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Tougher than Everest? How Hkakabo Razi broke Nat Geo’s climbers, and their gear

“We spend our lives in the Himalayas training. However, this one trumped anything we had experienced.”

Hkakabo Razi (pronounced KA-kuh-bo RAH-zee) is said to be the highest peak in Southeast Asia. Cut with jagged massif of black rock and white glaciers, it rises out of the jungles of northern Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). The mountain, located beyond the eastern edge of the Himalayas on the border with Tibet, was first measured back in 1925 at 19,296 feet high. It is a peak so remote that just getting to the mountain requires a two-week hike through dense jungle with plunging gorges — and inhabited by venomous snakes.

Hkakabo Razi is sometimes called the “Anti-Everest” because there are no infrastructure, guides, porters, or easy trails to the mountain. In 2014, National Geographic granted an expedition to determine just how tall this mountain actually is (its height has been challenged by a nearby mountain, Gamlang Razi). The trek was supported by The North Face, SanDisk, Red, and Sony; it was featured in National Geographic Magazine and will be spotlighted in a one-hour episode of its Explorers series (to air on TV in the spring of 2016).

The expedition team’s challenges included run-ins with warlords, having to cut gear in half (twice), running out of food and fuel, having all their spinning hard drives fail at about 13,000 feet, and then having to hike 100 miles through the jungle each way.

Stretched to the limit, the team — which included videographer Renan Ozturk, author Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, climber Emily Harrington, base camp manager Taylor Rees, and expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill – began running low on food on the hike out.

With resources depleting, not everyone could go on the final ascension, creating a lot of drama within the small team. In the end, the conditions were so harsh that they only reached 18,840 feet before having to turn back.

Although they were able not reach the summit and ultimately solve the mystery of Myanmar’s tallest mountain, they were able to come back alive to document it. We spoke with videographer Ozturk to recount this physically and mentally grueling adventure.

Digital Trends: Tell us a little about the goals of the expedition.

Renan Ozturk: The expedition was a National Geographic-granted expedition, with the scientific goal of climbing the remote peaks at the far eastern edge of the Burmese Himalaya and using GPS technology, in order to solve the mystery of the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.

What were some of the major challenges you had to deal with along the way?

“Things were constantly falling apart. It was a mental battle every day to stay positive.”

Just to reach the base of the mountain, we had to travel overland on trains, dirt bikes, and eventually 150 miles through the remote jungle. There is no infrastructure for expeditions in Burma, and we were wrong to assume it would be easy to get our gear all the way into the mountain. A lack of porters and local food forced us to cut our food supply, warm clothing, and camera gear in half, and in half again just so that we could keep moving through the treacherous jungle.

How were you pushed mentally as well as physically?

The expedition put us in a constant state of unknown. We woke up every day with new challenges ranging from venomous snakes on the trail, lack of porters, hunger, leaches, dead-end route-finding on the mountain, and a difficult team dynamic. Things were constantly falling apart and it was a mental battle every day to stay positive. On top of that we were starving due to a shortage of food during the 15 miles a day through the jungle, which also contributed to members of the team on the brink of frostbite and death from high-altitude exposure, high on the mountain.

There were points where the mental and physical hardship were so great that we had to make life-or-death decisions in order to live to tell the story.

How did you prepare yourself to shoot in conditions like this?

All the members of the team were professional climbers as well as creatives for National Geographic and The North Face. We spend our lives in the Himalayas training and gaining experience for these types of expeditions. However, this one trumped anything we had experienced. There was no way of predicting the hardships we encountered, and the jungle was a claustrophobic new environment for us mountain folk. If I ever go back, I’ll have a few tricks up my sleeve for better jungle survival.

What equipment did you bring along to document the trip?

Image used with permission by copyright holder

In 2015, Renan Ozturk’s work on two major feature documentaries (Meru and Sherp) gained him an international reputation as one of the leading mountain cinematographers in the world. He is the co-founder and director at Camp 4 Collective, a video production company in Utah.

We brought the entire gamut from the Red Dragon, Lite Pro Gear lightweight cranes, small drones, Sony A7S full-frame mirrorless cameras, and SanDisk solid state drives and huge 512GB memory cards. In the end, the gear was stripped down to the bare essentials and only the Sony A7S with a SanDisk 512GB cards were on the summit push. 

And how did the equipment hold up?

The whole expedition was a constant stripping away of gear, food, and physical and mental energy. Documenting this adventure was a huge challenge for all our technology, and in the end only the Sony and SanDisk equipment survived the gauntlet of weather and conditions, from near sea level to 19,000 feet on the highest peak in this part of the Himalayas.

Being able to have a small mirrorless full-frame camera and reliable solid-state storage really made these extreme stories possible to tell, and tell in a cinematic way. The footage is online in a 20-minute Vimeo Staff pick. The North Face film will also be part of the National Geographic Television Explorer series in 2016. The stills from the A7S opened and closed the Nat Geo “Point Of No Return” print article as well.

Bill Schiffner
Bill Schiffner is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant based in Holbrook, N.Y. He has covered the imaging industry for…
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