The Five Highest Unclimbed Mountains in the World. #1: Kangkar Punzum

In this series, we will look at the world’s five highest unclimbed mountains, based on Eberhard Jurgalski’s list from We will cover the modest climbing history that they have and why no one has summited them yet.

Note that this series covers independent mountains — those that are not just secondary bumps on higher main peaks. The debate about subsidiary peaks versus independent mountains is a recurrent headache when climbers search for the “highest unclimbed peak.” Some sources, for example, grant this to Muchu Chhish. But Muchu is part of the Batura Range and has just 263m of prominence and 3.5% dominance. Most do not consider Muchu Chhish independent.

Likewise, Yermanendu Kangri — which Simon Messner and Martin Sieberer climbed a couple of weeks ago — is not an independent mountain but a subpeak of Masherbrum.

Here, we will be covering those unclimbed peaks for which there is no debate.

Our first peak is 7,570m Kangkar Punzum.

Highest peak in Bhutan

Also known as Gankhar Puensum and Kangkar Punzum Rinchita, Kangkar Punzum has a prominence of 2,995m and is the highest peak in Bhutan. It is also unquestionably the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. It lies in remote northern Bhutan, on the border with Tibet. Its name means White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers, and the local people consider it sacred.

In the past, there was a dispute about which country it belonged to. Part of Kangkar Punzum lies in Chinese territory, but the peak is officially situated in the Gasa district of Bhutan.

In 1983, Bhutan briefly opened for mountaineering. Kangkar Punzum also has two subsidiary peaks, 7,532m and 7,516m high.

In the past, there were four attempts on the mountain’s main 7,570m summit.

Kangkar Punzum on a map of Bhutan.

Kangkar Punzum on a map of Bhutan. Photo: Raonline


The 1985 Japanese attempt

On Aug. 31, 1985, a party from the Himalayan Association of Japan, led by Michifumi Ohuchi and climbing leader Yoshio Ogata, included Hitoshi Watanabe, Sadao Hangaya, Koichi Ezaki, Shinya Kobayashi, Makoto Miyoshi, Tetsuya Kudo, Fumie Kumeda and Shunji Nudeshima.

They first chose the central (south) ridge. But from Camp 1, established at 5,220m on Sept. 12, the upper part of the ridge seemed to be too difficult. So instead, they made a reconnaissance of the west ridge, to see if that would be easier. It wasn’t. So they returned to the original south ridge.

After traversing a snow dome at 6,490m and descending to a col at 6,370m, the Japanese established Camp 2 at 6,450m on Sept. 22, 1985. They arrived at a sawtooth ridge, which they called the Dinosaur Ridge. Here, two steep rock steps awaited the team before they reached Camp 3 at 6,880m.

On Oct. 1, Kudo had to go down because of pulmonary edema at Camp 2. A serac fall hurt another member of the team. The rest of the party also decided to give up. They said the route was too dangerous.

Kangkar Punzum seen from Gophu La Pass.

Kangkar Punzum from Gophu La Pass. Photo: Wikipedia


The 1985 American attempt

In September 1985, an American party led by Philip Trimble obtained permission to attempt the southeast or the east ridge of Kangkar Punzum. The party included Yvon Chouinard, Dan Emmett, Frank Morgan, Rick Ridgeway, John Roskelley, and Doug Tompkins.

In granting the climbing permit, the Bhutanese government insisted that the climbers had to approach the peak via the Chamkar Chu Glacier. Here, a river system drained a cirque 10km to 15km east of the main peak.

But the party could not find a suitable route from there to Mengde Chu, from which they could approach Kangkar Punzum itself. Instead, they climbed several lower peaks east of the Chamkar Chu Glacier.

The Americans tried to obtain a new permit to approach the peak from a more accessible valley, or a permit for a mountain called Melunghi Kang or others nearby, but all their applications were denied.

Kangkar Punzum seen from far.

Kangkar Punzum. Photo: Tenzin Wangda


The 1986 Austrian attempt

In 1986, an Austrian party led by Sepp Mayerl attempted the south ridge. The party included also Albert Fellinger, Wolfgang Trost, Gerhard Berger, Toni Ponholzer, Helmut Ortner, and Sebastian Ruckensteiner.

They established Camp 1 at 6,300m at the foot of the ice dome. Then they continued along the sawtooth ridge without gaining altitude to the spot where the summit ridge shot steeply up. However, the monsoon had arrived, and because of bad weather, they had to give up on August 26, 1986.

climber on a glaciated face

Ginette Harrison on the Dinosaur Ridge between Camp 1 and Camp 2 on Kangkar Punsum. Photo: Steven Berry


The final 1986 attempt

In October 1986 a British-American-New Zealand party led by Steven Berry arrived at base camp at 5,180m, in heavy rain. The party consisted of five Britons, an American, and a New Zealander.

After crossing the Mangde Chu Glacier moraines, the climbers reached their advanced base camp at the foot of Kangkar Punzum. Their route largely followed that of the previous attempts, across two steep rock sections. They avoided the Japanese gully that had proven susceptible to serac falls.

Berry’s team established Camp 1 at 6,250m. Between October 4 and 7, it snowed heavily, and harsh cold winds hit the climbers. The party had to descend to base camp.

The snowfall eventually stopped, but the wind remained. On October 13, the party again reached Camp 1. From there, they continued to the top of the snow dome at 6,700m. They managed to solve the corniced Dinosaur Ridge and reached the foot of the first rock buttress. Here, they established Camp 2.

Kangkar Punzum at sunrise

Kangkar Punzum at sunrise from base camp. Photo: Steven Berry


After 10 days, the team was ready to push for the summit, despite the wind and cold. They planned to traverse across the face below the left side of the ridge, then climb up the face. Steven Monks and Jeff Jackson started to fix rope on hard ice across the face, but the wind was too strong, and the climbers had to give up after 120m.

No more permits

In 1994, the Bhutanese government prohibited further climbing on all Bhutanese peaks above 6,000m.

But in 1998, the Chinese Mountaineering Association granted a climbing permit to a Japanese party. The Bhutanese government reacted negatively to that permit, and the local Bhutanese were also very upset, fearing that the gods might already be angry because of the four earlier climbs. China ultimately rescinded the permit.

In 2003, Bhutan banned all climbing in the country, and Kangkar Punzum remains unclimbed.

The summit of Kangkar Punzum.

The summit of Kangkar Punzum. Photo: Wikipedia

Kris Annapurna

KrisAnnapurna is a writer with ExplorersWeb.

Kris has been writing about history and tales in alpinism, news, mountaineering, and news updates in the Himalaya, Karakoram, etc., for the past year with ExplorersWeb. Prior to that, Kris worked as a real estate agent, interpreter, and translator in criminal law. Now based in Madrid, Spain, she was born and raised in Hungary.