the expedition will not be the climbing and measurement, but the journey that will begin long before we reach base camp. Our expedition will begin 900 miles away in Yangon (Rangoon), the formal capital city of Myanmar, in the southernmost part of the country, just a few kilometers north of the Andaman Sea. From there we’ll head north via plane, boat, and eventually foot for a 150-mile overland trek to our base camp on the border of China and India.
The topography below the alpine mountains shrinks gradually into tropical forest, so for nearly two weeks on our approach we’ll walk through the dense jungle terrain more typically associated with the region. And it’s here that snakes, leeches, spiders, and mosquitoes are the real dangers as opposed to the hazards of avalanches and rockfall that I’m more familiar with.
We’ll walk from sea level to 19,300 feet, just like the original explorers did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And I’ll admit it all has me a bit nervous. I’m used to mountainous terrain, dealing with cold and harsh environments, and even the uncomfortable effects of high altitude. But the jungle is something entirely new and intimidating.
How do I protect myself against all those tiny insects that want to hurt me? What about malaria? What if I get bitten by a snake? The element of the unknown with this trip has felt pretty scary and overwhelming at times. However, in preparation for departing I realized all I could do was do my best to prepare well, pack properly, organize my life, and be grateful that I have such an opportunity in the first place.
I’ve never before trekked 150 miles on approach to a climb, plus I think this may be my first true alpine climbing experience. Also, we’ll be climbing a new route on peaks where not many people have been before — a real adventure! So without exactly knowing what to expect, I haven’t really done anything special training-wise. I will say I have been trail running as much as I can, and I’ve been trying to get out to do some big days of rock climbing in the High Sierra, which is pretty much what I always do.
I think the mental preparation I’ve done is actually the most important. I’ve tried to tell myself to take each day as it comes and to maintain a positive attitude. There will be high points and low points, and I’m sure a fair degree of suffering, but also life experiences in a fascinating and beautiful place so different from where I come from.
And that’s what’s so special: No matter where in the world I visit, I always return home with a renewed sense of appreciation for the diversity of the world, it’s dramatic beauty, and the fact that I am lucky enough to be able to experience it firsthand.
For more from Myanmar, check out the National Geographic Adventure blog Beyond the Edge; search #MyanmarClimb on Instagram; and follow expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill (@hilareeoneill), climber Emily Harrington (@emilyaharrington), filmmaker Renan Ozturk (@renan_ozturk), photographer Cory Richards (@coryrichards), and video assistant Taylor Rees (@taylorfreesolo).
Photos courtesy: Adrian Ballinger (@adrianballinger) and Emily Harrington