October 1, 2014

Emily Harrington’s Prep Phase for Myanmar

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

October 2, 2014

For Hilaree O’Neill, Two Worlds Collide

Over the years, I’ve learned that my reality is comprised of living in two separate worlds. Occasionally those worlds overlap, but more often than not they remain distant from each other.

Just the other day a plane whisked me away to Myanmar in Southeast Asia for a seven-week The North Face/National Geographic expedition — away from my home, my husband, and my kids. I’m swapping out the world of daily, dependable routine and comfort for a different world of chaotic adventure, subsistence living, and the unknown.

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Hilaree O’Neill and Mark Jenkins on Everest.

The seed for this expedition was planted in my head more than a decade ago by fellow The North Face athlete Kasha Rigby, but it only finally took form in 2012 while climbing Mount Everest with National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins.

Mark and I talked at length about former climbs more remote and adventurous, a stark contrast to the crowds and mayhem of Everest. During these talks with Mark, I learned that he had, on several occasions, attempted to reach the same mountains in Myanmar, but had been repeatedly foiled due to the politics of the region. Between the two of us, the momentum built and we attained a NGS Expeditions Council Grant and sponsorship from National Geographic magazine and The North Face.

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Testing the Juniper GPS.

So for the last several months, I’ve been organizing our team of six to travel to Myanmar: to walk nearly 150 miles (each way) through the jungle and, ultimately, to try to climb Hkakabo Razi and its neighbor Gamlang Razi in the remote northern reaches of the country. These two peaks are neck and neck to be the highest peak in SE Asia, and we hope to prove the winner by climbing both with our unwieldy yet incredibly accurate Juniper GPS systems.

There is no doubt that on any given day, raising two very energetic boys in our little mountain town of Telluride, Colorado, is total and utter chaos. But there is always a rhythm to it, a solid base from which the chaos stems. Planning seven weeks in a country I’ve never been to, to climb peaks I’ve never seen, equates to chaos as well. And when the two worlds collide is when things get really interesting.

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Hilaree’s son lends a hand with packing.

For example, a typical pre-expedition day would go something like this:

Wake up at 6:30 a.m., and pack the boys’ lunch for the day. Start breakfast and wake the kids up. My husband, Brian, gets up to help. The boys start wrestling. I stuff breakfast in everyone’s mouth and put shoes on. More wrestling. (Note: I am usually yelling at this point.) Brian heads out to work. Despite it only being September, it’s been snowing, so the boys and I put on gloves and hats and bike to school.

Then my phone starts ringing and emails start buzzing. There’s a slight emergency because Zoltan, a snake expert with National Geographic — of course his name is Zoltan! — is worried we won’t get our anti-venom kit in time. Yes, we need anti-venom to travel through the jungle because of deadly kraits, cobras, etc. I email with Mark and our contact in Yangon: We get money wired to Bangkok and the anti-venom kit ships later that day from Bangkok to Yangon. I cross my fingers it will make it in time as it takes five to seven days to ship, and we arrive in Myanmar in a few days’ time.

I try to squeeze in some exercise in the form of a run, and 3 p.m. rolls around really quickly, so I hop on my bike, pick up the boys from school, and head to the town park for soccer practice. I frantically try to get them dressed, but they won’t stop wrestling, and I lose my mind a little bit. They finally hear me and head off for their respective teams. I’m coaching my younger son’s soccer team of kindergarteners, and it reminds me that dodging snakes and climbing icy mountains are relatively sane activities compared to wrangling 5- and 6-year-old boys.

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Soccer practice.

We get home after soccer and Brian makes dinner while the boys do homework and color in between fits of more wrestling. Bedtime rolls around, and as I lay in bed with my boys, my heart breaks because I know I’m leaving in a few short days.

Seven weeks is a long time.

I also know, however, that I am not complete in a reality with only one world.

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: Hilaree O’Neill

October 9, 2014

Arrival in Myanmar: The Long Way In

[Words: Emily Harrington]

We arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, barely six days ago, or was it only five? I seriously can’t remember, but it almost feels like we’ve been here for two weeks already.

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4 a.m. duffel shuffel. (Credit: Hilaree O’Neill)

I keep reminding myself that this is how I always feel at the start of long trips: The first few days drag on in a cloud of jet-lagged haze and sensory overload, and the romantic and heroic objectives I fantasized about back home become real life tasks that are both daunting and a bit frightening.

The beginning of this trip has felt especially so because of the overland travel we’re currently in the midst of. We literally have hundreds of miles to cover and tens of thousands of feet to climb before we can even begin actually climbing in the mountains. But this is why we’re here. At its core, this expedition is about taking the long way and maximizing our interaction and exploration of a country long isolated and cut off from foreign eyes. We’re attempting to be true adventurers, which is something that’s become easier to avoid in this day and age.

Bus_DrivingSo far we’ve experienced the insanity of Yangon, the former capital city with the worst traffic I’ve ever seen due in large part to the fact that motorbikes are outlawed, creating exponentially more vehicles in a city of 7.5 million people. From there, we rode a ten-hour overnight public bus to Bagan, a hellish experience made even worse by the local sitcoms playing on max volume on a flat-screen at the front of the bus.

That said, it was also bizarrely entertaining to travel in such a way, all crammed in for ten hours with no one else who looked or spoke like us. We took it in stride, smiled and laughed at our lack of resilience compared to the locals, and arrived in Bagan weary yet fulfilled, as if we’d actually accomplished something. We’d completed the first phase of the journey, taking us that much closer to the mountains.

