A team of Myanmar mountaineers became the nation’s first to summit Mount Everest. Ben Hopkins meets up with the climbers who prove, through teamwork and sacrifice, anything is possible.
Shortly after 7am on the 19 May 2016, Pyae Phyo Aung, 34, followed by Win Ko Ko, 36, strode the final few metres to the summit of Everest. “At that moment I was speechless”, says Win Ko Ko. Thoughts of family and friends swelled his emotions as he laid his hand on the summit and tried to grasp the meaning of what his team had just achieved. For the next 30-minutes or more time froze along with frost bite, that unbeknown to Win Ko Ko was turning patches of skin under his balaclava charcoal grey. “Then I realised, we’d only done fifty percent of the climb. We still had to get down”.
With them in spirit, if not body, was their teammate Nyi Nyi Aung, 30, forced to wait below at Base Camp after an earlier imbalance in his blood/oxygen levels sent his aerobic heart rate rocketing to 190 beats per minute. To have pushed for the summit would have been to court death.
At home in the flatlands of Yangon, Nyi Nyi articulates the true meaning of team spirit. “They made me proud”, he says, sitting between his two team mates at the offices of Htoo Foundation, their official sponsor. “The true spirit of mountaineering is about teamwork. We never say ‘I’, it’s always ‘We’. We made the best decision for the team”.
As close friends, the three adventurers have spent much of the past 10 to 15 years together, seeking thrills in off road mountain biking, white water rafting, diving, hiking and anything that captures the spirit of outdoor adventure. Pioneers from an early age: at Yangon University they spearheaded trekking and climbing trips across Myanmar, later forming the Technical Climbing Club of Myanmar (TCCM) in 2009.
As team TCCM they tackled the mountains of Kachin State, considered to be the last frontier of the Himalaya on account of its undeveloped infrastructure and uncharted passes. A little-known fact is that of the 57 peaks in Southeast Asia soaring higher that 3,000 metres, about a quarter are in Myanmar. Here stand the region’s two highest and most challenging mountains, with Khakabo Razi at 5,881 metres and Gamlang Razi at 5,870 metres. But few have heard of them and fewer still have climbed them.
That may soon change with the opening of Myanmar and the nation’s growing interest in mountaineering as a sport; a great source of inspiration and pride being this Myanmar trio of Mt. Everest climbers. With the renowned conquest under their belt all three climbers aim to use their contacts and experience in the Nepalese Himalaya to help promote and develop northern Myanmar as a viable destination for mountaineers and adventurers from around the world.
Between life and death
Today, all three laugh at how they once joked about the impossibility of climbing Everest. The cost and logistics behind making such a dream come true seemed as remote as landing on the moon for any young adventurist from cash-strapped Myanmar.
That all changed after the Htoo Foundation, headed by mountaineering enthusiast U Tay Za, singled out the three climbers from TCCM with the financial support and planning for an assault on Everest. After eight months of intensive cardio vascular training the climbers were ready to ascend the 8,848 metre peak.
Leaving Yangon for Kathmandu on 26th March, all three men, married and at their physical peak were under no illusion as to the challenge and dangers that lay ahead as they trekked their way up to Base Camp at 5,545 metres, arriving on the 11th April. Two years previous an avalanche tragically wiped out 16 Nepalese Sherpas, bringing an early end to the 2014 climbing season. The following year, the Nepal earthquake that destroyed large swathes of Kathmandu triggered avalanches that swept across Base Camp, killing at least 22 climbers and effectively closing Everest for the second year in succession. The dangers of climbing the world’s highest mountain had once again been laid bare for the world to see, but that was not going to stop 289 climbers attempting the summit in the 2016 season of April/May.
So how did it feel to finally arrive at Base Camp, the world’s most notorious campsite?
“Cold,” jokes Pyae Phyo Aung. “And inspirational”, says Nyi Nyi, adding that climbing is not only about getting strong and thrusting flags on mountain tops. It’s also about social interaction, building friendships, learning about the mountains, not only in a physical sense but spiritually also. “Mt. Everest is considered a holy place amongst Tibetan Buddhists”, he says. “We’d perform the (Tibetan Buddhist) Pooja ceremony, burning juniper leaves before ascents and setting up prayer flags. It was really important being there, a huge, cultural odyssey”.
The team would spend 36 days at Base Camp, acclimatising to the altitude, meeting climbers from around the world and setting out with head lamps in the dead of night to make three rotations to camps 1, 2 and 3. The first rotation to Camp 1 went to plan but the second nearly sealed their fate. Setting out 30 minutes later than planned, at 1:30 am, they made their way through the infamous Khumbu Valley, a stretch known for unstable ice blocks and crevasses that plunge hundreds of metres into the abyss.
All was going to plan until the foreboding rumble of a large avalanche drew closer. Within a minute they felt the sweep of ice across their bodies as they threw themselves to the ground and hoped for the best. They’d intended to set out earlier to avoid the melting ice later in the morning, an irony not lost on Nyi Nyi, who jokes, “we were very, very lucky to be late”. Had they set out 30 minutes earlier they may have been buried alive. The path ahead was swallowed by the landslide and ropes and ladders were destroyed.
The unsung heroes of Everest are, of course, the Sherpas, the men born to the Himalaya who fix the ropes and ladders into place and help climbers from around the world to fulfil their dreams. Within a day the Everest trail was once again navigable and a week later, on 16th May, after the third rotation to Camp 3, Win Ko Ko and Pyae Phyo Aung were ready.
Push to the Summit
Accompanied by four Sherpas they set out from Base Camp at 1am on 16th May for the last time, passing Camp 1 and arriving at Camp 2 around 3pm. The following day saw them battling against fierce winds that rose above 50km per hour, knocking them sideways and on occasions reducing them to a crawl.
Back home in Yangon, the anxiety levels of family and loved ones must have risen with the heat of a Burmese summer, while at base camp Nyi Nyi willed them on with a satellite phone in hand and the bigger picture on his mind.
The final stretch before the summit saw them set out at 8:30pm from Camp 4 to ascend the 1,100 metre assent to the summit. This section, known as the ‘death zone’ for its exposure to high winds, low levels of oxygen and precipitous drops sees the climbers treading a narrow ridge with a 2,000 metre drop into Nepal on the right and a 2,500 metre drop into Tibet on the left. “So, fall to the left and you’ll live a bit longer”, quips Nyi Nyi.
After a gruelling eleven hours of climbing, Pyae Phyo summited a few minutes after 7 am, followed by Win Ko Ko. Pyae Phyo remembers frantically rubbing his cell phone against his leg to stop it freezing, before linking it to his satellite phone and telling his friends and loved ones they’d made it. Meanwhile, Win Ko Ko’s cell phone froze, leaving his nervous wife and family to wait a bit longer for news of his great achievement.
Their safe return to Yangon heralds in a proud new era for mountaineering as a sport in Myanmar, as well as paving the way for an ambitious ecotourism element.