Shangri-La, Part I

Shangri-La: Filmmakers and mountaineers assault a sacred mountain (Part II)

Dec 7, 2000

Dear Friends of the Kham Aid Foundation,

Many of you will recall that in early October I sent a dispatch detailing rumors that we heard on the road, on our way out to Dabpa (Daocheng). The rumors said that a team of cinematographers was in the vicinity of the Yading Reserve, reportedly making a documentary film about a remote valley that they had identified as Shangri-La. This place was invented by James Hilton and described in his novel Lost Horizons, a classic work of Himalayan fiction that subsequently became a feature film. The rumors also said that part of the team consisted of mountaineers who were preparing to ascend Mount Jambeyang, one of three sacred mountains in the Yading Reserve.

It was this latter part of the rumor that caused us some concern.

We now have some facts.

First of all, when we arrived in the Dabpa County seat on October 6, attendants in the Blue Moon Valley Hotel confirmed that, indeed, eight Americans had come through town some days previously. Of the eight, five had come back out and three had not yet returned. These were, we surmised, the climbers, and they must still be on the mountain looking for a way up.

Eager to see the famous Yading Reserve, and also to find more clues, we set out the next morning. By nightfall we had arrived at Trongo Gonpa, or "Bandit Monastery" as it was dubbed by Joseph Rock, an explorer who visited the area in the 1920s. Rock approached the area from the Muli Kingdom in the east, not from Dabpa in the north. By the way, this eastern route to Yading is still used by Tibetans and by an increasing number of recreational travelers. Apparently the route is motorable, at least sometimes. A friend of Kham Aid Foundation, Michael Tan, recently traveled that route and came back gushing about it. From various clues and comments, we believe that the "Shangri-La" identified by the American group is on or somewhere near that road.

Anyway, at Trongo Monastery we spoke to a monk, Losong Drakpo, 53 years old. He confirmed that eight Americans had visited the monastery five days previously. They did not mention anything about climbing Jambeyang. When we mentioned the possibility, Losong Drakpo was visibly appalled. He said, "It can't be done and it shouldn't be done. I haven't seen any climbers here, but if I did, I would try to stop them. Anyway, it's impossible to climb."

At that point we had not yet seen Jambeyang. We figured that the monk just didn't know how high-tech, practiced, and determined modern alpinists can be.

On the next day we accomplished half of the circuit of Chenresig, the largest of the three sacred mountains. On the back (south) side of the mountain, we summited a couple of passes that allowed us good views of Jambeyang's northern faces and ridges. The peak of Jambeyang rises quite steeply to a perfect pointed pyramid, and the ridges are all razor-sharp, jagged, and highly exposed. Fierce easterlies were pulling snow from the summit and tossing it down in gigantic wispy billows. Dana Isherwood, who is an experienced climber, was with me, and indeed most of this investigation has been spear-headed by her. She looked very hard at Jambeyang and shook her head, declaring "That is a really difficult climb!"

I did spot one small, high, green pasture amid the jumbled rock on the mountain's northern flanks. The pasture seemed to have a couple of horses grazing on it; they appeared as tiny dots at this distance. I fantasized that this was the climbers' base camp, and the horses belonged to their Tibetan helpers who were camped somewhere nearby, waiting for their clients to come down. Of course, there was no way to know if my guesses were anything close to reality. We didn't find any nomads camped in the vicinity, so there was no one to ask.

In the past, ascent of sacred mountains has been a source of considerable anguish among indigenous people. Edwin Bernbaum, author of the book Sacred Mountains of the World, wrote to Dana Isherwood saying "The Queen or Queen Mother of Bhutan objected to an Indian expedition to Chomolharhi, the major sacred mountain of western Bhutan, and locals told me that they blamed climbers for bad weather and illnesses of yaks. Nepalis, Sikkimese, and Indians objected to the expedition that was about to make the first ascent of Kangchenjunga, including government officials, for fear of incurring the wrath of the deity. They worked out a compromise in which the climbers agreed to stop just short of the summit. And that's what they said they did."