Hilaree O'Neill overlooking Bagan. (Credit: Emily Harrington)

Hilaree O’Neill overlooking Bagan. (Credit: Emily Harrington)

Bagan is a magical ancient city with nearly 2,200 Buddhist temples sprinkled throughout, overwhelmingly beautiful and old. Just to add to the list of transportation modes, we rented electric scooters and tooled around the city for a day, speeding past endless rows of stupas, rallying through the streets with glee, taking photos, and trying not to crash.

Hil_ScooterWe woke the next day and boarded a boat, which took us 140 kilometers (87 miles) up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. It took 12 hours and felt lazy and slow, almost painfully monotonous at times. I took the time to read a bit about Myanmar and to formulate some understanding of the history and politics that define this country that was so war torn and shut off from the world for much of the last half century.

Mandalay is the cultural and economic hub of Myanmar, located in the middle of the country on the Irrawaddy. First impression: It’s too hot and uncomfortably humid — 15 minutes outside and you’re soaked in sweat and street grime.

But like many cities I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, Mandalay is a wild mix of old and new. The streets are loud and hectic and everything seems to be constantly in motion. Top 40 music blaring from the shopping mall competes with the Buddhist prayers sung over the loud speaker at the monastery nearby, where children as young as 5 are sent by their families to become monks. They giggle at us, wave, and smile shyly, while the older ones invite us inside for tea and lunch. We ask to take their photo, and they ask for ours in return, pulling out their iPhones and digital cameras just like we do, mutually curious of one another.

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Young Buddhist nuns light candles at the Lighting Festival at the Mahamuni Buddhist Temple in Mandalay. (Credit: Emily Harrington)

I’m realizing that the only way to really deal with the overwhelming nature of a journey like this is to take it one day at a time — to be present and to take it all in, even the hard stuff. I’ve already felt the exhaustion set in, the fear of unknown circumstances, and discomfort with the heat and humidity; but I’ve also felt awe and wonder at everything we’ve seen and done, and immense gratitude and appreciation for being here. It’s all a part of the process, and it’s all valuable.

Our next phase involves a 17-hour train north to Myitkyina, a flight to Putao, a potentially treacherous motorcycle ride into the jungle, and then we’re on foot. From there, the journey really begins, although we’ve have already seen and done so much.

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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).

 

Feature image photo credit: Emily Harrington

October 13, 2014

Trains, Planes, and Travel Unknown

[Words: Hilaree O’Neill]

Jet lag was working in our favor this last week as our team continued to move north across the Myanmar landscape. With two more distinct phases of travel ahead of us — train to Myitkyina and plane to Putao — we did a final alpine start (read: got a very early start) to our last morning in Mandalay by hopping another (much smaller) boat and crossing the Irrawaddy from east to west for a bit of sightseeing.

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As is the case with most places, the early morning is the best time for milder temperatures, lower humidity, and beautiful light. We beached our boat around 6:30 a.m. in the town of Mingun, and we spent the next few hours wandering around an unfinished pagoda that dates to the time before English colonialism in Myanmar. In addition to being unfinished, the pagoda was marred by an earthquake that left eerily perfect cracks running vertically along the façade of the brick structure.

Unfortunately our time in Mingun was short because we had a train to catch on the other side of Mandalay just after noontime. So we hopped back on the boat to cross the river for the last time, taxied to the hotel, grabbed our bags, and jumped into another taxi to travel to the train station — only to find that our train was delayed nearly five hours.

Exploring the unfinished pagoda near Mingun Temple. (Credit: Renan Ozturk)

Exploring the unfinished pagoda near Mingun Temple. (Credit: Renan Ozturk)

I’m pretty sure that each us had preconceived notions to describe how our train journey would unfold — it would be romantic, relaxing, scenic, or adventurous. However, only Taylor had actually put in research pre trip into learning about this particular section of railroad, and she mentioned (somewhat under her breath) that she had seen an article referring to this train ride as a hairy experience.

I, for one, thought she was being dramatic. But within 30 minutes of pulling out of the Mandalay station, just as the sun was setting, we were all completely gripped. Our “upper class” cabin felt more akin to a small cell as it was entirely closed off from the rest of the train. There was nowhere to go — no other cars to explore and no train car restaurant for the 18-hour trip. And it seemed as if our car hadn’t seen other passengers since WWII.

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Credit: Renan Ozturk

The best description for the upper bunks would be uninhabitable. Emily tried, but within ten minutes of crawling up she counted dozens of spiders. There were cobwebs everywhere. As for the seats down low, they were supposed to fold into a bed, but when we tried every piece we touched broke apart and fell to the floor. It was a miracle to even piece them back together as seats.

Our car was close to the engine, and, for the entire ride, black smoke billowed through our windows leaving us covered in grime. The power clicked on and off, causing the lights and our only tiny fan to falter and flicker, almost like a form of torture. Worst of all, however, were the rails the train was riding on. Frequently they were loose and warped, causing the entire train to buck up and down and side to side, throwing our bodies into the air over and over and over again, and with such intensity that I was convinced each time we would derail.

