RANGOON — A joint American-Burmese expedition has become the first to summit a mountain peak that the climbers believe is the highest point in southeast Asia: Gamlang Razi in Burma's Kachin State.
But not everyone is ready to revise the record books because Hkakabo Razi has long been believed to be the highest mountain in southeast Asia. Located in Burma’s north, near the Chinese and Indian border, the remote mountain is part of an eastern range of the Himalayas.
However, this week a group of American and Burmese climbers became the first to climb the peak of nearby Gamlang Razi, and they say measurements show it is in fact higher.
At a Sept. 23 news conference in Rangoon, the team leader of the joint American-Burmese expedition presented satellite and GPS data showing that Gamlang Razi’s peak is 5,870 meters above sea level.
"And we welcome any sort of independent review. I hope this is a discussion topic," said Andy Tyson. "I think the hardest part of understanding the question of height is people have accepted for a long time the height of Hkakabo as the highest peak in Myanmar, and the height at 5,881. And because we came back with a number that says the height is 5,870, then it must be the second highest peak, because it's a lower number."
The problem lies with Hkakabo Razi’s stated elevation of 5,881 meters, which some doubt even though it has long been recognized by the Burmese government as the country’s highest peak.
Hkakabo Razi was measured by Japanese climber Takashi Ozaki when he summited in 1996 without using GPS equipment. His measurement confirmed a number that was initially published in a 1925 survey conducted by colonial Britain.
In recent years, however, surveyors have determined that figure may be overstating the peak’s elevation by as much as 100 meters.
The Burmese-American expedition summited nearby Gamlang Razi on Sept. 7 and used a handheld GPS device to measure the peak’s elevation. It confirmed satellite data that estimated the height at 5,870 meters, as well as Russian and Chinese maps that show Gamlang Razi as a taller mountain than Hkakabo Razi.
But there are still holdouts in Burma. Some say the debate may not be over until someone summits Hkakabo Razi again and makes a measurement in person.
President Thein Sein indicated he is yet to be convinced. In an official letter of appreciation given to the expedition, he congratulated the team on having summited the country's second highest peak.
Even Burmese members of the expedition are hesitant to say they climbed the country’s tallest peak. Pyae Phyo, the only Burmese climber in the party that reached the summit, sidesteps questions about which peak is taller. He says he is proud to have summited a virgin peak, and also to have survived an arduous journey and a 600-meter fall without injury.
The expedition passed through remote areas that included some of Burma's last pygmy villages, as well as the habitats of endangered wildlife. Summit team member Eric Daft recorded footage for a documentary about the expedition, scheduled for release later this year.
The expedition was funded by the Htoo Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Htoo conglomerate owned by Burmese businessman Tay Za. He is said to be one of the richest people in Burma, through his ties to the former military government, which also earned him a mention in the U.S. sanctions against the country's former military rulers.
Htoo owns large properties in Burma's Kachin State, including a luxury mountain lodge in Putao, near the four tallest peaks in southeast Asia. Htoo Foundation says its aim is to develop sustainable tourism in the area.
Tay Za is planning to send a Burmese team to Mt. Everest next year, to try to reach the summit of the world's highest peak in 2014.