Great Tales in Mountaineering History: Minya Konka, 1982

Here, we tell the story of Minya Konka, a seemingly obscure peak in Sichuan, China. In particular, this is the story of the astonishing Japanese expedition of 1982, one of several that suffered tragedy along its steep, avalanche-raked slopes. Minya Konka may not be famous, and it is only the world’s 66th highest mountain, but it has a higher mortality rate than K2, Annapurna, and Nanga Parbat.

Minya Konka and the Daxue Range

Minya Konka lies in the Daxue Range, which is part of the Hengduan Mountain Region, along the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

Hengduan Mountain region. Photo: Wikipedia

The Daxue Range, with Minya Konka circled in red.

 

The Minya Konka massif extends about 50km from north to south. It includes approximately 25 peaks about 6,000m. These include Leudomanyin (6,112m), Langemanyin (6,294m), Daduomanyin (6,380m), Riwuqie Feng (6,376m), Tai Shan (6,468m), Jiazi Feng (6,540m), and Zhongshan Feng (6,886m).

A view of the Minya Konka massif. Photo: Sebastian Alvaro

 

The highest peak, Minya Konka, lies at the beginning of the southern third of the massif. It has a great vertical relief, with a prominence of more than 3,600m. Minya Konka, meaning The King of Sichuan Mountains, is the easternmost 7,000m peak in the world. It is the third highest peak outside of the Himalaya/Karakoram range, after Tirich Mir and Kongur Tagh.

This mountain has several names: Gongga Shan, Minya Gonkar, Kunka, or Bokunka as some 19th-century explorers called it.

Red rock on Hailuogou Glacier. A rare sight, the rocks are wrapped in orange algae. Photo: China Discovery

 

How high?

William John Gill, an English explorer and British army officer, first described the mountain in 1876.

A Sichuan Buddhist monastery, with Haizi Shan (5,820m) behind. Photo: Hui Zhang

 

A few years later, Hungarian traveler Bela Szecheny also visited the region. He published his findings in the Journal of Geography, presciently estimating that Minya Konka was 7,600m.

In 1929, Joseph Franz Karl Rock, an Austrian-born American explorer, wildly proclaimed the mountain to be 9,220m, putting it well above Everest. This height was “confirmed” later the same year by Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, Theodore Jr. and Kermit. The Roosevelt brothers had traveled to the region in 1928 to hunt giant pandas. Rock later corrected his estimate to 7,803m.

A year later, a Swiss cartographer and geographer further corrected the altitude to at most 7,590m.

The upper image is a photo of Minya Konka during the first ascent. The lower diagram indicates the general position of the climbing route in relation to the photograph above. However, the actual route lay mostly behind the features shown. Photo: American Alpine Journal

 

Americans Richard Burdsall and Terris Moore made the first ascent in 1932 and measured the peak at 7,587m. The height has since been updated to 7,556m. At the time, it was the second-highest mountain ever climbed.

Gods and legends

As with Kawagarbo, Minya Konka is closely tied to local culture and tradition.

According to locals, the god of thunder, Dorjelutru, lives atop Minya Konka. He protects the region, in the company of a court of spirits.

Another legend speaks of the goddess Youyoutsouma, who was born from an emerald. The goddess had a doe on which she used to ride. She wet the sky with its milk every evening.

One day, an archer killed the doe, unleashing Youyoutsouma’s wrath. She spilled the bowl of milk and flooded the region. The goddess herself became a mountain and crushed the archer. According to legend, this is why Minya Konka is always hidden in clouds. It only clears for sincere souls, showing them its emerald and white colors.

Minya Konka’s beauty captivated the first alpinists who climbed it. Photo: Sebastian Alvaro

A very dangerous peak

Characterized by capricious and changeable meteorology, the peak is difficult to access even from the nearby valleys. It features vertiginous faces, ridges full of seracs, ice walls, cracks, and avalanches. Its mortality rate is chilling. Only 23 to 25 people have climbed it since 1932. More than 30 climbers have lost their lives on its slopes.