National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins contemplating sunrise on the Irrawaddy. (Credit: Hilaree O'Neill)

National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins contemplating sunrise on the Irrawaddy. (Credit: Hilaree O’Neill)

At 2 p.m. the following day, we finally pulled into the station in Myitkyina. I had to restrain myself from dropping to the street and kissing the ground. I conceded that however Taylor had first described the ride may actually have been an understatement. When we got to our hotel, none of us had much energy for exploring, so I rinsed the grime off in the shower and I hunkered down under the covers, willing the past 24 hours to quickly become a distant memory.

We finally ventured out for dinner, and I could sense that we had arrived in a very different part of the country. The people looked different — a more Tibetan influence to their features. The language also was different, and there were more Christian churches and fewer Buddhist temples. We were officially in the Kachin State of northern Myanmar.

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We had only one more major section of travel the following day, a 45-minute domestic flight on Air Bagan from Myitkyina to Putao. We were hopeful that this last phase of our journey would be straightforward. At the very least, it would have to be better than the train ride.

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).

 

Images courtesy: Hilaree O’Neill. Feature image photo credit: Emily Harrington

October 17, 2014

City Arrest and the Motorcycle Gang

[Words: Renan Ozturk]

Frantic arms waving in the air. Hilaree, leading the rest of the team, ran down the tarmac chasing the large aircraft, begging it to stop in the middle of its takeoff sequence. I’m not sure how we got through security and to this point, but judging by the fact that we saw AK-47s strapped to grandmother’s handbags, going through the X-ray machines without being flagged, security didn’t seem to be an issue.

Due to some political red tape, we weren’t supposed to board the aircraft, but against all odds we prevailed and the ship did a 180 on the runway and opened its door for us. A quick one-hour flight later put us in Putao, the last big village where the real jungle begins.

After a week of intense city travel — with all the overwhelming sights, sounds, and smells — it’s great for all of us to feel the calm of a small town. We set up in a small guesthouse, a five-minute walk from the one-block downtown strip where the food was a big step up: fresh fruits and vegetables and rich local flavor.

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This was the turning point of the expedition where it felt like we truly started to immerse in the culture, eating every day at the few local restaurants and tea shops with all the townsfolk. For Cory and myself, the dusty kitchens made us feel quite at home, like our expeditions to Nepal, and we came to life shooting the godrays coming through the cracks with steaming teapots filling the frames. Spirits were high with the naivety of not knowing what was to come.

In the morning, our trusty head fixer, Iyin, informed us that the Kachin government had denied the permission that the federal Myanmar government had granted us, and also put us under city arrest. We were not allowed to leave the city limits.

The conspiracy theories of why this had happened started flying around within the team. Maybe it was because of the recent mountain accident, where two Myanmar climbers disappeared on the descent followed by a helicopter crash during the rescue, and the government was already overwhelmed.

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After three restless days in town with Iyin working around the clock to get over this hurdle of red tape, we were finally granted our permission and allowed to continue on. The mystery as to why we were held up still unravels.

With the ban lifted, we discussed the next phase of our ever-surprising adventure. Hilaree had told us this section of the journey was by motorbike, which sounded exciting back home, but we had no idea what that would entail. Our crew of about 17 bikers seemed to be all the young, hip punk kids from the village, in skinny jeans, soccer team T-shits, knockoff designer sunglasses, and shaggy ’70s haircuts.

It was a good thing they all had small wiry frames, because the bikes were tiny Chinese, two-stroke, over-glorified dirt bikes. Each load was one of them, one of us, and our daypacks strapped to two-bamboo poles sticking out the back. For those just carrying gear, it was the tiny driver and about five giant Base Camp Duffels that they tied onto flat pallets strapped to the sides and back of the bike. These massive 250-pound loads were so heavy that the suspension was bottomed out and you could barley see the rider’s head poking out the top.

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The morning of our departure proved to be torrential downpour, which added to the chaos and cycle of “hurry up and wait” that often happens on expeditions. Eventually we tore off in a giant Hells Angels posse into the jungle. There were whoops of joy as well as blaring country-style bible music from all the giant boom boxes all the kids had bungeed to the front of their bikes. As opposed to all the buses, trains, planes, and boats to get to this point, this was a much more engaging way to travel.

The adrenaline of it all was intoxicating — covering so much ground so quickly; seeing village after village each with its own fascinating patchwork farm, raised bamboo huts, and the odd bewildered villager who you make eye contact with for a moment as you whizz by. Though soon though we came to realize the downsides, as we only spent about five miles on paved roads and then hit rutted dirt, rocks, and slippery red mud.

At the first big mud patch, multiple bikes did full wipeouts in slow motion as the tires sunk in half their diameter. I watched as Cory barely escaped a broken leg and Emily also got dumped hard. “This is where the tourist shit ends and the real adventure begins,” Mark screamed as he pulled off the first leach from his ankle and helped push one of the duffel-loaded bikes through the rough patch.

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By lunchtime we all began to realize how much of a toll this was going to take on our gear, our bodies, and our energy. It was a core workout filled with constant adrenaline rushes, navigating a technical mountain biking terrain without actually being the one in control of the bike.

Progress was slow. An hour before dark on day one, we had only gone half of what we had expected. There were miles to go, and the situation was ripping at the seams. Despite a lot of back and forth arguing and a near biker-strike, we convinced the riders to push on into the night.

As darkness fell and the headlights came on, we careened through the tunnel of green, deeper into the remote regions, hoping that a stray rock or patch of mud would not send us off the bike. It was pure mental and physical exhaustion. Our bike gang was also a bit worse for wear, with some sporting cuts, scrapes, and stains from the various wipeouts. Many bikers sought medical attention. Emily and Hilaree stayed awake treating the wounds, tapping out most of our Neosporin supply in one swoop.

