The Himalayas

Bhutan 55

Okay, so the title of this post may be a bit misleading. The Himalaya range is 1500 miles long and spans 5 countries; I’ve only visited a small part of it in Western and Central Bhutan. Even then the high, snow-capped peaks were usually obscured by clouds… from the ground, at least. But my trip also included a short but spectacular flight inside Bhutan, a 20-minute hop that saved us more than 12 hours of driving.

The internet abounds with photo albums of the Himalayas taken from commercial flights; here’s my contribution.

Gangkar Puensum is the tallest mountain in Bhutan at 7,570m / 24,836 ft. Although it ranks 40th overall, it’s the highest unclimbed peak in the world – not because it’s particularly difficult (in the realm of big mountain climbing), but because Bhutan doesn’t grant climbing permits to its high peaks.

The spine of the Himalayas, on the border between Bhutan and Tibet (China). The high point on the right is Liankang Kangri, at 7535m / 24,721ft.

The highest peak (at left) is Kula Kangri, 7,538m / 24,731ft. Much of Bhutan’s border with China is a “dotted line”, meaning that it’s unclear which country Kula Kangri actually belongs to.


I know the image above isn’t an amazing photograph; I snapped it quickly through a window on the opposite side of the airplane. The mountain poking above the clouds is Kangchenjunga, the 3rd tallest mountain on Earth at 8,586 m / 28,169 ft. Only K2 and Everest are taller. I love mountains, and this is the highest one I’ve ever seen. For many years, people assumed Kangchenjunga was the tallest mountain in the world; of the Himalayas’ highest peaks, it’s the only one prominently visible from places with sizable populations.

Kangchenjunga is west of Bhutan on the border between India and Nepal, about 80 miles from the plane. On our internal Bhutan flight (Bumthang to Paro), the hulking massif of Kangchenjunga would likely have blocked our view of Mt. Everest even without any clouds; from where this picture was taken, Everest is straight behind Kangchenjunga another 80 or so miles.

For its part, K2 is more than 800 miles beyond that to the northwest, in Pakistan. It’s in the Karakorum range, which has the world’s highest concentration of 8000+ meter peaks. The Karakorum is a separate (adjacent) mountain range, but many people casually refer to all the great ranges of Asia as “the Himalayas.”

Discussions about the “world’s tallest mountain” are interesting to me… not because the answer really matters, but because there are lots of ways to think about the question. A mountain in Pakistan named Nanga Parbat is considered to have the highest vertical rise above the surrounding terrain, making it potentially “feel” taller than Everest. Denali and Kilimanjaro are similar. Mauna Kea, on the Big Island, is quite a bit taller than Everest when measured from its base; it’s just that most of the mountain is underwater. It’s slightly-shorter neighbor, Mauna Loa, is probably the world’s largest mountain by volume. And a volcano in Ecuador named Chimborazo is considered the point that’s furthest from the center of the Earth. That’s because the planet isn’t a perfect sphere; like many of us it bulges at the middle, and a person at sea level at the North Pole is 26 miles closer to the Earth’s center than a sea-level person at the equator.

This is all irresistible fodder for geography nerds like me, but for those of you less inclined towards data and more moved by aesthetics it’s likely a moot point. With the exception of K2, none of the peaks I’ve mentioned here is particularly beautiful… as far as mountains go, anyway. Now we’re into a whole different category of peaks whose outward appearance far outshines their statistics. Names like Matterhorn, Mount Assiniboine, and Ama Dablam come to mind. In Bhutan, Chomolhari, below, is pretty nice.


Chomolhari, at 7,326m / 24,035ft, is one of Bhutan’s highest peaks, and in my opinion one of it’s most beautiful.



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