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Asia, China, Minya Konka

Minya Konka. The Chinese report the second ascent of Minya Konka, which was first climbed by our members Terris Moore and the late Richard Burdsall, supported by Arthur B. Emmons III and Jack Young. Six members of the 29-man Chinese expedition, including the leader, Shih Chan- Chun, reached the summit June 13, 1957. It is reported that three of them died in a fall during the descent. The report brought forth the following comments from Terris Moore in a letter to Henry S. Hall, Jr., dated January 22, 1958:

Only last night I was reading Thoreau’s remarks on his climb to the top of Ktaadn: “The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity.” I said to Katrina: “That’s a good sentence, I wish I’d seen that before, back in the days when I occasionally used to write about the tops of mountains. But it’s too late now, I’ll never be writing about the tops of mountain again.” “Oh, yes you will,” says she. And, so help me, the very next night, tonight, here I find myself writing about the top of a mountain!

For, in the same mail which brought me your letter today, I also have one from Colin G. Crawford, in Scotland, old friend of Robson days of 1930, enclosing a copy of the October 1957 issue, No. 19, of People’s China, carrying an article entitled, “The Conquest of Minya Konka.” I’m at once mailing it on to Jack Young for his comment and in the meantime send you my observations.

(1) The People’s China article says nothing about the three climbers being killed which your letter mentions. It merely says on that subject: “Some of the men slipped and rolled down the icy slopes sometimes for hundreds of yards, losing their climbing equipment. Some were unable to stand the ordeal and fell ill. Several members of our team had to forego the honour of scaling the summit of Minya Konka in order to take care of the sick and injured. Of the 17 who started, only six finished the climb.”

(2) As to our expedition, they say (exact quote complete with the misspelling in each of our three names): “In 1932 Terence Moore, R. L. Burshall, and A. E. Emmans, three Americans, organized a Minya Konka expedition. They later declared they had reached the mountain top, but this is very doubtful. When we were on top of Minya Konka we looked for traces of their markers, but could not find any. Some old Tibetans living at the foot of the mountain told us that they had once sent some half-frozen Americans back to Yaan on horseback.”

It’s a snow summit and of course it never occurred to us to try to leave anything, the nearest rock outcrop readily reachable being a thousand feet down the climbing route. In fact their own account refers to the summit as “covered with the eternal snows”; what would they expea to find after 25 years? Also I must confess that the last thing we would have expected in 1932 is that by now six charming Communists would be claiming to have been there and “where did we leave our calling cards?”

As to their comment about its being doubtful that we had reached the top, we thoughtfully did provide against just this contingency twenty-five years ago by taking a 360-degree overlapping panorama set of photographs and publishing it—for Communists to overlook—in the January 1934 issue of The Geographical Review, in a technical article by Dick “Burshall” (his real name is Burdsall) entitled, “The Altitude and Location of Minya Konka."* The editorial introduction says that “The writer of this article is the leader of the mountaineering team of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.” Along in his article we read interesting details, such as the following: “The snow gradually melted and our progress became slower. We were going up an incline of over 70 degrees [yes, that’s what it says] and had to make a foothold at every step we climbed … Without the comrades’ help we would not have succeeded … That day we got up to 17,700 feet above sea level. I gave orders that we should encamp under a cornice of snow” [yes, it says that, too]. When they got on top they “embraced each other, our eyes filled with joyful tears. Lining up we proudly hoisted the five-star national flag on the misty pinnacle. Kuo Teh-tsun tied a red scarf, entrusted to him by a Young Pioneer, on the handle of an ice-axe standing just below the flag. I took a picture of the historic scene.”

The same mentality which chose its own way of spelling our names must also have been the one to choose the altitude of the mountain for them. For though Dick Burdsall had been generous in our survey, offering: “24,891 feet, plus or minus 85, which for convenience we round off to 24,900 feet,” none of these four possibilities would suit them. Instead, they felt it necessary to choose a five-foot different one of their own “24,895 feet.” No doubt the extra five feet is snow that got pushed off the top of the mountain and lost while they were rummaging around on top looking “for traces of markers” of our expedition, but not finding them!

Terry Moore

* See, also; Terris Moore, "The Minya Konka Climb,” AAJ 1933, 2:1, pp. 1-17; Richard L. Burdsall and Arthur B. Emmons, 3rd., Men Against the Clouds: The Conquest of Minya Konka, New York, 1935.