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After the night of heavy rain, we woke to realize that a number of our bags hadn’t made it with us in the dark on the nasty road. We spent the morning planning out various scenarios of how to make it work with the limited bikes we had. This was not a fully predictable Nepal expedition to Everest where people have the logistics locked down from the get go. Everyday is an unknown, with its own problems to be solved.

By the time we left it was 3 p.m., and we were looking at another late night finish. The porters drank beer spiked with whisky to numb the pain, cranked the music, and were off again to the rutted trails.

When it was all over after the third day, we had traveled about a hundred miles. We unloaded in yet another heavy rainfall, frantically trying to undo the spider web of cheap plastic rope to get our drenched bags to dryer places. “I’ve actually got blisters on my bum,” Cory said looking at his backside.

All of us agreed the motor-bike gang was an underestimated crux of our adventure, a journey that still feels like it is only beginning as we head on into the jungle on foot for another 150 miles of walking to basecamp.

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).

 

Photo credit: Renan Ozturk

October 28, 2014

Lessons Learned in the Jungle

[Words: Hilaree O’Neill]

Today is the 24th of October. I left home nearly one month ago on October 1st, and I have yet to even reach our base camp for climbing.

We still have 6 days of walking some 60 miles and 9,000 feet of elevation gain before we get to our final camp on the north side of Hkakabo Razi. From there, we have 5,000 feet of technical climbing on 2 separate peaks to accomplish our goal of summiting Hkakabo and Gamlang Razi. We have already walked approximately 70 miles from the village of Gawle to our present location, Dashuhtu, a clean and picturesque town nestled at the confluence of 2 raging rivers.

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A full month of intense traveling — we have only spent more than two nights in one place, Putao, and that was because we were under town arrest — to finally begin our climb. That is totally nuts.

But we have learned many things along the way.

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We’ve learned that while the jungle is host to venomous snakes, tigers, and leopards, it is the little things like gnats, leeches, and bees that are the real killers. The villages are all very small and there is absolutely zero access to anything medical. We have a fairly extensive medical with us, thanks to Adventure Medical, but it’s not enough to treat some of the ailments we’ve seen in Dashuhtu: a 2-year-old with severely infected insect bites (locals are not immune to the bugs), and an older child with severe diarrhea and distended stomach. These are things we helped as best we could but are beyond our skills to properly diagnose.

Water is everywhere! It spouts from the hillsides forming beautiful rivers with the most delicious and clean water I’ve ever had in my life. We rarely carry water with us while walking because around nearly every bend there is a cold stream. We can drink our fill to replenish our bodies from the insane amount of sweat we’re dripping from hiking in the humidity and heat of the jungle.

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The women are stunningly beautiful with big smiles and lots of free laughter. No one speaks any English, but there is some modicum of communication through this laughter. Unlike most places I’ve traveled with porters — like Pakistan, Nepal, and India — the women in Myanmar porter loads equally with the men. There seems to be more equality between the sexes. And the men are often carrying infants swaddled on their backs. Perhaps it’s the religious influence in the region: In the 1950’s, missionaries traveled through this region and now most all of the villages are devoutly Christian.

The trails are rugged. Our timing is such that we are walking on post-monsoon trails, meaning they are mostly wet, often washed out, muddy, and precipitous. In our gear cut, we all committed to one pair of shoes for the trek in and out — some 250 miles total. We are all crossing our fingers that our shoes will hold up under this abuse. Many days we are walking more than 15 miles with an overall elevation gain only in the hundreds of feet. However, our actual up and down is more like 3,000 to 4,000 feet a day due to the ups and downs of the ravines we are crossing.

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The idea for this trip was hatched on Everest two years ago as a remedy for the craziness we encountered there. Only now, weeks into our “anti-Everest” expedition, can I fully appreciate what that means. For one, we brought way too much stuff assuming there would be porters to carry our loads, similar to the well-traveled route through the Khumbu. We were very wrong. In order to move the 150 miles to base camp, we’ve had to cut our gear in half and then in half again. Every day that we get closer to the mountains, I lament the loss of my cozy puffy pants left behind in the lowland jungle.

There has been a lot of miscommunication between our team and our guide. We’ve run into a fair amount of red tape with the Myanmar government and the Kachin State, resulting in a four-day delay in the town of Putao in which our climbing permits were nearly revoked.

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Similar to Everest, the many bridges we have to cross remind me of the ladders over crevasses through the icefall. As we get higher, the bridges are made entirely of bamboo tied off to trees on either end. These bamboo contraptions are nearly 100 feet off the ground and span a river hundreds of feet wide. The creaking and snapping of the bamboo underfoot is reminiscent of crampons scraping aluminum like nails on chalkboard.

Roald Amundsen once said, “Adventure is just bad planning.” All I know is that I’ve spent two years planning this expedition and, despite my best efforts, every day of this trip has been an adventure.

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: Hilaree O’Neill

October 31, 2014

Base Camp and Mountains on the Horizon

[Words: Emily Harrington]

We’re now 30 days into the expedition and hoping to reach base camp tomorrow. We’ve travelled nearly 900 miles — via various modes of transport including boat, public bus, train, airplane, motorbike, and on foot — since our arrival in Yangon one month ago. And we just spent the last two weeks hiking 120 miles through the jungle into the alpine, traveling from only 1,500 feet above sea level to our base camp at 13,000 feet.

