National Geographic : 1943 May
Climbing Mighty Minya Konka Americans First Scaled Mountain That Now Is Landmark of China's New Skyway BY RICHARD I. BURDSALL AND TERRIS MOORE With Illustrationsfrom Photographs by the Sikang Expedition WHEN the Japs overran the Burma Road, a new lifeline for China came into being. Reaching from India to Chungking by air, American planes began making the tortuous flight among the massive ranges rimming the eastern edge of the Ti betan Plateau. This is the most difficult air route on the globe to maintain. Our American pilots must cross tremendous ranges continually wrapped in cloud and storm, at elevations thousands of feet higher than the air routes across the Rockies and the Sierras. The planes skirt mighty Minya Konka, then descend precipi tously through narrow, rain-deluged gorges to Chungking, where the sun is hidden most of the year by fog. The summit of this mountain, 24,900 feet above sea level, is the highest peak of all the great border ranges of the southeastern Tibetan Highland (map, page 628). Some years before the war we set out from Shanghai to explore and climb it. At that time the prospect that airplanes and even automobiles would soon look to this peak as a landmark seemed remote (page 632). Though great changes have since taken place, the unique geography of the region remains unchanged. Nowhere else in the world is there such a formation as that in this region just to the west of Minya Konka, where three great rivers drive through neighboring mountain gorges only fifty miles apart and then fan out, each to become the life-giving river system of its own country. They are: the Yangtze of China, the Mekong of French Indo-China, and the Salween of Burma.* Paralleling these three, and only 200 miles away, a fourth great river, the Brahmaputra, through another deep gorge, also escapes from the Tibetan Highland and then, swinging west at right angles, falls away to the plains of India. The southeastern portion of the Tibetan Highland, where these remarkable formations occur, is under Chinese administration and is * See "Through the Great River Trenches of Asia," by Joseph F. Rock, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1926. known by them as the Province of Sikang. The few inhabitants, however, are almost ex clusively Tibetans, living much as Tibetans elsewhere on the high plateau. In peacetime Sikang could be reached by three routes: from Bhamo at the head of navi gation on the Irrawaddy River in Burma, from the railhead at Kunming (Yunnanfu) in south western China, or by traveling up the Yangtze from Shanghai. All routes involved long, tedious journeys, but the last provided the shortest overland way of reaching our chosen mountain. Our Sikang Expedition numbered four: Richard L. Burdsall, engineer; Arthur B. Em mons 3d; Terris Moore; and Jack T. Young, an American-born Chinese. Emmons and Moore were students at Harvard University. We set out to do three things: measure the altitude of Minya Konka; make its first ascent if possible; and obtain small collections of the plant and animal life of the region, especially birds and big game. And ours was truly a National Geographic inspired expedition, for our first knowledge of the very existence of this mysterious mountain came through the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE of October, 1930, with its stimulat ing article, "The Glories of the Minya Konka," by Joseph F. Rock. Since our plans for an expedition to other regions were changed in part by fighting at Shanghai and in North China, we turned eagerly to this new and more fascinating objective. Until those prewar years little had been known about Minya Konka itself. The moun tain was away from the main routes of travel then, and what trails there were lay for the most part in deep valleys. A traveler could then get a glimpse of it only when crossing passes, provided the weather was good, with no clouds intervening. The Szechenyi Expedition in 1879 observed Minya Konka, called it Bo Kunka, and, taking a 35-mile sight from Dsongo (Yingkwanchai), computed its altitude at 24,934 feet. Many maps of the early 1900's have omitted it alto gether or shown it in a wrong position with no altitude mentioned.