SALT LAKE CITY — Mountain climber Chris Nance has made many first ascents but none like the one in Myanmar that left a lasting mark on the mountain and the man.
The Midway resident joined four other Americans and two Burmese climbers this month in a quest to document that Gamlang Razi — long held as the second-highest peak in the country — is actually the highest.
But to reach base camp, the team slogged through a rain-soaked, snake-filled jungle with stops in remote villages along the way that changed Nance's perspective on his lifelong passion.
"I think it was probably one of the most gratifying expeditions that I've ever been on," said Nance, 35, who works as an expedition guide to places such as Antarctica.
Fellow climber Andy Tyson conceived of the trip while looking at southeast Asia on Google Earth. He found a discrepancy in the mapping of Myanmar's high mountains, and his subsequent study of satellite imagery and Lidar data showed Gamlang Razi — not Hkakabo Razi — as the tallest peak in the country.
Tyson led the first expedition to the mountain armed with GPS equipment to accurately measure the height of the peak. According to the team's calculation, Gamlang Razi is 19,258 feet, and Hkakabo Razi doesn't reach 19,000 feet. An institute in Canada verified the findings, Nance said.
Getting to the base of the snow-capped peak on the eastern edge of the Himalayas proved to be the most arduous part of the trip for Nance and Idaho residents Tyson, Molly Loomis, Eric Daft and Mark Fisher.
Climbers spend a lot of time in high, cold places but not much in dense, humid jungles. It took 15 days in the jungle and another 10 days for the team to reach advanced base camp, including an illegal detour into Chinese-controlled Tibet.
"The jungle is not my comfortable environment," Nance said. "There's cobras on the trail every day. There's vipers on the trail every day. There's leeches on your body all the time. It always raining. You're always wet."
Staying healthy was a challenge for the team. Mosquitoes, bees and sand flies were a constant source of irritation. Wounds healed slowly. Trench foot was always a step away. Water was plentiful, but electrolytes were scarce. Rice and spicy fish paste made for most meals.
"We traveled over 200 miles on foot to climb for 15 hours," said Nance, who returned home this week 20 pounds lighter. "The climbing was by far the easy part. Just getting there was definitely the most difficult."
But it also turned out to be the most rewarding.
The climbers swam in a river with children who had never seen white people. They passed through the only pygmy village in Asia. They sat down with a monk. They learned local traditions.
"The journey became much more important than the climb," Nance said. "The sheer amount of walking it took to actually climb this mountain put everything into perspective."
Nance said it also was great to get a Burmese climber to the top so it wasn't "just a bunch of Americans" going in to climb Myanmar's highest peak.
Burmese people celebrated the feat with a hero's welcome for the team when it returned to Yangon, the country's largest city. It made national headlines. The president of Myanmar sent the climbers a congratulatory letter. A documentary film about the expedition is in the works.
"We changed the history books for them. The new highest peak in their country is now Gamlang Razi instead of Hkakabo," Nance said. "It would be like saying that Mount McKinley is no longer the tallest mountain in North America. It's some other mountain that we'd never heard of."
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