I grew up with an oil painting of a stunning mountain landscape hanging in my childhood home, painted by a missionary friend of my parents. A snow-covered summit dominates the many peaks, towering over its snow-free foothills. On a lower ridge in the foreground a lake mirrors the white pyramid.
A tent is pitched nearby, a wisp of smoke hinting at a hidden campfire. The tent is my parents’, situated at nearly 15,000 feet elevation.
In the summer of 1932 my parents spent nine days camped on the ridge opposite the Minya Gongka, a sacred mountain on the eastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau. Few people outside of the mountaineering world know of this mountain, but in my family the Minya Gongka is the stuff of stories.
The single tent implies my parents had that idyllic camping spot to themselves. But they were not alone. For two weeks they traveled with two American mountaineers who were an advance team for an expedition to measure and climb the Minya Gongka—at the time, there was speculation the mountain could rival Mount Everest in height. Serendipitously, my parents’ path and that of the mountaineers, Richard Burdsall and Arthur Emmons, crossed in the trading town of Kangding. The two men had limited Chinese skills and were looking for someone who could communicate with the Tibetan cook they had hired.
My parents had just completed two years of language study. This trip into Tibet was an adventurous vacation before they began their medical missionary work at West China Union University in Chengdu. They agreed to travel for two weeks with Burdsall and Emmons to organize the camp “kitchen” and teach Gaoma to cook for westerners. It was the adventure high point of their lives.
For those nine days opposite the Minya Gongka, they minded the camp while the two mountaineers were taking measurements from the various triangulation sites they had set up to determine the mountain’s height. They found the Minya Gongka to be just under 25,000 feet, although more recent measurements put it at 24,790 feet.
The full story of the 1932 Sikong Expedition, including the successful ascent, was published in the book Men Against the Clouds: The Conquest of Minya Konka (first edition 1935, reprinted in 1980). The Chinese name for the mountain is Gongga Shan. Minya Konka is the most common representation of the Tibetan name, but I choose to use the “Minya Gongka” spelling variation because it is how my parents always referred to the mountain in their journals, letters, and stories.