Minya Konka showing: 1) The 1998 Korean Route up the northeast ridge, approached by the Hailuogou Glacier; 2) The 2018 Chinese Route up the north-facing spur and northeast ridge, approached via the Yanzigou Glacier; 3) The 1932 American Route on the northwest ridge. Photo: American Alpine Club

The first ascent

Two climbers from an American team, Richard L. Burdsall and Terris Moore, made the first ascent along the northwest ridge on October 28, 1932. They climbed in cotton, leather, and wool clothing. They carried wooden ice axes, 15m of hemp rope, and 10-point crampons. Climbing this mountain with such basic equipment is an incredible achievement.

Nine subsequent expeditions carried out other successful ascents, almost all via the northwest ridge. Other attempts failed, while some made the top but suffered serious accidents. On the second ascent of Minya Konka in 1957, six Chinese climbers reached the summit, but four died on the way down.

Avalanches are common on Minya Konka. Photo: Sebastian Alvaro

The 1980 American Expedition

From 1957 to 1980 the Chinese authorities prohibited foreigners from climbing the peaks of western China. Once the rules changed, one American team made an unsuccessful attempt on the south face by a new route while another set out to climb the northwest ridge.

An avalanche struck the northwest ridge team just above Camp 1, sweeping them 400m down the mountain. Their cameraman, Jonathan Wright, died in the fall. The three other well-known climbers, Yvon Chouinard, Rick Ridgeway, and Kim Schmitz, survived.

Czech climber Pavel Korinek on the summit of Minya Konka in October 2017. He didn’t know about the mountain’s high mortality rate. After he learned about it, he said that he was glad that nobody had told him before the climb. Photo: Pavla Korinka

The northeast ridge

In 1981, a Japanese team attempted the northeast ridge. The eight climbers were less than 100m from the top when leader Yugi Fujiwara fell. The other seven tried to retreat.

Mikio Abe, the expedition photographer, met the group as they descended down the north face. Abe tied into the climbing team’s rope.

“As we continued to descend, my carabiner tangled and I removed it to adjust it. I was the last in the line. While I was adjusting the sling and not looking at the others, the seven slipped. I could see them all falling together and disappearing into thick mist,” he said.

Spring 1982

In the spring of 1982, there were three expeditions to Minya Konka, one Swiss, one Canadian, and one Japanese. The Canadians chose the original route up the northwest ridge but they had to turn back from Camp 1 because of an accident and bad weather.

The three Swiss climbers managed to summit via the northwest ridge from the east. But during the descent, one of them slipped and fell to his death.

Korean climbers during the first ascent of the northeast ridge in 1998. Photo: American Alpine Club

 

The Japanese team wanted to climb the northeast ridge again, despite the tragic accident that struck their compatriots in 1981.

Under the leadership of Hideaki Sato, the group included five men and two women. On March 19, 1982, they established their Base Camp on the Hailuogou Glacier at 3,500m.

Establishing camps

The group began to put up camps. Two climbers from the group, Hironari Matsuda and Makoto Sugawara, were ahead of the others. On April 21, they put up Camp 3 on a col at the northeast ridge at 5,790m. Five days later, they reached Camp 4 at 6,200m. From Camp 2 to Camp 4, they left fixed ropes.

One of the team members, S. Suzuki, slipped and hurt his back, halting his ascent. On April 28, only Matsuda and Sugawara reached Camp 5, at 6,800m. The two decided to start their final summit push from there.

The region around Minya Konka. Photo: Tibetpedia

 

Matsuda and Sugawara set off, but they climbed too slowly. On April 29, they had to bivouac just 50m below the summit. They ran out of food and water and they were already exhausted and dehydrated. The next day, the weather deteriorated and they had to make the bitter decision to abort.

The descent

During the descent, they contacted their team and said that they had problems finding the route. They were getting lost every few minutes. This was the last message from Matsuda and Sugawara because their radio died, probably when its battery ran out of power.

Meanwhile, far below, the other team members climbed to Camp 2 on May 2. Two days later, they tried to climb the fixed ropes above Camp 2 to mount a rescue but they were unable to do so.

More than four days had passed since they had last spoken with Matsuda and Sugawara. With no sign of life, the team left them a message saying, “We will never forget you, Matsuda and Sugawara.” They then descended to Base Camp.

The mountains of Sichuan. Photo: Sebastian Alvaro

 

Thinking that their two companions had died, they left the mountain on May 9.

