American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

On and Around Anyemaqen

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1982

On and Around Anyemaqen Galen A. Rowell

Back IN THE DAYS when mountaineering was a solitary pursuit, even great expeditions functioned in relative isolation. Base Camps, however populous, were seldom visited by outsiders. Today’s trend is to aim both climbers and commercial trekkers toward the same bases, turning them into international meeting places.

In June 1981 I helped lead both a trek and an expedition to the same mountain, Anyemaqen. The usual pattern of timid trekkers rubbing shoulders with daring alpinists was almost reversed. In many ways trekking around the peak presented greater difficulties than merely climbing up it. The Anyemaqen Range (formerly spelled “Amne Machin”) had three legendary superlatives: a mountain once thought to be higher than Everest, the last sanctuary of rare Tibetan animals, and the hidden lair of fierce Golog tribesmen.

The trek began immediately after the successful climb. Only then, traveling at altitudes of 13,000 to 16,000 feet with Golog guides, did the mysteries of Anyemaqen begin to unravel. Only then, watching white ice merge with white cloud day after day, did I understand how explorer after competent explorer, kept at a distance by the fierce Gologs, had overestimated the height of the range. Only then, especially on the morning I’m about to recreate for you, did the combination of risk and solitude and enlightenment that I seek on the summits come to me in the foothills of Anyemaqen.

Uphill I run through grassland with a Golog Tibetan on horseback at my heels. I head for a cluster of rock piles, poles, and cloth flags at the crest of a hill now less than half a mile away. A low sound that seems born of the earth itself grows louder as I draw near. At first I do not realize that it is not coming from the hill, but from behind me. The Golog is chanting a Buddhist incantation in perfect rhythm with my footsteps.

Neither of us can speak the other’s language. We are alone in the shadow of Anyemaqen. Explorers and pilots who saw the peak from a greater distance than this created its legend in the West. The fierce Golo tribes kept foreigners and Chinese alike away from their mountain stronghold until long after the communist “liberation” of 1949. Here in the East they have their own legend of Anyemaqen, different but equally lofty.

At 15,500 feet my lungs feel ready to burst with each stride. I am able to run at this altitude only because I am acclimatized from going to the North Col of Everest last month and the top of Anyemaqen last week. My immediate goal is close now, the rocks and prayer flags of the hilltop shrine. I push beyond equilibrium, feeling the euphoria of oxygen debt, knowing that I will soon collapse, pant for long minutes, and regain my breath.

We don’t stop at the hilltop. The Golog takes the lead, and I join him on three complete circles of the shrine. Each of these circumambulations is an offering to the Tibetan gods of earth, sky, moon, and stars represented by heaps of Mani stones carved with Buddhist script. The Golog patron saint and mountain god is Maqen Bomra. His stone heap is the highest of all: Anyemaqen itself.

Before the communist “liberation” up to 10,000 Gologs a year circumambulated Anyemaqen in a 120-mile circle. Now I am repeating this holy pilgrimage. I brought a party of fifteen Americans—zoologists, geographers, geologists, botanists, ornithologists, ecologists—to explore and interpret this region. When I received permission to lead this trek a year ago, the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA) gave me a written description of “thick virgin forests where deer, snow leopards and bear thrive, while the grasslands and gravel slopes near the snowline are alive with hordes of gazelles, wild asses, and rare musk deer.”

I never planned to be running alone with a Golog horseman. Our group of fifteen became six after a couple of days in the field. The other nine stayed back because of the inhospitable nature of the Gologs and the failure of the CMA to provide adequate food, support, and information about the route. This morning I stayed back from my group to try to find a mini-recorder with all my notes that fell from my pack during a river crossing. After searching in vain for an hour I gave up and started walking as fast as I could. Around the first bend was Chong Hun, one of our Golog guides, waiting with his horse. Golog gentleman that he is, he motioned to take my backpack so I could walk faster while he rode. When we caught the others, he kept riding— with my thirty pounds of cameras on his horse. So, I kept running, and here we are alone.

So far the Gologs have answered no personal questions through our young Chinese interpreter, and Chong Hun has been particularly insolent. Our liaison officer stayed back with the other nine, a tactical, inflexible man whose authoritarian manner is as effective with the Gologs as that of Nikita Khrushchev would be alone in a New Guinea tribe.

The Gologs’ history of dealings with outsiders is dismal. Dr. Joseph Rock, who wrote about this area for the February 1930 National Geographic, said, “Such hostile and unfriendly people I have never met anywhere in the world; it seems that a smile never crosses their coarse features.” Several other explorers never wrote about the Gologs at all, like Dutreuil de Rhins, who was laced alive into a yak skin and tossed into the Yellow River.

Because of their arrogant ferocity, the Gologs have maintained an unprecedented degree of autonomy within the Chinese system. Golog territory was originally encircled by Tibet, but throughout their history the Gologs stayed independent from the government of Lhasa. One of Mao Zedong’s soundest defeats came in February 1956 when he deployed troops to stop Golog raids on a new road to Lhasa. The Gologs captured 200 Chinese soldiers, cut off their noses flush with their faces, and drove the mutilated men into the frozen desert. Mao counter-attacked with over 7000 of his best troops, which were ambushed and routed by the Gologs. Major air raids broke the Gologs’ resistance, but unlike other Tibetan minorities in China they held onto their rifles, Buddhist practices, and nomadic life in yak-hair tents. The communes around Anyemaqen have no Chinese members, and the men carry AK-47’s. Here in this enclave of China, traditional Tibetan lifestyle is far more intact than in Tibet itself.

Chong Hun says prayers as we circle the shrine together. I recognize a few Tibetan characters in the middle of a prayer flag, because of one that reminds me of a man riding a unicycle. Pointing to them, I say, “Om mani padme hum,” a basic prayer that is the same for the Gologs and the Lhasa Tibetans. Chong Hun’s face lights up. He smiles broadly as by sign language and a handful of words we discover that we have visited the same monasteries in the heartland of Tibet. No Han Chinese has ever shown him such respect for his religion.

Just when I think things are going well, Chong Hun turns serious. I stand very still as he draws a long knife and holds it to my face. He cuts a lock of my hair; then one of his own; finally one from his horse. He ties them to a rope on one of the poles as an offering to the gods.

After we have been at the shrine half an hour, the other five trekkers arrive with the interpreter, two Gologs, and a yak train of our supplies. Chong Hun is reclining in the grass with his arm around me. Whenever I turn his way, he presents his tongue with his mouth partly open in the warmest form of Tibetan greeting. Now I ask questions through Gung Jian Chun, our 24-year-old Chinese interpreter, and get answers. Chong Hun is the first of his haughty tribe to talk of his past. Even his commune director, Chang La, has refused our requests for an interview or for tea.

Chong Hun has been to Datsu, this hilltop shrine, seven times before. “When I was eight years old,” he relates, “I came here with my family on a pilgrimage around the mountain as you are doing now. Everyone, even the incarnate lama, was required to walk the whole distance. We saw wolves, bears, musk deer, great herds of gazelles, blue sheep, and nyan”

Rod Jackson, our zoologist, interjects that nyan is the Tibetan name for the argali, mountain sheep with horns up to a foot in diameter. Nyan is also a horned Tibetan god of the earth. To Jackson, one nyan is as mythical as the other. He craves a sighting of a wild nyan more than that of any other creature, even that of the snow leopard which is his specialty. “Where can we see nyan at this time of year?” he asks.

“They are gone,” Chong Hun replies wistfully. “I saw my last nyan when I was 18; now I am 43. None of my comrades has seen any sign of them in many, many years.”

Disappointment passes across Jackson’s face like the shadow of a cloud, the real cloud, that is crossing the Anyemaqen of our dreams. He realizes once and for all that there is no secret Shangri-la of rare animals here, as the CMA promised. “That explains why I haven’t even found an old nyan skull,” he ponders aloud. Nor has he found many bones of other animals said to be present in the CMA description. “And why,” he addresses Chong Hun, “do you think the animals have left?”

“Guns. The people have guns now and free bullets from the communes. Horses, too. Everyone has a horse to ride and nyan have no place to hide. There are more people, more yaks, more goats, more guns, more bullets, and no more nyan.”

In the days that follow I piece together the history of these last cowboys of China’s Wild West. During the sixties they raided work crews building a railroad to Lhasa so often that Tibet is still inaccessible by train. The Gologs originally came from Tibet, descendants of warriors sent to guard the northern border in the seventh century. When the Tibetan empire receded, the Gologs remained, earning a reputation as fierce brigands. The 800 inhabitants of Chong Hun’s “Snow Mountain Commune” are scattered over 250 square miles of grasslands, living year-round in black tents, owning their own horses, and grazing hundreds of communal yaks and sheep per family. Their dialect is nearly identical to pre-ninth-century Tibetan, and unintelligible to Lhasa Tibetans today.

As we close the circle around the mountain and understand more about the Gologs, pieces of another puzzle also fall into place. Suddenly I know what has been wrong, why I feel less happiness now, after a successful climb, and trek, and return of a healthy group than ever before in Asia. What little happiness I have found was in moments like the one when I was running up the hill with Chong Hun, moments free of the rigid structuring of the government that has oppressed our movements even into the high mountains. Wilderness is more a state of mind than a physical place. It is the original state of mind in which our species evolved, but it is farther from the state of mind here in China than anywhere else I know. The freedom and spontaneity of the mountain experience is drastically compromised by present management of foreign visitors.

As a member of the first American mountaineering expedition allowed in the People’s Republic in June 1980, I came back convinced that Chinese promises were as good as gold (although usually as expensive). The red carpet was always out for us on this premier American enterprise.

Negotiations for treks were made in Peking in July 1980 in the happy aftermath of the successful Mustagh Ata expedition. The CMA assured us that no Westerners had been on the pilgrimage around Anyemaqen and guaranteed that we would be the first to attempt to do so. They gave us a single typewritten page of description in English. The mountain was 23,490 feet and it had been climbed by eight Chinese in 1960. The area around it contained “a wealth of rare birds and animals.” The rainy season was reported as June to September. After further questioning, the CMA told us that our trip at the start of June would come well before the rains and that Anyemaqen had been resurveyed at 20,610 feet and had not been climbed. The 1960 Chinese expedition had climbed a peak 28 meters lower and several miles from the highest point. We were given a slide show on the area that included fine close-ups of rare white-lipped deer in thick willows. Later, I too took close-up photos of the rare white-lipped deer in thick foliage in precisely the same spot as the Chinese: the Snow Mountain Commune Deer Farm, created in 1967 to harvest antlers for aphrodisiacs and herbal medicines after wild deer became scarce.

Two months before departure, I learned that Kim Schmitz, a partner of mine on four Himalayan climbs, had signed on with Mountain Travel to lead the ascent of Anyemaqen. I joined as assistant leader. The timing was perfect for me to meet them after my trek in the Everest region, and when the climb was over, to join my other trekking group at the roadhead. I was surprised that Mountain Travel was also sending a separate group of trekkers with the climbers to do the Anyemaqen pilgrimage route. The CMA had told us that no other group would be permitted on the pilgrimage before us. The next bombshell was that a Japanese and a West German-Austrian expedition had been sold permits to climb Anyemaqen ahead of us in the same season.

In the mountains it rained and snowed for our first eight days. By chance we met a Chinese glaciological team in the field. They didn’t consider the weather at all unusual, because weather records show a fierce rainy season from May to July. Our trek and climb were scheduled squarely in the middle of the bad weather.

On our way to climb the mountain we met the Japanese on their way out. The Chinese told us that they had reached the summit in a storm after a month-long siege. The Germans and Austrians were fixing rope on another side of the peak. Bad weather continued until there were only three days left before I was to meet my trekking party. When it broke, Kim, Harold Knutson and I made an alpine-style push on the unattempted northeast ridge.

On the first day we climbed from Base Camp at 14,000 feet to a well stocked Advanced Base at 15,000 feet, then, on the second, up a ridge culminating in steep, deep snow to a campsite at 19,000 feet. The next morning we followed a knife-edge up and down until it joined the main buttress of the peak. Séracs on the ridge were all easily avoidable, although we were thankful that the storm had covered the ice that was just under the surface in many places. Continuously steep cramponing brought us onto the summit plateau shortly after noon, only to find thigh-deep powder with a wind crust filling a mile-wide gentle basin separating us from the summit.

A difficult slog with frequent switching of the lead brought us onto the broad summit in sunshine. We found no evidence of a previous ascent and no marks on the south ridge coming up from the Japanese Base Camp. Our altimeter read 20,700 feet, confirming the latest survey, and our eyes told us we were on the highest point in the range. We were uncertain, however, whether we had made the first, the second, or the third ascent of the mountain.

The Germans and Austrians reached the top one day after us. They found our names, snow pickets and wands on top, but saw evidence of the Japanese only below 17,000 feet. Our CMA liaison officer, Yu Liangpu, first told us that the Japanese had climbed the same lower summit done by the Chinese in 1960, then informed us that they actually climbed the highest peak. John Thune, leader of the Mountain Travel trekkers, talked in English with one of the Japanese summit climbers and learned that their group saw a higher point on the peak they climbed, but did not go to it. This confused us because an ascent of Anyemaqen by the south ridge would emerge directly on the highest point, something unknowable without being on top. We guess that the Japanese climbed a different peak, such as Anyemaqen II, which is just 28 meters lower. We asked the CMA for photos and descriptions of the Japanese ascent in June 1981, but as of January 1982 we have had no reply.

At the end of the pilgrimage I understood two of the three legendary superlatives of Anyemaqen. I had seen how the fierce Golog warriors had resisted intimidation and accepted a bare outline of communal life with a maximum of autonomy. I had also seen why the wildlife Shangrila was long gone. But although I had climbed Anyemaqen, I couldn’t explain the legend of it surpassing Everest.

I knew that the British explorer George Pereira had called Anyemaqen higher than Everest in 1923, and that the National Geographic had tempered Joseph Rock’s 1930 estimate of 30,000 feet down to a more reasonable 28,000 for publication. I knew that Leonard Clark had reported his precise measurement of 29,666 feet in a 1949 Life magazine story. I also knew that no survey had been precise enough to convince geographers until a sensational news story appeared to confirm the mountain’s height during World War II. A U.S. pilot flying a DC-3 over “The Hump” from Burma to China reported coming out of the clouds at 30,000 feet in the Anyemaqen area only to see a mountain rising above him.

Months after I returned home to California, my eighty-year-old mother handed me a letter sent her by a neighbor who had read about my climb. Dick Leonard, a pioneer of Yosemite climbing in the thirties, had also been my father’s student at the University of California and a long-time family friend. During World War II he had maneuvered himself into an intelligence assignment in Asia because of his love of the Himalaya.

Leonard had prodigiously studied books on the Himalaya, and as he flew next to the range in October 1944 he proudly called aloud the names of the great peaks as they passed by his DC-3 window. An Air Force captain across the aisle said, “Major, you seem to know a lot about the Himalaya. Have you heard of the peak higher than Everest?”

“Oh yes,” Leonard replied. “Amne Machin is one of the greatest geographical discoveries of the century!”

“Well it’s all a fake. We made it up. Those British correspondents kept pestering us for exciting stories to cable home, so we told them of a DC-3 that got blown off course in a terrific storm and discovered a mountain over 30,000 feet. Their fix on the sun told them they were 200 miles off course, but they were able to recover and land in Chungking. Of course a fully loaded DC-3 can’t fly anywhere near as high as we said, and it couldn’t carry enough fuel to get back from that far off course even if the pilot knew the way. It was a great practical joke, and serious reports of it were published all over the world.”

Yes, the importance of Anyemaqen was only a state of mind.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Eastern Kun Lun Range, Qinghai Province, Central China.

Ascent: Anyemaqen, 6282 meters, 20,610 feet, via northeast ridge, June 9, 1981 (Harold Knutson, Galen A. Rowell, Kim Schmitz).

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