Gangkhar Puensum: The Highest Unclimbed Mountain in the World (and Likely to Stay That Way)

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Everest and K2 were both climbed decades ago. In fact, the twenty highest mountains on Earth had all been summited by 1975. By 1985, there were just two mountains left in the top 40, and since 1992, there has been just one.Lying on the Bhutan/China border at an still-daunting elevation/prominence of 7 570 m/2 995 m (24 836 ft/9 704 ft) is Gangkhar Puensum, the highest point in Bhutan and what is believed to be the highest unclimbed mountain on Earth (‘believed’ reflects the lingering ambiguity over what constitutes a separate mountain rather than a subsidiary top). Being a country high point, one would think that Gangkhar Puensum would have been claimed by enterprising climbers a long time ago, but because it sits in Bhutanese territory, it is likely to remain the record holder for some time.

Bhutan only opened itself up to mountaineering in 1983, as it has always sought to protect both the spiritual importance placed upon the giant peaks within the country, its relatively pristine environment, and its ability to properly engineer high-altitude rescue efforts. The decision to allow mountaineering as a commercial pursuit under the purvey of the national Tourism Commercial Organisation didn’t last long, however; all peaks over 6 000 m were again closed to trekking in 1994 (in local mythology, towering mountains are said to be the home of spirits and thus are traditionally off-limits), and mountaineering was banned completely in 2004. During the decade or so that it was possible to climb Gangkhar Puensum from the Bhutanese side, only four attempts were made on the mountain; all failed. But as it lies on the Bhutan/China border, it would still theoretically be possible to ascend it from the Chinese side were it not for a longstanding border dispute. Bhutan has never been able to come to a full agreement on border demarcation with the People’s Republic, and 269 km2 (104 sq mi) of land remains in dispute.The northern half of Gangkhar Puensum falls within this disputed area. Despite being surveyed as early as 1922, subsequent surveys put the mountain in various different places with different elevations. China claims a border that splits the summit between the two countries; Bhutan claims the entire mountain.


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The location of Gangkhar Puensum on the Bhutan/China border. The dashed line to the north of the mountain represents Bhutan’s claim, which would encompass the entire mountain.

The only expedition in the past 20 years to attempt the summit of Gangkhar Puensum, a Japanese group beginning from the Chinese side in 1998, was later denied a permit to climb the main summit due to the dispute with Bhutan over the border. Instead, the expedition settled for a first ascent of a subsidiary peak, Gangkhar Puensum North, also known as Liankang Kangri, at an elevation of 7 535 m (24 413 ft). Based upon their notes, the expedition likely would have been able to complete the climb to the main summit.

The Syfy Network in the United States recently aired a made-for-television movie based upon Gangkhar Puensum and its unclimbed status called Killer Mountain, which has an unimpressive 4.1/10 rating at the Internet Movie Database. In the film, the mountain is guarded by a bloodthirsty alien, and somehow massive explosions ensue as one can see in the trailer. Just to further drive home the absurdity, the IMDb page has a nice geography-related tidbit in the Factual Errors section: ‘The operating base for the expedition is on a sea-going ship. However, the base is in Bhutan. Bhutan is landlocked. It has no navigable rivers. It is impossible for such a vessel to be anywhere near the country’. Yeah.

Further Reading

ABC of Mountaineering (n.d.). Gangkhar Puensum – Tales on the Highest Unclimbed Mountain. Available at http://www.abc-of-mountaineering.com/info/highest-unclimbed-mountain.asp .Accessed 18 September 2011.

Green, S. (2009). Gangkhar Puensum: World’s Highest Unclimbed Mountain. About.com: Climbing. Available at http://climbing.about.com/od/mountainclimbing/a/GangkharPuensu.htm. Accessed 18 September 2011.

Itami, T. (2001). Gankarpunzum & First Ascent of Liankang Kangri: Mountain in Dispute on China-Bhutan Border. Japanese Alpine News 1(1): 28-29. Available at http://www.jac.or.jp/english/jan/vol1/GANKARPUNZUM.pdf. Accessed 18 September 2011.

Li, M. (n.d.). Preserving the Last Shangri-la – Responsible Travels through Bhutan. Travel Intelligence. Available at http://www.travelintelligence.com/travel-writing/preserving-last-shangri-la-responsible-travels-through-bhutan. Accessed 18 September 2011.

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