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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 working hard to reach the top of my nameless peak, I was in no hurry to leave. I sat on a rock and stared south at a sea of virgin summits. One, about 17,000 feet high, was the spitting image of the Grand Teton. Another of similar height resembled a crumbly Mt. Whitney. Glaciated peaks that looked like the Cascades’ big brothers towered to the southwest. And, directly west, a thin ridge connected my summit to other beckoning peaks. The ridge seemed eminently doable.

Joel and I had agreed to meet back at the tent for lunch, but I unilaterally changed my plans with no way of telling him. I wasn’t worried. We were partners, not codependents. Who knows, maybe he was tempted by a detour to his own private summit?

For the next four hours I traversed along the lip of a north-facing cirque, summiting one point after another, four in total. I don’t know if they were first ascents. They were not technical, so sometime in the past millennium some wandering monk or lovelorn yak herder might have climbed them. But it’s not likely. Most Tibetans view mountains as the abode of the gods, best left alone; they typically don’t go any higher than their yaks can graze.

On the highest peak, at 16,057 feet, I sprawled out on my back, closed my eyes, and dozed.

At some point a shadow cut across the sun and my eyelids sprung open. A bearded vulture, with a 10-foot wingspan, soared directly above me. I sat up immediately so that this immense bird would know I was not dead. According to Tibetan custom, when a person dies the corpse is taken to a certain class of monks for a “sky burial.” High on some remote hill, the monks dismember the body with meat cleavers and the vultures carry away the parts. I’ve seen the process in central Tibet. It’s organic, if macabre.

The bearded vulture, or lammergeier, is a scavenger that survives almost entirely on bone marrow. If a bone is too big to devour, the vulture will carry it into the sky and drop it over rocks, smashing the bone and exposing the fat-rich tissue. I’ve seen this as well. The bird circled so close I saw its head twitching and its orange-rimmed eyes blinking. I thought it might open its large, sharp beak and screech at me, but it didn’t. It just floated in circles. After five minutes, it sailed away, hardly flapping its enormous wings. Perhaps in my younger years, on past expeditions to Tibet, I would have thought of the encounter as some kind of omen, creating out of this bizarre meeting between earth-bound man and sky-borne beast something Buddhist-like, mystical, portentous. But no longer. I knew better. We were both simply following our natures: The bird was hunting and I was climbing.

After a summer of rigorous shakedown trips in the Rockies, Joel and I departed out of Denver International Airport in mid-October. We each had a 52-pound backpack plus a 10-pound carry-on containing mountaineering boots, chocolate, magazines, more chocolate, books, and maps—1/10th the weight of the average load for a traditional Himalayan expedition. And for $1,200—1/10th the cost of such an expedition—we flew to southwestern China’s Chengdu, a densely packed city of cranes, cars, and some 14 million souls. We caught a bus to Ya’an, a taxi to Luding, and that same taxi the next morning all the way to the trailhead in western Sichuan’s Daxue Shan Mountains (a range running north/south located northeast of the central Himalayan chain).

Setting out with 10 days of food and fuel, we had Plan A and Plan B. Plan A was to attempt an unclimbed 20,000-foot peak (yes, that’s higher than I previously suggested, but I had a grudge to settle). Hence, for the first week we endeavored with single-minded intensity to ascend a horrifically rotten ridge on Nyambo Konka, a satellite peak of 24,790-foot Minya Konka. We bailed at 18,000 feet, just before killing ourselves. That’s when Plan B happily became Plan A: peakbagging. But we needed a couple of days to lick our wounds, so we headed to the Minya Konka Monastery, a two-day hike up-valley. Like the unknown peaks, this remote, 700-year-old monastery was one of the draws for reaching this off-the-radar range.

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