Reinhold Messner, who has summited virtually all of the world's major peaks, made a sensitive and significant gesture by refraining from climbing Kailas, Tibet's most sacred mountain. Messner turned back when he saw the devotion of the people to the mountain. To discourage others from the attempt, he afterwards said that the first ascent had already been bagged--by Milarepa, Tibet's beloved yogi. (Legend says that Milarepa flew to the top with a snap of his fingers.)

Since our visit to Dabpa, Dana Isherwood has made further inquiries. She confirmed that one team of film-makers was sent by National Geographic. The subject of the film is not climbing, and it's not Shangri-La either; it's about Joseph Rock's explorations in the 1920s. Apparently, a second team of film-makers, headed by Ted Vaill and including Peter Klika, is making a spec film about a place they believe resembles the Shangri-la of the Hilton novel (see news release at the end of this message). These two groups of filmmakers/climbers went into Yading together and came out separately, with the non-National Geographic people remaining behind to do the climb.

She also learned that there was not one, but two mountaineering teams on Jambeyang. Both turned back because of dangerous snow and ice conditions. The team composed of Peter Klika, Pete Athans, and Greg Childs was preceded by an expedition led by Wesley Bunch that included Fred Becky. (These people are all fairly well known in climbing circles.)

In the second group, the leader Pete Athans took one look at conditions on Jambeyang and said there was no way they would climb the mountain. He then went around to the back side of Chanadorje, the third sacred mountain in the Yading Reserve. There conditions were also bad, and, accordingly, he gave up. This team did not have endorsement from the American Alpine Club, which is theoretically necessary to obtain a permit from Chinese authorities. We have so far been unable to determine if they had any contact with a Chinese group such as the Sichuan Mountaineering Association.

The first group, the one led by Wesley Bunch, had a $5000 grant from the American Alpine Club. According to AAC officials, their application made no mention of Jambeyang being a sacred mountain. There is also no mention of applying for or receiving a permit from the Sichuan Mountaineering Association, which is necessary for a legal climb. Dana Isherwood is looking into this further, and considering writing a letter of protest to the AAC on the grounds that the climb should not have been attempted for both legal and ethical reasons.

Reportedly, Fred Becky has said he won't go back. It does appear as if the National Geographic is not involved in any of the climbing, except for accompanying Klika's team on the way in.

In the meantime, the Yading Reserve is starting to receive some attention. A feature article about it appears in this month's Asian Geographic Magazine. A team from the China Exploration and Research Society is making its third or fourth foray into the area. As I mentioned, Michael Tan (, a mountain guide based in Chengdu, went there this year and is keen on returning. Keep an eye out for the NG film on Joseph Rock. And get out there soon, before the magic disappears under the force of thousands of foreign hiking boots.

Sincerely yours,

Pamela Logan

P.S. An American Alpine Club news release says


By Ted Vaill

Peter Klika and I journeyed to Tibet last September to find the real life location of James Hilton's Shangri-La, as described in his 1933 book "Lost Horizon." We found it and filmed it, and we are putting together a one hour documentary film special of our quest. To reach the real Shangri-La, we had to travel for four days over horrible roads in four-wheel-drive vehicles, and then travel on foot for 10 days over four passes from 15,300 feet to 16,500 feet, for 40 miles (and 30,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.) We traveled around the three holy mountains the Tibetans circumambulate after receiving a blessing at Snow Mountain Monastery, and took a dip in the Spring of Eternal Life like the Tibetans do as they enter the Shangri-La Valley. The valley is beautiful and fertile, and gold is plentiful. Ted Vaill and team will be returning to Shangra-La in April. If you would like to learn more about climbing around Shangri-La contact Ted Vaill at mailtoDVAILL@AOL.COM

Shangri-La, Part I

Source File from Kham Aid Foundation