You can take a plane to the North Pole and a helicopter to the base of Mt. Everest. “There aren’t many truly remote places left in the world,” said writer and climber Mark Jenkins.
One of them is Hkakabo Razi, believed to be the highest peak in Myanmar. To get there Jenkins and a team of climbers trekked for more than 150 miles through the jungle, pushing through massive spider webs, avoiding venomous snakes and suffering leeches that covered their bodies. That was after they’d traveled the countryside by train, bus and motorcycle.
This was an “old school” expedition, which Jenkins documented in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine. National Geographic is airing a documentary on the trip in May.
Jenkins, a contributing writer for National Geographic and a Writer in Residence at the University of Wyoming, will give a series of presentations on the Hkakabo Razi expedition across the state in coming weeks. His first talk is tonight in Laramie.
Jenkins will discuss the political climate and culture of Myanmar, and what it means to be in the mountains. His is a story of risk, decision-making and relationships.
Jenkins first learned of Hkakabo Razi in the 1980s, when he read a description in “Burma’s Icy Mountains” by British explorer Francis Kingdon-Ward, who tried and failed to climb the peak solo in 1937. Jenkins wanted to be the first to summit Hkakabo Razi and, in 1993, enlisted his friends and climbing partners, Steve Babits, Mike Moe and Keith Spencer. They called themselves the Wyoming Alpine Club.
At the time the mountain was closed to foreigners. The team snuck across eastern Tibet — also closed to foreigners — and made its way to the base of the mountain a month later. Moe and Babits soon returned home, leaving Jenkins and Spencer. The two ran out of food and were arrested, jailed and deported after descending into a Tibetan village.
In 1996 Japanese climber Takashi Ozaki claimed the first ascent of the mountain, but did not measure the elevation with a GPS unit, leaving its exact height still unknown. Jenkins couldn’t claim a first ascent, but he could be the first to measure Hkakabo Razi.
Moe died on an expedition in the Arctic Ocean in 1995 when a whale tipped his boat. Spencer died while ice climbing with Jenkins in 2009.
Still, Hkakabo Razi called to Jenkins.
“It is a spectacular place,” he said. “It is a mountain of granite and glaciers rising above the steaming green jungle.”
When climber Hilaree O’Neill said she wanted an old-fashioned adventure, Jenkins suggested the peak. Myanmar had recently become a democracy, making it easier to secure permits.
It took weeks to reach the mountain’s base at 13,000 feet. The 19,000-foot peak is a difficult, technical climb. Ozaki, who claimed its first ascent, and whose resume includes the first ascent of Everest’s north face, said it was one of the hardest and most dangerous mountains in the world.
The climbing moved from ice to rock to snow. It was hard to place protection — temporary anchors meant to catch a falling climber. Often the team climbed simultaneously, effectively forgoing protection altogether, knowing that if one fell, they’d all go.
“It’s serious climbing,” Jenkins said. “It’s the kind of climbing where if you don’t do the right thing you will not live through it.”
The group of five decided to send a team of three to the summit so they could move faster. O’Neill was the expedition leader, but she wasn’t among the expedition’s strongest climbers, Jenkins said. She insisted she deserved to go. Jenkins felt she was jeopardizing the team’s safety. They had an explosive fight on the mountain, but the next morning she bowed out due to the extreme cold — she’d already suffered a dangerous bout of hypothermia.
The summit team — Jenkins, Renan Ozturk and Cory Richards — couldn’t quite reach the top. After a sleepless night in a bivouac on an exposed ridge, they knew they wouldn’t survive another night. They’d freeze to death.
Jenkins saw what was left to climb, a serrated ridge of granite pillars, each requiring a climb to the top and a rappel down the other side.
“We were too far away to attempt it without risking our lives,” Jenkins said. “The expedition was over. We were as far out on a limb as you can [be] before you die.”
Jenkins didn’t reach the top. He didn’t measure the mountain’s height. Instead, he left a picture of Moe and Spencer in the snow.
Jenkins doesn’t know if he’ll return to the mountain. The risks are high. The level of suffering is too. He gave it his best. But like adventure itself, the peak has a hold of Jenkins. He likes to put himself in a world of real consequences, where bad decisions and missteps can kill you.
“It’s a life wish,” he said. “It’s a desire to live life to the absolute fullest.”
Catch Mark Jenkin’s “Burma’s Resurrection: An Expedition Deep into a Forbidden Land”:
Laramie — Friday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m., UW College of Education auditorium
Gillette — Tuesday, March 1, 7 p.m., Gillette College auditorium
Sheridan — Wednesday, March 2, 7 p.m., Sheridan Junior High School’s Early Auditorium
Powell — Thursday, March 3, 7 p.m., Northwest College’s Yellowstone Building conference area
Cody — Friday, March 4, 6 p.m., Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Coe Auditorium
Jackson — Sunday, March 6, 5:30 p.m., National Museum of Wildlife Art