Bhutan has the unique distinction of being one of the few countries in the world that enforces a total ban on mountaineering.
In 1987, the National Assembly during its 65th session imposed this interdiction.
The people of the high country of Laya and Lunana initiated the ban after they found mountaineers traversing the sacred mountains. Since, we believe the mountains to be the abodes of protecting deities and worship them as living beings, mountaineering is considered sacrilegious. The mountain people urged their representative who accordingly took it up the matter in the country’s highest legislative body to stop the profanity:
“… if firm and timely measures are not taken to protect the aura of sanctity that still pervades most of our sacred places of worship, not only will our reverence and faith be undermined but the belief Mt. Gangkar Punsum: Photo: Yeshey Dorjiand faith of our children in our own religion and culture will be placed in great jeopardy.”
The ban was triggered by British Expedition’s attempt to scale Gangkar Punsum in 1986.
Locally, known as the Three Sibling Mountain, the summit sits majestically on the border of Bhutan and China. While the two peaks fall within the boundary of China, the two countries share the tallest peak. At 7,570 meters it is now the tallest mountain in the country and has earned the reputation of being the world’s highest unclimbed mountain.
The British Expedition
So far, there has been four expeditions to summit it but none have succeeded. The British Expedition was the last group to make that attempt and Steven Berry led this expedition.
One of the first things the British mountaineer did was to raise money. In order to solicit sponsorship he wrote several letters and one such letter confirms the mountain to be the highest unclimbed mountain: “The British Expedition is the first British mountaineering team to ever be allowed into Bhutan, where we will be attempting to climb the highest unclimbed mountain in the world available to western mountaineers.”
Berry was successful in mobilizing money. From the 39, 940 pounds that he raised, 61% of it had to be paid to the Bhutan Government as a fee. The levy included the climbing fees of 3,300 pounds and the rest was the charge for the visa for the seven mountaineers for sixty days. The Expedition used the remainder of the money for travel, equipment, special food, medical, insurance, office expenses and contingency.
Summiting Mountains in the Himalayas is the draw of the luck. Mountaineers will tell you that the success of a climb is anchored on the weather, and it normal for it to unpredictable. When the British Expedition reached the last camp they ran out of luck, as it snowed heavily and the expedition narrowly missed the chance to summit. Eventually they had to be bailed using helicopters.
On 8th November 1986, Kuensel carried the story of this last attempt under the headline, ‘Climbers Enjoy Attempt’, “The climbers had reached the last camp before the summit, 22,000 feet. However, they had to call off the attempt because of the harsh weather.”
Despite the unsuccessful attempt and the numerous difficulties, the whole group reached a consensus that the expedition was ‘great, especially being out in the wilderness’ and a happy one with remarkable adventure stories.
Most of the members expressed to Kuensel their desire to make another attempt in Bhutan. But what they did not realize is that they would be last westerner’s to make that attempt as in the following year, a general ban on mountaineering was enforced as a result of their expedition.
Despite the total ban on mountaineering local authorities managed to keep three mountains under the government radar. In 1992, when the government learnt of the regulation that allowed it, immediately it was revoked and the total ban was immediately enforced.
The ‘Bhutan Mountaineering Regulation of 1992’ allowed climbing of three peaks of Masagang, Jitchu Drake and Khangbum. The license of the travel agents that profited from this illegal activity was retracted.
The mountaineers knew that Bhutan would not allow them to climb the mountain. So a Japanese team approached the Chinese who agreed to allow them to summit it from the China side.
In 1998, a Japanese well-wisher informed the government of Bhutan of this permission.
On 8th December, Kenichi Shindo from the Marco Polo Inc. sent a fax to Dasho Nob Tshering stating the Japanese mountaineering team had obtained permission to ascend Gangkar Punsum from the China side for 1999.
The fax mentioned details about the climb such as the royalty, which was USD 30-50,000. It also said that the Japanese mountaineers attempting to ascend Gangkar Punsum were the ones who had earlier climbed Mount Jhomolhari from the Tibet side. In the fax, Mr. Shindo confirmed Gangkar Punsum as the highest un-climbed peak in the world and its values equivalent to or more than Mount Everest.
The well-wisher’s fax prompted the Bhutanese government to pursue the matter through the diplomatic channels. Bhutan’s ambassador to India was instructed to convey the sentiments of the people of Bhutan and also to remind the Japanese mountaineers that ascending Gangkar Punsum would be considered sacrilegious. The ambassador took up the matter with his Japanese counterpart who was most co-operative.
In a fax, dated 16 February 1999, the Bhutanese ambassador filed the report of his meeting with the Japanese ambassador to Thimphu. The fax stated that the Japanese Ambassador had informed the office of Mr. Ryutaro Hashimoto, President of Japan Mountaineering Association who had reported this matter to their Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. According to the fax, the Japanese said that the day before yesterday (13 February), the government of China had withdrawn the permit to climb Mt. Gangkar Punsum.
The Bhutanese were relieved that the permission was withdrawn and awed by the co-operation shown by the two governments of Japan and China.
A Japanese, Tsuguyasu Itami produced a report, Gankarpunzum & First Ascent of Liankang Kangri, Mountain in dispute on China-Bhutan Border and it contains the other side of the story.
“On the occasion of the 40th celebration of Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA) on May 1998 held at Beijing, JAC sounded a possibility of a permit for mountaineering in the vicinity of the borderland of China and Bhutan. Shortly after JAC secured the permit from CMA to climb Gankarpunsum, the highest peak of Bhutan, from Tibetan side in 1999. Consequently JAC took immediate steps for the expedition and sent a recce party in October 1998. The party brought back an information sufficient for the climbing expedition in the next year and then JAC accelerated a preparation in full swing. To their surprise, however, JAC received an unexpected notice from CMA that the climbing permit to Gankarpunsum must be postponed due to a certain political issue as the mountain locates in a very sensitive borderland between China and Bhutan.”
Itami report also confirms Gangkar Punsum as the highest unclimbed mountain.
“ In front the glorious Gankarpunzum remaining as the highest unclimbed peak but now a forbidding mountain because of a political barrier pertaining to a border problem was glittering immaculate.”
The Japanese mountaineers still have their eyes set on the Three Sibling Mountain. In 2006, in Tokyo, the president of the Japan Alpine Club verbally proposed, to the Secretary General of the Association for Bhutan Tour Operators, an expedition to climb Gangkar Punsum.
The Alpine Club proposed to pay one million US dollars to the Bhutanese Government and also promised to train Bhutanese in mountaineering techniques and include them as a part of the expedition. The Tourism Council is inundated with such requests and proposals to climb mountains in Bhutan.
The 1987 ban on mountaineering was prompted by the respect of our people sentiments for the mountains. The enforcement of it is inspired by our country’s commitment to conserving the environment and understanding that the cost of the ecological imbalances created by mountaineers were considered to be far greater than the revenues generated. So as long as the value system of our country does not change, climbing Mount Gangkar Punsum will remain a dream for the mountaineers and it will be the world’s highest unclimbed mountain.
Written by : Tshering Tashi