The unclimbable sacred mountain

The unclimbable sacred mountain

One of the most elegant Himalayan peaks, known popularly in Chinese as Meili Xue Shan—Beautiful Snow Mountain—straddles the narrow divide between the Mekong and Salween river gorges, and offers itself as a perfect grandstand view from the 17th century Feilai temple, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from LUX* Benzilan. But its Tibetan name, Kawakarpo, hints at something darker. In the ancestral Tibetan Bön religion, a pantheon of good and evil deities is associated with  specific places, and this 6,640-metre peak is the abode of a warrior god of the same name. The second most sacred mountain for Tibetans after Mount Kailash (Gangrinpoche) in the far west, Kawakarpo attracts some 20,000 pilgrims a year, many of whom come to make the arduous holy circuit known as a kora. At 240 kilometres, this circumambulation crosses two high passes and reaches the Salween River on the other side, taking two weeks or longer to complete.

A sacred journey on foot around the mountain’s slopes is one thing, but climbing its peak is quite another, and the local belief is that the warrior god will leave and the area will lose his protection if it were to be climbed. The first unsuccessful attempt was made by a Japanese team in 1987, followed by two equally unsuccessful efforts by Americans in the following two years. Then came the 1990-91 winter attempt by a joint Japanese-Chinese expedition. On the 3rd of January, an avalanche in the middle of the night killed all seventeen members, and the local people had no doubt that the warrior god had struck. In 2001, the government banned all further attempts, and the sacred peak will remain inviolate.