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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.

After breakfast we set off for our individual goals. For a while, hiking upward, we could see one another steadily ascending our chosen peaks, but eventually ridges blocked the view. As Joel had rightly suspected, my nice snowy arête transmogrified into a mess of fractured, dangerously tilting rocks. I exchanged trekking poles for an ice axe and strapped on my crampons, then traversed right, aiming for a snow gully, hoping the surface would be solid. It wasn’t. My ice axe useless, my crampons skittering on icy rocks beneath the crystalline snow, I slid one step back for every two steps up. When I finally reached the summit, I could just barely make out Joel, far away now, standing atop his own peak in his red down jacket. This was his first trip to the Himalayas, and he was enthralled by all we’d seen and done so far. I could just hear him telling the tale back in Wyoming … his cowboy boots shiny, his handlebar mustache slick, his voice quietly dramatic: “And there we were, smack in the middle of Asia, spending nights in Tibetan monasteries and hiking unknown, unnamed peaks, easy as if it were our own backyard!” My Garmin said 15,884 feet. Joel’s summit couldn’t be much lower. In the Lower 48, both would be peakbagger magnets. Here, amazingly, they may never have even been climbed.

When climbers and trekkers imagine the Himalayas, the first thing that pops into their minds is usually Mt. Everest. But that’s like thinking Rainier represents the entire Cascade Range. There’s so much more.

I can say that with confidence because I’ve seen the big as well as the small. I first went to the Himalayas in 1984 and climbed 26,300-foot Shishapangma; last year I climbed Everest. In between I did a dozen other expeditions to the region, from Pakistan to Bhutan, Tibet to India. What have I learned? Forget Everest. It takes too much time and too much money. Ditto the other 8,000-meter peaks. These monsters only make sense if you’re a serious high-altitude mountaineer. Even 7,000-meter peaks require permits, porters, and plenty of time for acclimatization. The sweet spot is all those peaks under 6,000 meters. And there are a lot of them. The Himalayas sweep like a toothy, 2,000-mile smile across the face of Asia, and there are thousands of seldom-climbed and hundreds of unclimbed summits in the 16,000- to 19,000-foot range. These are pygmy peaks by Himalayan standards—though they’d be giants almost anywhere else—and few climbers even know about them, much less care. These are the peaks waiting for people who want authentic adventure. People who welcome backcountry surprises, and who want to experience a foreign culture without being led around by an overpriced guide. If you can backpack for three weeks on the PCT, hold your own on Fourteeners, or crampon up Mt. Hood, you can climb these mountains. In short, you should have more skills than tools, more tools than rules, more rules than rituals. Knowing how to self-arrest with an ice ax is imperative, even if you’ll ascend mostly with trekking poles; crampons are essential whether you know the difference between pied à plat or piolet ancre; no coffee doesn’t mean no alpine start. And, as always, go with a good partner.

The biggest challenge for DIY explorers in the Himalayas? Finding an area where regulations haven’t drained the adventure out of adventure travel. It’s possible in some parts of Nepal, where you can still find accessible peaks aplenty if you simply have the courage to get off the beaten track. Not so in Sikkim and Bhutan, where permits and/or expensive, mandatory, preset tours impose limits, and many mountains are simply out-of-bounds. In 2012, independent travel within Tibet’s official boundaries became even harder: Only group tours and parties of five or more were allowed at press time, and all individuals in a private party had to be the same nationality. No thanks. I wanted to avoid the whole complicated game, save some money, and have the freedom to see a good-looking peak and climb it. For that, Joel and I traveled to China’s Sichuan province. Our destination is culturally and geographically part of the Tibetan Plateau, but it’s outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s boundaries, and climbing anything below 6,000 meters doesn’t require a permit. For independent-minded peakbaggers, it’s Shangri-La.

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