Climbing Higher than Everest

This is a continuation of my retelling of the first ascent of Minya Konka in Sichuan Province, China. So far, I covered the possibility that Minya Konka might be the highest mountain in the world and that an American expedition from the Explorer’s Club out of New York City in 1932 sought to climb it but was interrupted by war, permissions and wavering morale.

Minya Konka, which was thought by some to rise 30,000 feet above sea level, lay in an unexplored portion of Asia. While Everest was believed to be the highest, the possibility remained in the 1930s, when there were many unclear parts on the maps.

After several delays, which ftI discussed in my previous post, two of the expedition members, Richard Burdsall and Arthur Emmons, grew restless and decided to head to the mountain regardless whether the authorities supported their effort. Several partners went home already while Jack Theodore Young and Terris Moore continued to lobby various stakeholders for permission to climb the peak.

The adventure for Burdsall and Emmons was as rich as the journey so far. They knew that if they were going to have any chance of attempting to climb Minya Konka the area would need to be surveyed and done before the monsoon. They traveled by every imaginable mechanism but airplane and submarine. They saw indescribable birds and passed giant Budhas carved into the rock walls.

At last, Minya Konka was in sight and there was no mistaking that that was the mountain, as it dwarfed all of its neighbors. Using the most modern technique to determine its elevation, Burdsall and Emmons read the result with a sigh. Damn it, it wasn’t higher than Everest. It wasn’t even 8,000 meters. But its 24,900 feet were elegant and teased them with another leg in their adventure of the unknown.

Guile for the Summit
The local lamas learned of the climbers intention of standing atop their mountain and became alarmed that they might disturb the god that resides there. Jack Young, with a little guile, and the persuasive qualities of Mexican silver, managed to comfort the religious leaders that the climbers actually came to pay homage.

In addition, Moore ansd Young had obtained official permission to climb Minya Konka while Burdsall ans Emmons were on their surveying mission. They greased the deal by collaborating with a Chinese museum; the expedition would collect specimens of the flora and fauna they discover for sharing in the United States and another for the Chinese museum. However, the government had placed an interesting condition when they granted permission: That they would not proceed onto Tibet and climb Mount Everest. This was significant, and I’ll share more on that in another post. They agreed and were committed to Minya Konka.

The Northwest Ridge
Burdsall, Emmons, Moore and Young could see that Minya Konka’s defenses were formidable. The North and West faces were impossible with tje current twchnology and their gear assembled haphazardly from China and LL Bean. The ridge between them seemed to offer the safest passage.

The Northwest Ridge was difficult to reach, however. Burdsall, Emmons and Moore set off to climb the mountain (Young would support the team in basecamp and lower on the mountain where his linguistic skills would benefit the effort most) and set course on a treacherous spur. For weeks, including two above 18,000 feet, the three Americans pushed. To finally reach the ridge, they would have to climb over a significant subsummit, just one of the several cruxes along the route.

Once over the subsummit they crossed a col of sorts to the Northwest Ridge. They were suddenly assaulted by winds. They witnessed at least one avalanche from their position lower on the mountain. The offloading of a layer of snow travelled at least a mile and the plume went noticeably farther still.

One Big Push
They were in need of supplies and a rest so they returned to Camp III (back over the pesky subsummit) to meet with Young and even collected mail from home in the States. Despite being two months stale, the words and connection to family and friends gave a much needed boost in morale.

While discussing the strategy to reach the top, Arthur Emmons was attempting to cut a hardened biscuit with his knife. He forced it and the blade slipped cutting his hand. Blood gushed, and because of the altitude, was next-to-impossible to heal. The plan had been for the three of them to go together. There was an awkward and polite conversation about what to do. Emmons couldn’t hold his gear.Bursall and Moore, it was decided, would press on to the top as planned, in an all-or-nothing push.

They watched the sunrise together the next morning and Burssall and Moore left. They went over the subsummit, the expanse the Northwest Ridge and took the exposed route up. They reached a rock band and carefully belayed each other as they pressed on. The summit seemed right before them until they crested the top and realized there was still a long way to go. The false summit tested their willpower.

At last, at 2:40 p.m. on October 28, 1932, two explorers stood atop the world. The exact elevation didn’t matter.
The saga goes on a bit more, and I’ll continue in another post, that interestingly, has taken on a little different topic. In short, they team descends at a cost and faces new adventures suitable for Robinson Carusoe.

Miscellaneous Note
On wholely different topic, the list of climbing books that I am making to refine and enhance my personal climbing library has run into a question that I thought I had answered before, but am rethinking: What makes a classic climbing book the classic you think it is? Is it its influence? Does it have to be accurate? If you have any thoughts, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or shoot me a message.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.


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