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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 recuperating in the monastery and then climbing those peaks above Tsemed Kha La pass, where Joel and I enjoyed our separate summits, we hitchhiked west across the Tibetan plateau for a few days, camping and hiking wherever we found ourselves, then doglegged back to Kangding with an inchoate notion of finding some more peaks to climb. We took a room in Sally’s Knapsack Inn, a Spartan place on the dusty edge of town, and splurged on a Chinese restaurant ($3 each for a heaping plate of spicy Sichuan chicken). That night, down a dim hallway in the hostel, we discovered a chalkboard with a crude map. It showed a dotted line running north from Kangding to a town called Danba, little triangular peaks drawn in on either side, and the words “six-day trek” scrawled in the margin.

On Everest, sticking to a rigid plan can save your life. While traveling Shangri La-style, it’s foolishly tedious. Unplanned detours enhance every trip simply because you don’t know what they will bring—and serendipity is often the portal to adventure. The trail appeared to go up over a pass called Ya La, beside a 19,000-foot peak named Snow Mountain. We copied the map onto a scrap of paper. We might as well have been setting forth on a mountaineering trip in Colorado with a hand-drawn map of the Rockies. “We’ll just go have a look for ourselves,” said Joel jauntily.

In the morning, a taxi dropped us at the trailhead. We made 12,814-foot Ya La pass in five hours of fast hiking on an old animal trail. En route, we occasionally passed herds of wide-horned black yaks, but we never saw a single human. Atop Ya La, a 10-foot cairn sported snapping, tattered prayer flags. Due south, Snow Mountain reared up with a jagged ridge of heavily glaciated spires. It was too technical for us to attempt. However, adjacent was a pyramidal peak of perfect proportions. Backtracking down into the valley, we camped in a tangle of birch trees at 12,489 feet. The following dawn was clear and cold. We could feel winter coming. Using the crest of a crescent-shaped lateral moraine, we hiked up to the base of the unnamed peak we dubbed Innominata.

“Looks like more rotten rock to me,” said Joel, handing me the monocular, “and deep snow.”

I was already strapping on my crampons. He knew I was going up and I knew he wasn’t.

“I’m happy just to sit here and watch, bro.” (Joel, being more mature than yours truly, had wisely decided that some unclimbed peaks actually weren’t worth climbing. Sacrilege!)

I waded upward in thigh-deep froth, plunging my ice axe in with every step. For the first hour I could see his red down parka growing smaller and smaller. Then weather started moving in and he vanished. I should have gone down, but didn’t. I couldn’t help myself. I plowed up through more snow, gained a sword-like ridge, crept over perilous blocks, dropped off to the left, dropped off to the right. With no route, every decision was my own, every move consequential. This is the point and the crux of climbing an unclimbed mountain. There’s no route, no beta. Your mind is naked. You are your own guide, and good judgment is all that will keep you alive. It doesn’t matter how high the peak or how technical the terrain, as long as it tests your ability.

I summited the 17,374-foot eastern horn of Innominata at 3 p.m., then turned tail, forsaking the main summit to avoid a potentially deadly bivouac. Hours after dark, I stumbled back into basecamp in a wet, swirling snowstorm. Knowing I would be exhausted and soaked, Joel had made a fire and stacked a pile of branches. I stripped off my wet boots and socks and hung them on a line over the flames while Joel made me dinner. All I wanted to do was curl up beside the campfire. The small cone of heat from the flames turned the snowflakes into fat raindrops; naturally, I was half-cooked, like a marshmallow, my knees and face toasted, my back wet and freezing. But I was too content and too tired to care. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be than beside a campfire in a snowstorm in an unknown part of far eastern Tibet.

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