YANGON – Myanmar may have a new tallest mountain, though so far it seems quite happy with the old one.
A U.S.-Myanmar mountaineering team trekked through jungles crawling with cobras, made a brief, illegal detour through Chinese-controlled Tibet and survived a terrifying 180-meter fall on their way to the top of what has long been thought to be the country’s second-highest peak, Mount Gamlang.
Satellite and digital data, together with recent U.S., Russian and Chinese topographical maps, indicate it may be No. 1 after all, said Andy Tyson, leader of the team that climbed the snow-capped mountain along the eastern edge of the Himalayas in September.
When Myanmar’s peaks were surveyed in 1925, back when the area was part of the British Indian empire, Gamlang was measured at 5,834 meters, behind Mount Hkakabo at 5,881 meters. Tyson’s team, equipped with a hand-held GPS device, measured Gamlang at 5,870 meters.
Tyson also said digital elevation data indicate that the British overestimated the height of Hkakabo, which may be less than 5,800 meters.
That would make Gamlang the tallest mountain in all of Southeast Asia, not just Myanmar.
But the country appears cool to the idea of rewriting a key national statistic that schoolchildren have learned uninterrupted for nearly a century, through colonial rule, bloody military coups and self-imposed isolation.
After Tyson and his team brought back the revised measurement of Gamlang, President Thein Sein wrote a letter congratulating them for scaling the “second-highest” peak.
There were no stories in the local press. Geologists at the main university in Yangon were unaware. Students in Kachin state, home to both mountains, continue to be taught that Hkakabo is Myanmar’s tallest, said Naw San, an elementary school geography teacher there.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, missed many technological advances during 50 years of intellectual quarantine, and has been struggling to catch up since its military rulers stepped aside in favor of an elected government in 2011. Very few here know, for instance, that men have walked on the moon.
“As it turns out, even the mountains are unknown, or perhaps just poorly mapped,” said Tyson, of Victor, Idaho, a specialist in remote summit expeditions in the Himalayas, Antarctica and the Americas.
“I definitely stand behind the statement that Hkakabo may not be the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, and our ascent of Gamlang is an important step to discovering the truth,” he said.
Scott Walker, a digital cartography specialist at the Harvard Map Collection, said a German radar topographic mapping mission currently under way will provide high-resolution and high-precision height measurements, though that data will not be available until next year.
If Gamlang does turns out to be the highest peak in Myanmar, it could turn into another magnet for climbers and adventure seekers, thanks to its beauty and unique terrain, Tyson and other mountaineers on his team said.
The expedition took 35 days. The mountaineers passed through one of the only known pygmy villages in Asia. They dodged cobras and vipers. They also ate and slept in the homes of villagers — in some cases the chief himself — most of whom had never before seen white faces.
They spent 10 days scaling Gamlang, which was when they briefly entered Tibet. Three climbers tied together endured a long fall down the mountain that nearly sent them into a crevice, but no one was hurt.
Team members took pictures and recorded footage for a documentary, scheduled for release later this year.