The trip as a whole has been full of unexpected twists and turns. We were under town arrest for four days in the village of Putao, forbidden to leave under a mandate from the Kachin State government, which tried to refuse us permission to climb. Before that, we’d run into immigration issues at the airport in Myitkyina, which resulted in us being late for our flight and Hilaree and I running onto the tarmac to wave down the 737 Air Bagan flight we were meant to be on. This stunt works in Myanmar, and the plane actually stopped its engines and let us on, but I’m pretty sure anywhere else in the world we would have ended up in jail.

A first glimpse at the mountains.

A first glimpse at the mountains.

In the jungle, our prior delays had a domino effect: Our motorbike drivers were no longer available to work because we’d shown up late. Fortunately, after some heavy persuading and scrounging by our local guide and translator, we managed to ride 80 miles on screaming and overloaded 125cc motorbikes through rivers, over suspension bridges, and down muddy single tracks. There were more than a few spills and wipeouts, but thankfully nothing too debilitating. But we were again delayed a few days by the time we arrived to Gawle, the tiny village we were beginning our trek from.

We thought the hiking part might throw us into a sort of rhythm we’d lacked thus far, but we were seriously mistaken. The remoteness of the region we were traveling in combined with the sudden influx of visitors from a Japanese expedition and a rescue one month before our arrival had exhausted all the human power in the area. We had no porters to carry our gear to base camp. They had all already been hired by the Japanese or were too exhausted from the rescue effort to work for us. We found ourselves stuck again — only this time we were stuck in the middle of the jungle.

Of course, fast forward to today, and we are now just one day below base camp, so we were not stuck indefinitely, just like we didn’t stay under town arrest, or miss our flight, or suffer too gravely from any of the other inconveniences we’ve faced so far on this journey.

But in those moments of uncertainty it feels grave. It feels like the world is against us, like we’re swimming upstream and gaining no distance. Floundering along and questioning our purpose here every step of the way.

The North Face athlete Hilaree O'Neill admires Hkakabo Razi.

The North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill admires Hkakabo Razi.

I’ve walked more than 100 miles now on some of the roughest, most rugged terrain I hope to ever encounter. I’ve slipped and slid down muddy embankments; walked across countless bridges held together with only bamboo strips; rolled ankles and smashed my shins on loose rocks and broken tree branches; and been bitten by a variety of insects from which the itch is just now starting to fade.

But the itch has faded, just like those low moments where nothing seems to be working in our favor. When it feels like an eternity in the moment, though it’s fleeting and forgotten as soon as it’s over. Now we’re almost there. It’s sounds silly to rejoice in our arrival at the start of the climb, but not if you think of the entire approach as one big mountain, right? With that perspective we’re nearly to the summit!

For the first time today we saw one of the peaks we want to climb: Hkakabo Razi. It looks beautiful and massive and intimidating. Seeing it gave us a jolt of inspiration though, a long awaited glimpse at our objective. For me it’s only been a few months of planning and wondering about these mysterious peaks, but for other team members it’s been years and decades in the making. Hilaree first conceived of the idea to come here 12 years ago, and she has been scheming ever since. For Mark, this is his third trip to Myanmar in the last 20 years. On previous attempts he’s been arrested and deported before even reaching the mountains.

We also crossed paths with the Japanese team today. They were walking down from base camp after a failed attempt at the summit. We exchanged pleasantries and ended up camping with them because their head climber had injured himself on the trail and needed some medical attention. They were kind and helpful, and they made us forget the frustrations we felt we faced as a result of their presence. They gave us gas for our stoves, gifted us extra ropes, and shared valuable information with us about the route and what they had seen. It felt like a blessing to run into them, a stroke of luck we’d been lacking so far.

Porters and local guides sit around the campsite fire.

Porters and local guides sit around the campsite fire.

We’re camped in a rhododendron forest tonight. I can hear our porters (yes, we found some who wanted to work for us) joking and laughing, some of the most animated and happy people I’ve met on the journey so far. We’ll have dinner soon, crawl into our sleeping bags, and sleep until daylight, when we’ll pack our things and walk up, just like we have every day for the last two weeks.

I feel farther away from home than ever before: nervous and scared for what lies ahead, and yet patient and content with taking it one day at a time. I realize that we are lucky. We’re lucky to have made it this far. And with a little bit more luck we may be able to get ourselves up a mountain or two.

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).

 

Photo credits: Emily Harrington

November 11, 2014

Piecing Together the Hkakabo Razi Puzzle

[Words: Hilaree O’Neill]

I’m lying in my The North Face Mica 2 tent next to Emily. It’s 4 in the morning, but I’m wide awake because I’m starving and my grumbling stomach won’t let me sleep. At least I am warm though — finally. Yes, after what felt like an eternity of shivering, it feels good to be warm.

Our team is in one piece, more or less. We each have varying degrees of frostnip on our feet and fingers, and Renan has a broken left arm, which is the worst of our injuries by far. Mark is so skinny he almost looks like a different person from the one who started this trip some six weeks ago. And as for myself, I’ve easily lost 15 pounds and lie here feeling my ribs and hips sticking out somewhat grotesquely through my thin skin.

Looking back on this last week, our attempt to climb Hkakabo Razi and put to rest the mystery of the mountain’s summit altitude turned out to be a bigger challenge than any of us could have imagined.

