When someone reaches a “point of no return,” it means he has gone way beyond his own bounds, at a point where one must continue on his current course of action because turning back is either physically impossible, prohibitively expensive, or dangerous. If you ever get into such situation, you must continue on your way or you’ll suffer consequences as bad as death.
Earth houses areas that, when reached, trap humans in the middle of a life-and-death crisis. But these are the places that people still visit even though they’re dangerous and basically take them to that dreaded point of no return.
One of these direful places is the Hkakabo Razi.
Hkakabo Razi is the highest mountain in Myanmar with an alarming height of 5,881, an altitude almost impossible for humans to climb. Yet there are still daredevils who attempt to take its measure and risk everything to be on top of the world.
This is the team that first reached the peak of Mayanmar’s tallest mountain, which included (left to right) videographer Renan Ozturk, author Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, climber Emily Harrington, and expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill.
Let us follow their journey below.
Cory Richards bravely moved up an exposed ridgeline as the bone-freezing wind whipped the climbing rope. This was Richard’s attempt to climb the peak in Hkakabo Razi.
Mark Jenkins and Renan Ozturk hoped to be the first to measure the mountain’s height precisely using a GPS. They both paused for lunch within sight of the snowcapped peak of Hkakabo Razi.
The climbers passed through a bridge that offers passage over the Tamai River en route to the mountain’s base. They spent weeks pushing through the dense rain forest and avoiding snakes along the dark tunnel.
“We began running low on food on the hike out, None of us anticipated that we’d get that strung out,” said Cory.
They passed by religious sites such as the Mingun Pagoda, near Mandalay, in central Myanmar. The Mingun Pagoda’s construction began in 1791, but an earthquake happened in the area that split the building in half.
A caravan of motorcycles in the northern town of Putao were hired by the climbers to transport their gear and supplies across Kachin state. They rode for three days before they walked on foot because the route was so wet and muddy that motorcycles couldn’t pass anymore.
The team stayed in the homes of local Rawang who live in Myanmar’s far north, along their 151-mile jungle trek. The people in the area admitted to encountering fewer foreign mountaineers than Nepal, where commercial climbing is well established.
Dahongdam is the last village on the jungle trek to the base of Hkakabo where it is surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags. Most communities that the team met on their way were Christians, even though Myanmar is 90 percent Buddhist.
“Balancing a 60-pound load, a porter tightropes a hanging bridge is really hard. The team struggled to find locals to haul gear. We had about 35, we wanted about 60,” says team member Taylor Rees. Eventually, they left the equipment behind.
These bamboo leaves provided a good spot for sitting and taking a break for the porters. The team hired entire families in some villages, even grandparents, to carry their gear, and most of them were Rawang people who live in remote valleys near the Tibetan border.
Porters carefully watch their steps as they follow a narrow trail cut into the side of a ravine. “One slip and you were a goner. There are so many ways to die before you can even see the mountain,” said Mark, who previously attempted to trek through Hkakabo in 1993.
Buddhist prayer flags were found by Renan, Emily, and Hilaree near the base camp. They burned juniper boughs for good luck, following a Himalayan mountaineering tradition. It was reported that there were two Burmese climbers that disappeared on Hkakabo Razi, weeks before they started the climb.
The region’s maze of unexplored ridges and false summits forced the team to backtrack twice, squandering precious time and energy. They had no choice but to back out after finding the route impassable.
Hilaree and Emily were nearly enveloped by a snow-swollen couloir as they ascended its powdery flank. The risk increased from avalanches and rockfalls as the team moved higher up the steep, fog-shrouded terrain.
Renan prepared for the team’s final push to reach the summit at dawn on a ridge near the peak of Hkakabo Razi.
Mark turned back from the ridge leading to Hkakabo’s snowy summit because they were blocked by tooth-like rock spires.
“We’d have lost digits, if not our lives,” says Cory. The team spent a night without food, a tent, or sleeping bags.
Cory (left) and Mark sat by the fire in Pangnamdim, exhausted and disappointed about what happened in their last effort to climb the top of the mountain. They took shelter in one of the last villages on the trek out of the jungle.
“We wanted an old-school adventure, and we got one,” says Mark. As to whether they succeded, “The mountain always decides.”
The only mountaineers confirmed to have successfully reached the summit of Hkakabo Razi in 1996 were climbing partners Takashi Ozaki and Nyima Gyaltsen.