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The Path to Shangri-La: Eastern Tibet’s Unclimbed Peaks

Climb hiker-friendly 16,000-foot summits--and maybe nab a first ascent--on a shoestring budget, plus get an unchaperoned glimpse of Tibetan culture.

We camped on a high pass, mountains as far as we could see.

To the north, glacier-crusted, 24,790-foot Minya Konka cut into the horizon like a diamond. To the west, the endless mountains of the peak-spiked, 12,000-foot Tibetan plateau broke the skyline. To the east, a wet mattress of white clouds floated over the rice fields of central Sichuan, China. And to the south: uncountable unclimbed peaks.

Our 14,100-foot pass, Tsemed Kha La, was cold, windy, and scabbed with snow. We erected our tent at dusk and within minutes a fog of ice closed in. By morning, two inches of rime coated the Tibetan prayer flag poles atop the pass. We drank hot milk from titanium cups and stared south at the closest series of peaks. Just a couple of miles away, they looked about 16,000 feet high. My partner, Joel Charles, could see the serrated ridgeline I was eyeing and wanted nothing to do with it. “That’s all yours,” he said, nodding at the arête. “I’ll take the S-shaped line up the easternmost peak.” Joel, 33, was the perfect partner for exploring mountains in eastern Tibet. Tall, wiry, with forearms like Popeye and fingers permanently stained from working as a wrench at a bicycle shop, he’s the kind of guy who goes hiking in the winter alone, follows a moose trail in the snow to an unknown granite spire, climbs it, and gets home long after dark. Self-sufficient, to say the least. We stayed together when conditions warranted, but had no problem splitting up in a wonderland of peaks like this.

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