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The North Face climber Emily Harrington and video assistant Taylor Rees sit with The North Face climber Renan Ozturk after he suffered a broken wrist. (Credit: Hilaree O’Neill)

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November 4th began with the worst weather we had seen to date in the high country, however I welcomed it, and for good reason, as the day before had pretty much left me with an empty tank. We were all carrying excruciatingly heavy backpacks as we moved from Camp 1 to Camp 2, up roughly 1,500 feet of steep ice followed by a massive north face of unconsolidated snow and loose rock. I’d managed to neglect taking care of myself during the climb and hadn’t eaten or drank any water the entire day. I arrived at 17,200 feet, Camp 2, nearly hypothermic. I had to be hustled into a tent and wrapped in coats and sleeping bags, and nearly spoon-fed some hot water, before I could regain my composure, before I could breathe and stop shivering.

In our effort to simply make it to the base of Hkakabo Razi, we had had to cut our gear by more than half due to the lack of porters. Some of the gear previously cut was extra clothing, and now I was beginning to fear that we had seriously underestimated the extreme cold of this mountain. Being cold really saps one’s resources.

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The North Face climber Renan Ozturk taking in the scenery amongst the clouds at Camp 2. (Credit: Hilaree O’Neill)

There at Camp 2 we were very close to the Tibetan border and could see not only to the north, the direction from which we had come, but also to the west and south. It was breathtaking. But we also saw the clashing of two distinct climates — dry to the north and wet to the south — as they hit Hkakabo Razi from their respective sides, creating a humid type of mountain cold that I had never experienced before. In addition, the collision seemed to be causing severe winds as we looked toward the ridges looming above us.

Our down day flew by, and the next day the weather was improved. We packed up camp, and we debated our route for only a minute, as it seemed obvious that we needed to climb up to gain the ridge. However, it turned out we were wrong.

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The North Face mountaineer Cory Richards cresting the ice climbing pitch on the way to Camp 2. (Credit: Hilaree O’Neill)

Quickly we ran into a dead end of loose, unclimbable nastiness in the form of crumbling, impassable granite blocks. From our new vantage, we saw the only way around was actually to drop several hundred feet to the south, gaining a glacier that came up from the Tibetan side of the massif. This required some creative crevasse navigating and took us way around to another steep snow face that finally put us solidly on the west ridge. We gained another 1,100 feet of elevation, but much like the jungle walk on our approach, it was a circuitous route with much up and down that left us fairly spent.

Camp 3, our high camp at 18,200 feet, was possibly the most dramatic alpine camp I’ve ever pitched a tent. Perched on a tiny ridge that ran perpendicular to the main west ridge, there was just enough room for our two single-wall The North Face Assault tents. There was a tiny granite outcrop that provided a small amount of protection from the wind that seemed to be lashing at the mountain from the south.

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Panoramic of Camp 3, high camp at 18,200 feet. The west ridge of Hkakabo Razi is on left. (Credit: Hilaree O’Neill)

It soon became apparent that the real climb was only just beginning — and our team of five was too big. We took one more rest day on the 6th and hashed out a team of three: myself, Renan, and Mark. However, the night of our attempt the wind picked up in ferocity and the temperature plummeted. We delayed our start, hoping the wind would abate, but when it didn’t I quickly realized that I couldn’t withstand another bout with hypothermia and risk the success of our team. I withdrew, and, in the wee hours of the morning, Cory rallied to take my place. In the end we put our best foot forward.

Emily and I remained at high camp in hope of offering whatever support we could. We expected the guys to be gone for two days with one bivy. On the morning of the 8th, we received a message via our sat sleeve (from Taylor at base camp, who was passing a message from National Geographic’s Sadie Quarrier in Washington, DC) that the summit attempt was being aborted and the guys were turning around. Frankly, I was just happy to hear that they were alive.

The night of the guys’ bivy, Emily and I had been battered by high winds with gusts easily in the range of 60 MPH. The temperature was absolutely frigid. I was terrified that, with their small supplies, the summit trio might have frozen to death in the night. Instead, they arrived back at camp on the evening of the 8th, just as the sun was setting. They were completely battered, but intact.

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National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins with The North Face climber Emily Harrington just as Mark returned to high camp from the summit attempt. (Credit: Hilaree O’Neill)

Our final night at high camp offered no reprieve from the elements, with the wind even fiercer than the previous night. Emily and I had given the boys our tent so they could rest straightaway. We slept in the two-man further from the protective shield of the rock outcropping and suffered for it. The wind was so strong our vestibule was ripped off and flew into Tibet, and the majority of the night was spent leaning into the tent wall to keep the poles from snapping in the gusts.

Needless to say we didn’t sleep. With basically no more food left, when the sun rose the next morning it was time to descend. Emily and I left the boys anything that was edible (which was very little), packed as much of camp as we could, and set off. By leaving first we hoped to speed the whole process of descending. We were able, as a team of two, to break trail and rig the half-dozen or so anchors needed to rappel the descent route.

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Back at base camp, the North Face mountaineer Cory Richards shares images from the summit attempt. (Credit: Hilaree O’Neill)

I ate a Clif Shot around 10 a.m., and it was the only thing I ate until we found some granola and espresso beans tucked in a stashed sack at Camp 1. Finally we landed in base camp around 3 p.m., pretty ecstatic to be reunited with Taylor, our BC manager, and the amazing staff that comprised our cooks, a few porters, and our local guides.

That was yesterday. I’ve now had three square meals since our descent, but I am still feeling pretty starved.

