New Record For Southeast Asia's Highest Peak?

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Since 1925, the people of Myanmar have been taught from an early age that the highest peak in all of Southeast Asia was the great Mount Hkakabo Razi. Often swathed in stormy clouds obscuring it from view, Hkakabo Razi lies in the Himalayan mountain range on the border junction of Myanmar, China, and India, its frosted tip stretching 5,881 meters up into the sky. At that height, one could theoretically stand atop its peak and look down on all of the surrounding countries comprising Southeast Asia. At least, that has been the widely-held belief for the past 90 years. However, a recent expedition up virgin peak Gamlang Razi may have overturned that belief, suggesting that the view from Hkakabo Razi may not actually be the best in the house.

New Data Suggests Historic Errors
In recent years, digital analysis suggests that the 1925 surveys of Hkakabo Razi were overstated, and the peak’s actual elevation is as much as 100 meters lower than originally believed. At the same time, digital analysis has suggested that the elevation of second-tallest peak Gamlang Razi–originally measured at 5,834 meters–has been understated, and may actually be taller than Hkakabo Razi.

Idea for the Trip
The idea for the expedition first arose when Victor, Idaho resident, Andy Tyson, found a discrepancy between Google Earth’s maps of Myanmar’s mountains and data from satellite imagery and LiDAR. An experienced climber and a specialist in remote summit expeditions in the Himalayas, Antarctica, and the Americas, Tyson has been an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a guide for Alpine Ascents International and Exum Mountain Guides, and the author of Glacier Mountaineering and Climbing: Self-Rescue (with Molly Loomis). He has also led training expeditions in an effort to spur the development of Burmese climbers. With his seasoned background in mountaineering, Tyson’s intrigue with the inconsistent elevation reports stirred him to set out in search of sponsors and a team of climbers for a journey to Gamlang Razi. The final expedition team that would attempt the summit consisted of five Americans and two Burmese climbers.

A Device for the Job
From his study of satellite imagery and Lidar data, Tyson’s theory was that Gamlang Razi was in fact the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. His aim, then, in leading an expedition team to the top of Gamlang Razi, was to collect actual GPS data at the peak to support that claim. To do that, the team would need a device that could not only record the necessary GPS data, but one that could also hold up against the extreme conditions of the trip, which included both the hot, wet environment of the jungle, as well as the freezing temperatures of the mountain peak. Tyson and his team approached Juniper Systems® looking for a rugged handheld for the job. In response, Juniper Systems loaned the team an Archer Field PC® with a Hemisphere GPS XF101 receiver. The Archer was designed to operate in extreme temperatures and was waterproof and dustproof, which would be key to successfully capturing the data they needed.

Data Collection Protocol
Juniper Systems carefully developed a data collection protocol for the summit team. The data collection methodology would need to consider both the unique circumstances associated at extreme altitude and the technical data requirements in order to accurately record a mean sea level (MSL) unit of measure. Common GPS elevation measurements based on ellipsoid Earth models such as WGS84 are known to have significant errors. Therefore, the summit team’s Archer Field PC was equipped with Esri® ArcPad mobile software with an EZSurv GNSS driver capable of collecting the additional GPS data required for postprocessing against geoid models to more accurately reflect the Earth’s uneven surface. Expecting that the summit team would likely be fatigued at such high altitude atop Gamlang Razi, Juniper Systems trained Tyson on a relatively simple data collection protocol to achieve professional results.

The Journey
In August of last year, the team set out for Myanmar. After enjoying a weekend of hospitality in Yangon, the team headed to Machinbaw by vehicle, and then set off from Machinbaw on foot, headed for the base of Gamlang Razi. Accompanying the seven climbers were 10 people from the Htoo Foundation, the expedition’s primary sponsor, plus around 70 porters carrying equipment.

The hike to base camp was a tough one, covering 200 miles of jungle terrain, and taking a full two weeks to complete. During the day, the climbers trudged through miles of mud and river, struggling to fend off the swarms of bees, mosquitoes, and sand flies that filled the air, and constantly on the look-out for vipers and cobras along the trail. Leeches became a sort of body adornment, and the incessantly wet conditions put the climbers at risk for infections like trench foot. At night, the team would stop to rest in the villages along the way, sleeping in villagers’ homes, which consisted of small huts built on stilts. They even passed through one of the only known pygmy villages in Asia and had to take a brief, but illegal detour through Chinese-controlled Tibet.

