National Geographic : 2015 Sep
84 national geographic • september 2015 are so fatigued that we can barely stomp out a tent platform. Our faces are rimed with ice from breathing so hard. While trying to shove the poles into our tent, the wind lifts it like a kite. We throw in our packs, guy it down, and pile inside. “The shiver bivvy begins,” says Cory as he zips the tent, closing off the screeching black- ness that has descended on the mountain. We knew this night was going to be misery. At camp 3 we could see that the ridge became technical and treacherous. So we ruthlessly cut the weight of our packs, bringing only bare es- sentials, hoping it would be enough to get us to the top and back down. We left our winter sleeping bags and carried only the thin overbag shells. We have one stove, one fuel bottle, one pot, one spoon, two instant pasta meals, and the three of us are crammed into a two-person tent. Sitting knee-to-knee, our backs pressed against the tent, we set our stove on our boots and nearly asphyxiate ourselves boiling water from snow. One person holds the stove, another the pot. We are wearing everything we have. Only our headlamps and runny noses stick out from beneath the hoods of our parkas. Renan says lit- tle, which is normal. But even Cory is quiet. We have been sleeping with each other for weeks, like poor brothers in one bed. We know each other’s secrets. I know Renan is dealing with the betrayal of a friend. I know Cory’s strug- gling to stay married and be a world-traveling photographer. They know I’m haunted by mem- ories of my dead friends, that this mountain is my white whale. My thoughts drift to how close we are to our goal and our team’s ugly fight and the toll it’s taken on my friendship with Hilaree. Just getting to the foot of Hkakabo Razi took a month. The very thing that Hilaree and I had wished for on the slopes of Everest— remoteness—was the very thing that threatened our expedition from the beginning. First we had to cross most of Myanmar. From Yangon we took an overnight bus to Bagan, then a ferry up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, where we got on a train that bucked and swayed as if it would derail at any moment. In Myit- kyina we boarded a plane where a fellow pas- senger checked an AK-47 as carry-on luggage. On arrival in Putao, the northernmost town in Kachin state, we spent five days “under arrest” while our climbing permits were batted back and forth among officials. Finally, we loaded our gear onto a caravan of motorcycles and set off for three days, crashing through streams and churning through mud until the trail became passable only on foot. Then began the 151-mile trek to the base of Hkakabo through the wet, dark jungle. The dense forest canopy cast a dim green glow. For two weeks we moved along this tunnel-like track, always rising steeply or plunging suddenly, from one local enclave to the next, exactly as Francis Kingdon-Ward had done 77 years earlier. We slept in the bamboo homes built on stilts of the Rawang people. Although Kachin state is known for its jade and gold mines and for illegal logging, people this far north mainly raise pigs and chickens and grow little plots of rice. On the first day trekking in the jungle Hilaree was almost struck by a snake. She saw it coiled on the trail at the last moment and leaped over it. Poised to strike, the serpent’s flat head floated side to side, its black tongue squirting in and out. We all kept our distance except Cory, who knelt down and began snapping photos. “ White- lipped pit viper,” he declared. It was one of a dozen snakes toxinologist Leeches would drop down onto our necks as we pushed through wet branches or suck onto our legs during stream crossings. All day we’d pluck their blood-engorged bodies off our skin, leaving bites that didn’t fully heal for weeks.