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; PeakBagger.com 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.

The Long Road to Minya Konka

This is the continuation of my story about rediscovering my copy of Men Against the Clouds. Gregory Crouch said he thinks that it is one of the greatest American adventure stories ever told. With warships, an unknown as big as the ocean and the possibility of a 30,000-foot unclimbed mountain, I was so captivated I sought a copy of the out-of-print book in 2001.

I obtained the The Mountaineers’ 1980-revised edition through the a Colorado library that loaned through the inter-library loan system. I liked the tale so much that I photocopied the whole book on my father’s home copier. I brought it with me when I moved to Washington, DC, and after a few local moves, I recently redisovered it packed away in a box with year books and old notebooks. Somehow it was separated from the rest of my climbing library.

Expedition Interrupted
The story has a bit of legend and the aspects that make the story such an outstanding adventure, in fact, take in only the first several pages when they discuss their arrival in Shanghai. The eight expedition members came from the United States where the economy was in Depression, so their journey to Asia on a slow freighter was a feat in resourcefulness in and of itself. Ashore, they began gathering supplies for the expedition and acquiring the right permissions.

Two weeks later, the Japanese military launched an offensive on Shanghai starting with shells lobbed from the battleship Idzuma. The Japanese quickly invaded and the Americans were drafted into the United States Marines, given rifles and insignia, and instructed to help protect the international settlement in Shanghai.

One expedition member, Jack Theodore Young, was born in Hawaii and was of Cantonese descent and fought with the local resistance. (He is also the same Young from Teddy Roosevelt’s giant panda hunting expedition.) After being separated for some time, Young came across fellow expedition member Terris Moore and with little introduction or explanation asked for ammo. Moore promptly emptied 10 bullets and handed them to his friend. Moore began thinking of excuses to explain what happened to the missing ammunition when he turned in his weapon.

After a few weeks of the initial attack, it became clear that the Japanese were not interested in occupying the international settlement and the climbers were released from their service.

Seven Months in China
Well, it wasn’t quite Seven Years in Tibet or even seven months, but the journey didn’t make much progress for most of the spring and summer. The war disrupted the original plans and also the outlook of obtaining permission to climb Minya Konka. Four expedition members with more invested at home with careers and family went back to the states. The four others, Richard Burdsall, Arthur Emmons, Terris Moore and Jack Theodore Young had less incentives to return to the states. Their family had also written and said things were bad and jobs were hard to come by. Not knowong whether they would climb anything, they stayed and studied Mandarin at Young’s suggestion.

They became immersed in the culture and skilled at conversational Chinese. Their time spent in education also allowed for additional attempts to gain permission for the climb. They lobbied the authorities and scientific museums. Their hopes rose and decided to split up and make a concerted push to gather supplies and get approval before the monsoons.

Of course, the adventure, and the dream of climbing a mountain higher than Everest doesn’t end here. And the idea of attempting that other sentinel from Tibet wasn’t too far from mind either. I’ll post all about that on Tuesday.

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

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Pirates and Mount Koonka

When I was a child still playing with Legos, my favorite set was the pirate ship named the Black Seas Baracuda. I had the most extensive collection of those blocks and pieces among anyone I knew and I considered new sets merely pieces for harvesting. The Baracuda was different; it could only be modified, never dismantled.

It resonated with something in me, and it wasn’t warefare against the Colonial tall ship that Lego made or plundering the villages I’d build on my own inventing. No, these pirates were misunderstood bohemians on a quest, searching for a treasure, real or proverbial, on a forboding sea with scattered islands, forts and settlements to explore. (Unfortunately, these adventurers were a little unbridled for an eleven year-old and I liked leaving the recent encounter a heap of building blocks.)

I hadn’t discovered mountain climbing as my biggest interest in life yet, but there were similarities in it’s appeal. Take the ship, for instance, it’s self containing and a vehicle for seeking the unknown. I have always thought of me with my backpack or a rope team in similar ways. The quest of the pirates in my imagination was more about the thrill of discovery than greed.

Tangentially, I suspect that the fascination with pirates today, like in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for example, satisfies in us a need for an adventurous life. We’ve been everywhere, just about. Knowledge is at our fingertips. Part of having a good adventure is the element of the unknown.

I don’t play with pirate ships or Legos anymore, but Wunderkind has her Duplos and I expect my young son, Schnickelfritz, to play with pirates down the road. The unknown for them is life itself and it’s really exciting for Natalie and I to watch.

This past weekend, Schnickelfritz and I were exploring our basement, the unknown of the homeowning-adult world. We re-discovered something that brought me back to the idea of the unknown with mountaineering and climbing. It started out as merely ticking a chore off my weekend to-do list, while Schnickelfritz sat in one arm and I perused the contents of some boxes I hadn’t looked through in six years.

Among year books, momentos from my days working for Congress, including a campaign-logo teeshirt I don’t remember receiving, I came across my photocopied version of Men Against the Clouds: The Conquest of Minya Konka by Richard Burdsall and Arthur Emmons.

In an article from 2000 in Climbing magazine I came across a piece by Gregory Croach — the climber and author of Enduring Patagonia among other books –that told the bigger story about the Minya Konka book and the gist goes like this: In 1930, Everest was generally accepted as the tallest mountain in the world. No one had climbed it yet and much the surrounding world was mysterious to Western climbers. Visitors to China’s mountainous Sichuan Province, north of Tibet, returned with news of a mountain. The mountain dominated its neighboring landscape. It appeared to reach higher than anything else on Earth.

A survey was conducted and the initial reading prompted a telegraph that said it was the highest mountain in the world, taller than Everest, at 30,000 ft.

Even famous American Teddy Roosevelt got excited over the mountain. On his well-known Panda hunting trip, he recorded in his journal: “Mount Koonka, 30,000 ft?” The spelling might have been phonetical as the written name has been refined since then. To Tibetans it is Minya Konka. (To the Chinese people it is Gongga Shan.)

With the possibility of a new grand momument to climbing, eight Americans set off to climb the peak. To some extent, their adventure of getting to the mountain, and all that happened to them en route, makes the story one of the greatest mountain adventure stories I have ever heard.

There are no pirates in the story, at least in the literal sense, but there were warships, rifles, nearly a year spent away from home in an exotic land, deserters, and an unknown as big as the ocean.

I’ll continue to share with you more in my next post, including the journey there, who the climbers were, and I’ll tell you about their efforts to get to the mountain and what happened on what might be the roof of the world.

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

Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.