However, Matsuda and Sugawara weren’t dead.

At death’s door

It is not known exactly how they descended because they were constantly getting lost. They were very weak from dehydration and fatigue, and frostbite began to take its toll.

They stopped to rest for a whole day and then tried to continue their descent. But while descending they lost their gloves and their ice axes, and Matsuda lost one of his boots. He had to replace it with his leather camera case, protecting his foot as well as he could.

After a week, they crawled into Camp 1. Sugawara told Matsuda that he wanted to get some rest. This was the last time Matsuda saw his partner, who disappeared. Unable to find him, Matsuda rappelled down with frozen hands and feet, like a zombie.

Incredibly, he reached Advanced Base Camp but found it empty. Some food had been left behind, but ulcers in his stomach kept him from eating much.

Days later, he finally reached the site of their Base Camp at 2,900m, but no one was there, either. It was May 21, 1982, three weeks after the last radio contact with the team.

A lucky break

Sometimes the world throws you a lifeline.

Matsuda collapsed, but some herb gatherers appeared in the valley a few hours later. Hardly anyone ever visits this region, so it was an incredible coincidence. When the herb gatherers saw Matsuda’s body, they were sure it was a corpse. But Matsuda was still breathing.

The Minya Konka massif. Photo: Tibetpedia

 

Frankly, it is hard to say which was harder for Matsuda, rappeling down the last stretch of mountain or surviving the horseback ride to the hospital. He arrived weighing less than 40kg.

Matsuda lost both frozen feet above the ankles and all 10 fingers to amputation, but he survived.

That fall, the Japanese returned to the mountain to retrieve the body of Sugawara. But they couldn’t find him. One member of the expedition died of altitude sickness during the attempt.

Meanwhile, Matsuda did not lose the will to live. During his recovery, he decided to shift his goal from the Himalaya to Japan. He wanted to climb the 50 highest peaks in his home country.

Such willpower and spirit helped him survive.

A large icefall, over 1,000m high and 1,100m wide, in the Minya Konka massif. Photo: China Discovery

@KrisAnnapurna reports about outdoor activities, current expeditions, and stories related to the history of mountaineering in the Karakoram, Himalaya, Tien Shan, and other ranges.


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mateo
Mateo
2 months ago

Many thanks for these write-ups Kris. They are fascinating.

Julie
2 months ago

that’s really amazing Kris

gee
gee
2 months ago

a correction regarding the image “A Buddhist monastery and Minya Konka. Photo: Hui Zhan” — that image is actually of the Tagong Gompa with Yala Snow mountain behind — when i visited there in 2005, Yala was still unclimbed — 1st ascent was in 2006 = http://www.alpinist.com/doc/ALP17/newswire-haizi-shan-bass-deavoll — — — but i digress, back to the main story on gongga shan = in 2005 i did a trek from yulin village, south along the daxue range — at the time few, if any ,of the peaks north of gonggashan had seen any ascents — even now, there are probably a… Read more »

haizishan.jpg
gee
gee
2 months ago

while we are in the vicinity — here’s a peak just to the north of gonnga that had a 1st ascent by my old friend john turk (with fred beckey) in 1993 — jon would be amused now to see a highway up to the pass and a road right into their base-camp — http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12199426902/Asia-Southwestern-China-Lamo-she-Daxue-Shan-Sichuan

lamo p10.JPG
gee
gee
2 months ago

lamo-she S. face…

lamopan2.JPG
gee
gee
2 months ago

a better sketch~map of daxue group — access from the north at yuling — the new road goes up the east side to xuemen pass (and lamoshe access) — the valley on the west side ascends to ruichi haniya pass and on to gonggasi — nakamura did a good piece on the first ascents in daxue up until 2011 — http://jac.or.jp/english/images/vol12/JAPANESE%20ALPINE%20NEWS%20Vol12_30.pdf

gonggashan massif.png
Eddy De wilde
Eddy De wilde
2 months ago

What an awful turn of fortune for Matsuda and Sugawara. Understandable they were lost when the cloud is down. What about the fotographer who unclipped and then saw 7 team mates disappear! 23 summiteers for 30 dead is bad odds, go play somewhere else!

Hugo Torres
2 months ago

Amazing adventures on that beautiful place of our planet.