After safely making it to their base camp at the ankles of Gamlang Razi, the climbers began their ascent. What at first was rain turned to snow as they made their way up the mountainside, and the terrain became very difficult, even for the experienced climbers. Their path crossed several glacier crevasse fields, almost ending in disaster when several team members fell into a 600foot crevasse. Fortunately, the fallen climbers were unharmed and were rescued by the other team members. Ten days after reaching base camp, and 35 days after setting out on foot, six of the seven expedition members took the first steps ever atop Gamlang Razi.

Collecting the GPS Data
On top of Gamlang Razi, the team powered up the Archer Field PC and XF101 GPS receiver from Juniper Systems and opened up Esri® ArcPad with Effigis® GNSS Driver to enable post-processing. According to Juniper Systems’ instructions, the team first allowed the XF101 receiver to track satellites for 15 minutes in order to acquire a complete almanac. Once the handheld was finished, the team placed the Archer in an unobstructed position on the summit and allowed the handheld to collect 20 minutes of data–one data point every second for a total of 1,200 data points. The final elevation figure would consist of a single data point calculated from the average of those 1,200 data points. This data was sent to Juniper Systems via satellite phone for analysis.

Data Analysis
Using Effigis EZSurv software, Juniper Systems post-processed the data by comparing it with a known terrestrial reference point–a base station in Llasa, Tibet. By post-processing the data, they were able to eliminate much of the error introduced by the variations in the shape of the earth’s surface, significantly improving the confidence level in the results.

The verdict? After post-processing the data, Juniper Systems found the resulting height of Gamlang Razi to be 5,870 meters, ± 2 meters, which was also analyzed and confirmed by Effigis in Montreal, Canada. When this new figure is compared to the recent digital elevation measurements of Hkakabo Razi, Gamlang Razi is indeed the taller peak, meaning that Southeast Asia may need to update their record books.

Resistance to the New Record
When compared to the current digital elevation data of Hkakabo Razi, the
newly recorded elevation point of Gamlang Razi suggests the latter to be the highest peak. However, Hkakabo Razi’s 1925 elevation data still would suggest that Hkakabo Razi remains the tallest peak. And even while current surveying data asserts that the 1925 survey of Hkakabo Razi was overstated, there are many, particularly Burmese natives, who are not yet ready to accept that Gamlang Razi has taken Hkakabo’s place as Southeast Asia’s tallest peak. This includes Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, who wrote a letter to the expedition team soon after their successful ascent, congratulating them for summiting Southeast Asia’s second-tallest peak.

Andy Tyson stands strong in his assertion that Gamlang Razi is the country’s highest peak, but suggests that the controversy may not be resolved until someone actually climbs Hkakabo Razi and measures it in person, using the technology of the day. However, in the upcoming months, there may be new data revealed that may shed additional light on the controversy. According to Scott Walker, a digital cartography specialist at the Harvard Map Collection, a German radar topographic mapping project is currently in progress that will provide highly-accurate survey data, including elevation measurements. The data is expected to be available later this year.

Looking Forward
Also forthcoming later this year is a film that documents the entire journey of the Gamlang Razi expedition and offers a unique cultural perspective of remote Myanmar. The film, Myanmar: Bridges to Change, is scheduled to release on June 14, 2014 in Yangon, Myanmar.

Ultimately, while the Burmese people may be reluctant to accept a change to their elevation records even in the face of additional data, there is much to be gained from this foreign expedition to the beautiful country of Myanmar. Not only did it serve as an experience of a lifetime for the expedition members, but the trip and the upcoming film will also instill a greater appreciation for the Burmese culture in people all over the world. 

Images courtesy of Mark Fisher,

Rachel Schowe is a freelance writer from Colorado who enjoys spending her free time in the great outdoors. She is an avid hiker, camper, and skier, and lives with her trusty companion, an Irish setter named Wallace.

A 4.654Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE