From Gongga Shan to Mount Everest

Here are some final notes about the adventure surrounding the first ascent of Minya Konka in 1932 and even a reflection on the government shutdown in America. But first, here is a factoid that a friend and reader in Seattle highlighted for me.

Sizing Up

Minya Konka, the Tibetan name for the mountain in Sichuan Province, China, where it is better known as Gongga Shan, has a spectacular rise. Our friend in Seattle is knowledgeable about prominent mountains like Gongga Shan or Mount St. Elias in Alaska, for example. Despite the mountain’s status in this regard, he says he has never heard anyone say that they’re dreaming of climbing Gongga Shan. It’s a shame; says, “It is one of only eight peaks in the world that rank in the 50 highest and 50 most prominent peaks on earth, and only 6 are both higher and more prominent.”

It’s points like this that make the original, sloppy measurement of 30,000 feet by Joseph Rock appear, if not forgiveable, at least understandable. It certainly appeared to dominate the sky. It lends some sense, based on his observations, of why he thought it could be true. Perhaps he wanted it to be true.

While I have retold the story of Burdsall and Moore climbing to the top of Minya Konka in 1932 in terms of a single-minded mission, it was, in fact, more complex. The full expedition was indeed determined to attempt the mountain, but there was widespread skepticism on the mountain’s actual elevation. While the possibility that Rock was right, there was no way to be certain except by going there and finding out for themselves.

Even Rock wrote, “Not being supplied with a theodolite, I could not take the actual height…” The chief cartographer at National Geographic later learned that Rock didn’t even use a mercurial barometer, and that he only used a simple pocket sighting compass and an aneroid for setting his baseline. However, when Rock published an article in National Geographic, Minya Konka was marked at 28,000 feet. In fact, it was the editorial revision; because of the tools he used, 28,000 feet was as high as they felt comfortable publishing.

The expedition, as commissioned by the Explorers Club under the leadership of Gene Lamb, would explore the region up close, determine the elevation using the most modern technique, and attempt to reach the summit. And there was one more thing…

Ulterior Motives

The expedition also served as a probe or trial balloon for another purpose. If the climbers could obtain official permission to cross China, Lamb believed, it may be possible to also cross Tibet and make the first American attempt of Everest, thereby skirting India and Nepal, which the English held through a mountaineering monopoly.

This was a significant reason why obtaining permission to climb Minya Konka was critical to the process. And if you recall, when the elusive right to climb it was granted there was a condition attached: The Americans would be allowed to attempt Minya Konka if, and only if, they promised not to proceed beyond Sichuan Province, enter Tibet and attempt Mount Everest.

This was 1932. The English had a hold on Everest. Conspiracy theories aside, China aided in that strangle hold. I don’t believe there was any arrangement between those nations’ governments, but the Chinese interest in controlling foreigners and access to their land, was a valued piece to their public policy.

Government Influences

Politics and policy processes (which is how I make my living) is how we express society’s values. It’s also a force that can limit our freedom of the hills. The Chinese and English interests, while for different values, worked in concert to limit access. It was also an era of strong feelings of nationalism. Today, I think of climbing and hiking as so innocent, but it’s not when national pride is at stake.

Here in the United States, our national government has been shutdown for 13 days. It’s not the record (the American government shutdown for 21 days in 1995 for the longest in history,) but access to public lands, like Yosemite has been limited. Roads are closed and backcountry activity is strictly prohibited.

I don’t think this is entirely bad; the land and animals will be left alone to be wild. When things reopen (and they will eventually,) I hope that it gives us a glimpse into what Burdsall, Moore, Emmons, and Young experienced crossing into the unknown.

I appreciate you stopping by for a read once again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook and Twitter.

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.


2 thoughts on “From Gongga Shan to Mount Everest

  1. i enjoyed reading about my father once again – Jack Theodore Young. If ever there was someone that should’ve published a book about their life, that would be my father. Among other accomplishments, he was recipient of the Medal of Freedom, and was also responsible for the safe transport of 3000 crates of Chinese artifacts from mainland China that now reside in Taiwan’s Palace Museum. He’s noted in numerous books on mountaineering, Giant Pandas, rare pheasants, and the military.
    Chialing Young King

  2. Good morning, Chailing.

    Your father was a great man and directly contributed to some of the more adventurous moments of exploration in the early 20th Century.

    We’re glad that so much is written about him today.


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