Gangkhar Puensum – One of the highest unclimbed mountains in the world

Tijana Radeska

Gangkhar Puensum, which name means “White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers,” is one of the highest unclimbed mountains in the world. It is the highest peak in Bhutan with an elevation of 24,836 feet (7,570 meters) and a prominence of 9,826 feet (2,995 meters). It is unclimbed not from the lack of trying but rather because of its religious significance to the country.

Since 1983, when Bhutan was opened to mountaineering, there have been four expeditions in total, taking place between 1985 and 1986, but all ended as failed summit attempts. This was in large part due to inadequate mapping. Gangkhar Puensum was shown in different locations in different maps and its height, too, which was first measured in 1922, was presented differently.

The mountain seen from Gophu La Pass – Author: Gradythebadger – CC BY-SA 4.0
The mountain seen from Gophu La Pass – Author: Gradythebadger – CC BY-SA 4.0

The mapping of the region has been inadequate until recent years, and hence many of the climbers in the past couldn’t even find the summit. The mountain lies on the border with China, and many mountaineers eager to scale the unconquered peak have climbed a subsidiary peak of the mountain from Tibet.

There is 1986 book about the mountain published by a British expedition on Gangkhar Puensum. In that book, the height of the mountain is stated as 24,770 feet (7,550 meters), and that it is entirely inside the borders of Bhutan. According to the book of the British expedition, the nearby Kula Kangri with an elevation of 24, 698 feet (7,528 meters) for which many authorities claim to be the highest mountain in Bhutan, is entirely in Tibet. Kula Kangri is 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) to the northeast of Gangkhar Puensum and was climbed for the first time in 1986. There are various maps that show Kula Kangri as being in Bhutan or Tibet.

Gangkhar Puensum from Cher-tang-la, Bhutan
Gangkhar Puensum from Cher-tang-la, Bhutan

Gangkhar Puensum has always been a sort of enigma as there was never enough time and legal support for its exploration. First, due to the spiritual importance and pristine condition of its sacred peaks, mountaineering in Bhutan was forbidden until 1983.

After the country opened its doors for mountaineering, by 1994 it had already prohibited the climbing of mountains higher than 19,685 feet (6,000 meters) out of respect for local spiritual beliefs. And since 2003 mountaineering in Bhutan has been forbidden completely. According to the local beliefs the mountains are the haunts of various spirits from sacred myths and legends.

The most accurate measurement and mapping of Gangkhar Puensum was made by a Japanese expedition that started out in 1998. They  first secured permission to climb the mountain from the Chinese Mountaineering Association, but it was then withdrawn due to a political issue with Bhutan. So, in 1999, the team successfully climbed Liankang Kangri, a subsidiary peak with an elevation of 24,721 feet (7,535 meters), also known as Gangkhar Puensum North.

Gangkhar Puensum – Author: dhaag23 – CC BY 2.0
Gangkhar Puensum – Author: dhaag23 – CC BY 2.0

The team set off from Tibet, and unlike most of the previous mappings, their report shows that the summit is in Tibet, while the Tibet-Bhutan border is shown crossing the summit of Gangkhar Puensum. The report from the expedition has been supported by Japanese sources and based on Chinese sources, but hasn’t been surveyed by Bhutan.

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tijana-radeska is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival