American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

East of the Himalaya


  • Feature Article
  • Author: Tamotsu Nakamura, Maps by Martin Gamache
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 2003



"Part I: East Tibet"

"Part II: Three Rivers Gorges of The Hengduan Mountains"

"Part III: West Sichuan Highland-Yangtze River Basin"

From the “Alps of Tibet” to the eastern fringes of the Hengduan Mountains, this mysterious land holds countless unclimbed summits. Incredibly complex, the region can be explained, but it will long remain an enigma.

East of the Himalaya there is a vast mountain region that spreads from the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau to the western rim of the Sichuan Basin. The upper streams of East Asia’s five great rivers flow north to south through here, carving fantastically deep valleys between giant mountain folds. In one place the five rivers are squeezed into a span of merely 150 kilometers before fanning out on their journeys to independent seas from the Pacific near Shanghai to the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.

For climbers, the great region of East and Southeast Tibet, West Sichuan, Northwest Yunnan, West Qinghai, and North Myanmar (Burma), offers ranges upon ranges of stunning 5,000- and 6,000-meter peaks. Very few of these have been explored by mountaineers, fewer still have felt crampons on their summits. Below them lie equally untrodden glaciers, hidden gorges, lush forests, verdant pastures, exotic flora and fauna, historic monasteries, and friendly villagers, most of Tibetan heritage. The Tibetan ethnic group embraces this entire region, extending far beyond the high plateau or even the Tibet Autonomous Region most of us imagine when we hear the name “Tibet.”

The open-door policy carried out since 1980 by Chinaís former premier, Deng Xiao-ping, has enabled foreigners to reach ranges previously unknown to climbers. Today access is opening even further under the West China Development Plan, which is reaching the most isolated frontiers. Even the least-frequented rural areas are experiencing rapid changes. Unfortunately, access for mountaineers is still not a simple matter, involving many permits and sometimes considerable cost, especially within Tibet proper.

In this article, which stems from my 25 exploratory journeys to the border country since 1990, I have divided this huge “East of the Himalayas” region into three broad sections, each with its own collection of mountain ranges. These are East Tibet, The Three Rivers Gorges of the Hengduan Mountains, and the West Sichuan Highland in the Yangtze River Basin. Within these sections are many named mountain ranges. And within the ranges themselves, I have defined further subdivisions for convenience in describing the peaks.

This area is becoming increasingly known to climbers, and I hope that my survey will prove helpful in understanding its complexity and its opportunities. I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Nicholas B. Clinch, Dr. Michael Ward, Mr. Harish Kapadia, Mr. Ed Douglas, Mr. Christian Beckwith, Mr. John Harlin, Mr. Bernard Domenech, and many friends overseas and in Japan as well for their continued support and encouragement.

Special notes:

Pronunciation: The letter “q” is used for something between a “ch” and “je” sound. Thus, “Nyainqentanglha” is most easily pronounced “Nyainchentanglha,” and the same principle applies for Jieqinnalagabu, etc.

Names: The names we see in print result from a complicated process. After deciding which name to use when there are several local choices, we must interpret the sound through our foreign ears, and then approximate it with a phonetic English spelling. Sometimes the process involves four languages, each with its own alphabet: Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and English. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you find several spellings or even names for the same mountain. The names in this article are the ones that I judge to be the most commonly used. For many of these peaks, I have personally translated the oral Tibetan into English spelling. Often the altitude can be used to confirm a peak, but even this is complicated by the existence of several maps with conflicting altitudes. I use the 1:50,000 and/or 1:100,000 scale China People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maps as the final arbiter whenever these are open to me (the maps are restricted and not commercially available). For areas where I have not seen PLA maps, the 1:100,000 or 1:200,000 scale Russian topographical maps we have applied.

Climbing seasons: In general, good timing for climbing is before or after the rainy season that runs from the end of June to the end of September. That is, most climbers will want to visit from May to mid June, or from the end of September to November. However, the climate here is complex and not necessarily uniform. I discuss many variations within the different sections.

Go to: "Part I: East Tibet"

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