And so here we are, back in the jungle with nearly two weeks of walking ahead of us. I’m going to try to sleep a few more hours, eat breakfast, and plug away for another day. I’m looking forward to digesting all that has happened over the last month and a half, and I am happy to know that every step I take is bringing me closer to home and my family.

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).

November 22, 2014

Breaking Down: Escape from the Jungle

[Words: Emily Harrington]

We sat huddled together next to a tiny fire under a bamboo shed in the middle of the jungle. Our group consisted of Renan and Cory, one motorbike driver, and an old woman, whose home I’d presumed we were taking refuge in. She was cooking rice over the fire; we were trying to dry our wet feet and keep away from the bugs while we waited.

We were on our way back to Putao, the main town where we began this epic 400-mile journey. It was meant to be our last day in the jungle as we’d pushed the motorbike drivers to take us the remaining 80 miles in one day. At this moment though, night had fallen. We’d been riding since 8 a.m., and we’d dealt with numerous breakdowns and mishaps. And now we’d been separated from Hilaree and Taylor for more than an hour.

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We’d all started riding together a few miles back after yet another malfunction, rallying through the steep, muddy embankments under the dense jungle canopy, which feels perhaps even more eerily impenetrable in the darkness. Two of our drivers had gone back to find them while the three of us waited in the old woman’s home. We were only 30 miles from Putao at this point. Thirty miles from a real bed, a shower, and enough food to make us feel full — all things we hadn’t had in more than five weeks. At this point though, I felt further away from anything familiar than ever before.

I stared into the fire and fought back the urge to cry, as I’d done countless times on this trip already. It’s alright. They’re fine. You’re fine. Everything’s fine. You’re going home.

I repeated this mantra to myself again and again. Cory had resigned himself to the fact that we may be sleeping at the old woman’s if the girls didn’t make it to us soon (“Open bivy! What an awesome end to the adventure!” he said brightly). Renan was his usual quiet and calm self, relaxed and taking it as it comes.

I wished I could be like either one of them at that moment. It was the end, we were so close, and yet I was crumbling inside. I’d allowed myself to believe that the hard part was over, that nothing else could go wrong. We’d survived the mountain, walked 250 miles overall — we were practically finished!

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The previous ten days had simply broken me, physically and emotionally. We’d averaged 15 miles of hiking per day on steep, rugged trails with little food. We hadn’t rested a day since before we left for our climb. There was no time to decompress from the intensity we’d experienced on the mountain; just constant movement every day.

I was exhausted in every sense of the word: I was dirty and hungry, my emotions felt heightened, and my body was weak and sore. Up until this last day I’d kept myself together for the most part, enjoying the last few days of simple living in the company of my teammates, whom I’d grown to love and appreciate throughout the last two months. It had been an amazing journey, full of the highest highs and the lowest lows — everything I’d anticipated and more.

But now I was done, it was time to go home, and those 30 miles standing in my way were beginning to feel like the longest stretch of impossible.

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I felt the overwhelming sense of emotion welling up into my throat. I fought harder to push it down, but it was too much. I let myself give in and let the tears fall. Renan put his arm around me and let me cry. In the back of my mind I knew everything was going to be okay.

In fact, I didn’t really know why I was crying. I knew Hils and Taylor were probably fine and would arrive soon, and we’d continue our journey. But the culmination of everything that had happened up to that point seemed to have boiled over. It actually felt good to let go a little. I wasn’t in control of anything else that was happening, may as well have one last breakdown.

I heard the faint hum of motorbikes in the distance, gradually becoming louder. Four lights appeared, and I felt my composure return. I saw Taylor buzz by on the back of her motorbike, holding on awkwardly to the makeshift bamboo handle, smiling as they skidded to a halt next to us.

Left to right: Cory Richards, Hilaree O'Neill, Renan Ozturk, Emily Harrington, Taylor Rees.

Left to right: Cory Richards, Hilaree O’Neill, Renan Ozturk, Emily Harrington, Taylor Rees.

Hils followed on her bike. They were laughing and told me about how we had taken off back there and Hilaree’s driver simply couldn’t get his bike to start. He ended up rolling it down a hill to the nearest town to get some parts while Hilaree, Taylor, and her driver built a fire and waited.

Suddenly my little meltdown felt completely silly. We resumed our journey, made it to Putao a few hours later (after a few more breakdowns), and I slept in a bed for the first time in five weeks.

The North Face climber Emily Harrington, video assistant Taylor Rees, and The North Face mountaineer Hilaree O'Neill. (Courtesy: Taylor Rees)

And then there was beer. Left to right: The North Face climber Emily Harrington, video assistant Taylor Rees, and The North Face mountaineer Hilaree O’Neill. (Courtesy: Taylor Rees)

Now it’s been two days since arriving in Putao. I’ve had a shower, plenty of food, a few beers, and I’m wearing clean clothes. I’m going home tomorrow.

When I was in the jungle, I felt at times like I would never get out. It was a claustrophobic, lost, and hopeless kind of feeling. But that feeling has now faded, replaced by the comfort of familiarity. I spent five weeks in a place so unlike any other I’ve been before, living a life I never thought I would experience, and learning about myself and others in a way not many people have the opportunity to.

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Taylor Rees led the village of Dashutu in a yoga session. The kids took to it with great enthusiasm!

I feel fortunate to have been in that place, to have felt those emotions so intensely. The highs, and the lows. Those are the experiences that strip us down and reveal who we are, expose us to our own weaknesses and triumphs, and teach us to appreciate the lives we’ve been given.

