Weekend Warm-up: Down to Nothing

Long celebrated as the highest peak in Southeast Asia, Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar was first measured by an old British survey at 5,881m. For almost a century, the mountain lorded it over the competition in textbooks and encyclopedias.

Then in 2013, an American expedition to a neighboring peak called Gamlang Razi produced some astonishing news. Using a survey-grade GPS, they measured its height as 5,870m, almost 300m higher than a Russian survey pegged it in the 1970s. Suddenly the two were almost neck and neck in height, and a debate began: Was Hkakabo in fact the highest point in that part of the world?

Andy Tyson, the leader of that 2013 expedition to Gamlang, said no. After studying modern topo maps and Google Earth images, he suggested that Gamlang might be higher than Hkakabo Razi, which had never been measured by GPS.

Hkakabo Razi. Photo: Worldatlas.com

Tyson died in a plane crash before he was able to prove his claim. In an interview shortly before his death, he suggested that Hkakabo was such a symbol of national pride for the Burmese that a foreigner calling its prominence into question was embarrassing to them.

Indeed, an all-Burmese expedition set out for Hkakabo in August, 2014 in the hope of confirming its revered status. After two weeks of climbing, two team members signaled from somewhere near the summit. They were never heard from again. The search helicopter crashed, killing one pilot and severely burning another. He and a third crew member then had to survive nine days in the jungle. It was as if the mountain was cursed.

Later that same year, a group of elite mountaineers attempted to climb Hkakabo to resolve the controversy, once and for all. The team included climbers Hilaree O’Neill and Emily Harrington, author Mark Jenkins, videographer Renan Ozturk, photographer Cory Richards, and base camp manager Taylor Rees.

A bridge offers passage over the Tamai River en route to the mountain. Photo: Cory Richards

First, the team had to trek for two weeks through dense jungle, riven with deep gorges and inhabited by venomous snakes. “There are so many ways to die before you can even see the mountain,” Jenkins explained.

The expedition would push them to their mental and physical brink… driving them “Down to Nothing”. So while their journey hints that Hkakabo Razi may be the high point in Southeast Asia after all, the proof remains elusive.

Mark Jenkins (standing) and Renan Ozturk within sight of the snowcapped peak of Hkakabo Razi. Photo: Cory Richards



You can watch the film itself above, and read Mark Jenkins’ article in National Geographic here.