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For years I’ve been hiking in China, and just about any time I can squeeze out a few free days, I jump on a plane to Sichuan or Yunnan province, in Southwest China. I always shoot during my trips and have grown adept at both executing these treks and coming back with images suitable for a published story. In other words, I’m well versed in extreme altitude, extreme weather, and cameras.
So it was with delight that I took an assignment in June to document the religious mountain of Meili Xue Shan in Southeastern Tibet. The “holy mountain” is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and is home to a kora, or “holy trek,” that is ranked China’s most difficult trek by the China Mountaineering Association. Pilgrims make the trek around the holy mountain, a complete circumnavigation that is said to cleanse the soul.
Sitting in my apartment in Shanghai, it was difficult to contemplate a ten-day, 300-kilometer trek through Tibet. A series of questions began running through my mind: How was I supposed to walk 12 hours a day and still make strong images? Was there a road? Was there mobile phone access? Was there electricity?
My first decision was to shoot film — digital just wasn’t going to cut it for this trip. Not only would electricity be scarce, but extreme temperature fluctuations would drain the batteries and potentially be too tough for my Canon 5D MII’s. So I dusted off my Canon 1Ns and bought 200 rolls of Fuji Provia. Luckily I already had all the gear, clothes, and footwear to attempt such a journey. Excitement was beginning to sink in.
A few days later, fear began to sink in, too. When I researched, I was disturbed by how little information existed about this trek, including crucial details like the length of the trek, it’s difficulty, and possible villages along the route. I was finally dug up two resources: a China Trekking site compiled by a person who had obviously never trekked in his/her life and a travel website by two German hikers who had done the trek 3-4 years earlier.
The Germans had estimated the kora to be around 300 km (185 miles), meaning that I needed to cover 15-to-20 miles a day to complete the trek in a reasonable amount of time. That meant I probably needed to sleep in a tent every night, cook my own food, and walk for 8-to-10 hours a day — at altitude — all while visually documenting the journey. Did I mention that each day was a vertical assent or descent? And that there are three passes over 4,500 meters (15,000 feet)? This was starting to sound like mission impossible.
I decided to travel with a writer for two reasons. First, we are very close friends and we’ve been hiking together in the Himalayas since well before either of us was getting published. Second, he is an expert in the region. It’s rare to find someone you can hike 12 hours a day with, for 10 days, and still be on speaking terms with, but we complement each other and I would never have considered going alone.
I knew to never go wandering into Tibet without a Tibetan. In this part of the world, people die on the mountains — the only safety you can count on is experience. Finding a guide proved difficult, and in the end I decided that I would find the right person in the village where I would start my journey. That was a potentially risky move, but like everywhere in the world, you can usually make things happen once you are on the ground.
My flight to Zhongdian, now named Shangri-la, was easy enough. Zhongdian is the first town on the Tibetan plateau in China’s Southwestern Yunnan province. I decided to fly in and rest there for two days; at 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) it would be an ideal place to acclimatize before making more aggressive moves into the mountains. Taking the time to acclimatize in this part of the world is as essential as remembering to bring film for your camera. Without spending the first day or two resting, you are setting yourself up for attitude sickness and possibly worse.
From there, getting to the mountains was easy enough. And as the initial adrenaline rush gave way to reality, the trek revealed itself to be the most visually beautiful, emotionally rewarding, and physically and mentally challenging experience of my life. And all that was crammed into just nine days.
Without giving away too much of a story that is not yet published, I can say that the Germans were wrong in their calculations — the trek is around 400km (250 miles), when taking into account the switch backs and detours. That made for about 30 miles a day.
My writing partner and I completed the journey in nine days and suffered some of the most extreme weather conditions I’ve witnessed in my decade of traveling in the region. We were rained on, snowed on, and hailed on. On the last day, it was 25C (77F) when we woke up and -20C (-4F) just seven hours later, at 4,900 meters, with wind strong enough to knock you off your feet. I lost about 20 pounds in the process and gained a completely new respect for our Tibetan guides, who floated effortlessly over high passes and across windy plateaus.
As far as the gear was concerned, the Northface tent, sleeping bags, and jackets performed wonderfully, especially with violent temperature fluctuations. The Canon 1Ns held up beautifully in rain, snow, and sleet. The Fuji Provia was, as always, the right color film for the job. And after walking up and down mountains for ten hours a day in the remote Himalaya’s, I feel as though I could face down Michael Phelps, on dry land at least.