Even though the feelings of the jungle have already faded, I hope that the memories and lessons don’t escape me. Despite the fears, frustrations, and overall exhausting character of this trip, it was probably the richest and most fulfilling adventure of my life — one I will be proud to remember and recount for years to come.

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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: Emily Harrington

August 18, 2015

One Year Later: Hilaree O’Neill Reflects on Myanmar

Almost one year ago, The North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill, accompanied by a team that included TNF climbers Emily Harrington and Renan Ozturk, attempted to summit Hkakabo Razi, Myanmar’s tallest mountain. Here, Hilaree reflects on her experience. 


Down to Nothing

It’s been nearly a year since our team of six returned to the US from a two-month expedition to the northern reaches of Myanmar. I still think about the trip nearly every day. In fact, just the other night I had a very vivid dream in which Thay Zha, an incredibly eccentric Burmese billionaire that spear-headed the unsuccessful rescue of two Burmese climbers just prior to our expedition, was calling me over and over on my cell phone trying to get our team to go back up the mountain and look for the missing climbers.

On expedition, as in daily life, it’s impossible not to reflect on things, especially major events in one’s life/passion/career, and dissect the event for all it’s failures and successes and wonder how things could have been done differently. In the case of Myanmar and our failed attempt to climb Hkakabo Razi, those reflections are similar to the 15-second video on Instagram that keeps looping over and over and over.

I first heard about Hkakabo Razi in 2001 from my friend and climbing partner, Kasha Rigby. For years we tried to launch an expedition to this remote region but to no avail: the cost, combined with a violent and restrictive political climate made it next to impossible.  In 2012, my hope was renewed when I crossed paths with National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins and together we received support through an NG Explorer’s Grant and The North Face. That, combined with a drastic change in political climate in Myanmar, and an extensive and exhausting two years of planning, and my dream to explore the eastern edge of the Himalaya and attempt to climb the highest peak in SE Asia, finally became a reality.

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Myanmar is a magical place. Despite the hardships of our overland travel, there was beauty around every corner. We happened upon a Festival of Light at a monastery in Mandalay that occupied our attention for hours.

I’ve been a part of nearly 35 major expeditions in the span of my career, many of which I have been the trip leader of. I have a lot of experience under my belt. I have made a point in my life of seeking out the most remote areas possible, and while this is my passion- the adventure and the unexpected of being off the grid- it also comes with a price. That price means often times coming home without reaching the summit. The expedition becomes more of a reconnaissance than an actual success if you determine success as putting two feet amidst the clouds on the pinnacle of a mountain.

There has always been something unique and special about each trip or climb over the years, but without a doubt, Myanmar was different. I’d never felt so emotionally attached to a climb before. I knew this would be the biggest adventure of my life.

By definition, adventure means to “engage in hazardous and exciting activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory”. True adventure only happens when the best-laid plans go completely haywire and Hkakabo Razi turned out to be a more formidable challenge than any of us could have imagined.

So over these last months, I’ve been asking myself two questions: 1) why did this particular trip beat me down to nothing and 2) what does success mean to me?

As the official team leader of this expedition, I was responsible for assembling the team. I am known more as a ski mountaineer and less as an alpine climber. In fact, this was the first expedition in which I didn’t bring my skis. I deliberately stacked the team with highly qualified alpine climbers in Mark Jenkins, Renan Ozturk and Cory Richards. In addition, I chose Emily Harrington who, while not an accomplished alpine climber yet, I saw to have incredible potential, a good sense of humor, and a refreshing willingness to step out of her comfort zone. I downplayed repeatedly my own personal skills as an alpinist because that’s just how I roll- self-deprecating humor- but I never doubted that my resume would speak for itself and that I could hold my own with this team.

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Emily Harrington and I in our 3man Assault at high camp on the western shoulder of Hkakabo Razi. We hadn’t showered in over 3 weeks, we were very nearly out of food and we were stuck without ropes for our descent. Regardless, we made the most of our situation with a healthy dose of laughter.

But that kind of confidence, when pushed to its limits, rarely withstands skepticism and flat-out doubt. Throughout my time in Myanmar my confidence was continually tested: by the “death train,” by the jungle, by my teammates, by the fierce wind blowing over the ridge from Tibet and, especially, by walking into the unknown every single day for so many weeks. Even with the greatest resource of skills, if you don’t have confidence in yourself, those skills will fail you.

What I have ultimately realized is that my time attempting to climb Hkakabo Razi stripped me of my confidence and left me feeling naked and exposed and incredibly raw.

As odd as it sounds, this is why I love expeditions so much. They are meant to be hard, both physically and mentally. They are meant to stretch human dynamics and relationships to their very ends. They let me see myself in all my rawness for better or for worse. Even though it’s taking a while, I will bounce back and be stronger and, hopefully, a little bit wiser.

So, finally, what does success mean to me? It means that everyone comes home alive. It means that I do not come home unscathed; that my body is tired, my stomach hungry, my hands cut and bruised and that I desperately need sleep. It means I learn something new about myself and, perhaps, even something new about human nature. Most importantly, it means that a great adventure was had along the way.

“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves – in finding themselves.” – Andre Gide

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The team (minus Mark Jenkins) at basecamp the night prior to our 10 day summit attempt.

Down To Nothing from The North Face on Vimeo.

Feature image by Emily Harrington