Climbing, Tourism and Sacred Peaks: A Research Project in Southwest China

By Julie Tate-Libby
Wenatchee Valley College

By Mark Allen
IFMGA Certified Mountain Guide

Julie Tate-Libby

Mountains have often been regarded as sacred places for the people who live among them. Unfortunately, local conceptions of mountains as sacred places have been misunderstood by scholars, explorers, government officials, and perhaps more recently, tourists. Perhaps no region in the world has elicited more interest or fascination than the Himalaya as a center for spiritual enlightenment, mountaineering, and first ascents. Many studies have examined the impact of tourism and mountaineering on local tribes in the Himalaya (Ortner 1989, Fisher 1990), but little attention has been given to the issue of sacred peaks and how the burgeoning climbing industry is affecting local conceptions of sacred places, their resident deities, and what happens after the peak has been climbed, renamed, and published in international journals. This project seeks to understand the interplay between local and nonlocal conceptions of sacred geography, and the impact of international mountaineering on indigenous community’s religious heritage and traditional culture.

Background: Southwest China
The region of southwestern China, including the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, has remained largely untouched by the international climbing industry because of China’s historic policy of exclusion: the area was not opened to foreign mountaineers until 1980 (Isserman and Weaver 2008). Like Tibet, western Sichuan (traditionally a part of Tibet called Kham) and Yunnan remained predominately rural, marginal agricultural regions until the twentieth century. During the early years of the Chinese republic (1911-1930), Sichuan was controlled by a feudal warlord system; at one point the province was divided into 17 independent military units and was not unified under the Nationalist government until 1935 (Keays 2009). Similarly, Yunnan is composed of over 20 different ethnic groups who predate Chinese civilization. The indigenous Yi, a subsistence agricultural group, and the Bai of the northwest region, trace their linguistic roots to Tibeto-Burman origins. Other groups in Yunnan which belong to the Tibeto-Burma language group are the Hani, the Naxi and the Lahu. For the most part, the high mountain regions which encompass the Nyainqentanglha East range, Kangri Garpo range and the Deep Gorge Country (so-called Three Rivers Gorges of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween) are predominately populated by Tibetans who practice Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Cosmology
The indigenous religion of Tibet was Bӧn, a land-based shamanistic religion, elements of which can still be seen today in modern Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced to Tibet from India in 650 C.E. (Bellezza 2005), but it was not until the eighth century that Tibetan kings made a concerted effort to bring Buddhist scholars to Tibet. Bӧn, the indigenous religion of the Tibetan region, is a form of shamanism with many deities, demons, and ancestral spirits who can act both as protectorates of humans and as harmful and malicious spirits (Ortner 1989). Protection from the gods does not come automatically, but must be renewed and petitioned through ritual via the priests and shamans who make contact with them. Traditionally, Tibetans understood the earth as populated by a pantheon of invisibles known as sabdag, or “lords of the earth” (Ramble 2007). These sabdag include mountain gods who dwell on snowy peaks, serpent spirits of the underworld, aerial warrior demons, rock sprites and so on. These spirits are highly dangerous if disturbed, bringing bad luck such as failed crops, drought or other natural disasters.

The relationship between humans and sabdag also forms the basis for a sacred geography. Generally speaking, there are two types of sacred places in Tibet. Specific sacred peaks, for example Mount Kailash which is interpreted as the earthly equivalent of the spiritual Mount Meru, are well known geographical features venerated by Tibetan Buddhists and the site of pilgrimage and circumbulation for practitioners throughout Southeast Asia. On the other hand, there are also sacred places which are venerated locally, but have no significance to the wider Tibetan or Buddhist communities. Both kinds of sacred peaks find their basis in Tibetan culture as those places which have been historically conquered by lamas or priests from the destructive forces of local spirits.

Sacred Peaks, Sacred Climbing
The relationship between Western mountaineers and local tradition has shifted over the years, reflecting the historical and political time of their encounter. Some early explorers viewed local people and their mountain deities as quaint superstitions, while others such as Marco Pallis (1935) were enamored with Tibetan Buddhism. From Alexandra David-Neel (2005), to Theos Bernard (Veenhof 2011), or Heinrich Harrer (1953), to modern day writers such as Ian Baker (2004), Colin Thurbron (2011), Peter Mattheison (2008), and Matteo Pistono (2011), Westerners have long been fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism and climbing. As Jonathon Waterman (2002, 38) notes in The Quotable Climber, “There are a myriad of climbers who, if not practicing Buddhists, embrace the ideals of Buddhism.” The relationship between Western climbing and Eastern spirituality has become so established that most accounts of mountaineering today include some description of the energy or spirituality experienced on the mountain. As Edward Bernbaum (1997, xiii) comments in his introduction to Sacred Mountains of the World, “(W)hether they realize it or not, many who hike and climb for sport and recreation are seeking an experience of spiritual awakening akin to that sought by people of traditional cultures.”

Historically, the relationship between Western explorers and indigenous cultures has been patronizing as well as highly romanticized, framed by the colonial encounter and a deeply embedded fascination with Tibetan Buddhism. Today China’s tourism industry along with the relatively small group of international mountaineers is qualitatively different than encounters over the last century. Rather than lengthy, year-long travelogues that explore the variations of cultural difference, climbing journals abound with short, bite-sized descriptions of attempts and first ascents, while blogs and personal websites describe climbs in remote corners of the world. Of paramount importance is whether the peak has been climbed before, and by whom.

Mountaineering in Southwest China Today
Since 2000, prominent publications such as The American Alpine Journal, Japanese Alpine News, and the Chinese Mountaineering Association have advertised the many unclimbed peaks in the Southwestern provinces of Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan, prompting a considerable amount of international interest in these regions. According to blog reports from 2007-2010 many of the recent international climbing expeditions have failed due to inclement weather and other natural disasters, as well as passive aggressive resistance from local monks who believe that the peaks should remain unclimbed. Antagonism towards mountaineers shows signs of a proliferating tourism industry. In the most recent American Alpine Journal (2010), several articles on climbs in Shaluli Shan report incidences of safety problems, including villagers stealing crampons, stoves and food as well as blatant extortion. One climbing party was asked to leave after one night in the Sanglongxi Valley, with the admonition by village elders, “You are not allowed to climb Yangmolong” (Otto 2010, 336).

While mountaineering may represent a Western sense of the sacred, indigenous conceptions of mountains, mountain deities, and sacred geographies differ from Western notions of mountains as monuments of humanity, accessible to anyone willing to traverse them. Wild places, including particular mountain peaks are sacred because they are the home of indigenous deities who provide protection and good fortune unless unduly disturbed. In the indigenous framework, the environment is understood within a context of history, mythology and collective experience (Ramble 2007), where specific peaks, streams, lakes and other sacred sites represent knowledge of place based on the accumulation of generations of people living in a particular environment. How this knowledge and understanding of place will change due to increased media exposure and tourism pressure over the next decade is unknown.

The Research Project:
In January of 2012 Julie Tate-Libby will travel to Southwest China to visit the Minya Konka Massif and nearby Gonga Ghompa, the Rengo Monastery near Zhang Na, the Songzanlin Lamasery near Degen, and the Chung Gu Monastery in Yading National Nature Reserve to interview monks and lamas about sacred peaks and climbing. During this trip, she hopes to document which peaks are considered sacred and what local people would like to see as far as international climbing expeditions on and around their sacred peaks. Questions this research hopes to address include: Should mountains be considered the sacred heritage of humanity, or of a particular people who live among them? What is the relationship between local practitioners and their sacred peaks? How is this changing as the regions are opened up to tourism in various forms? Specifically, how does mountaineering and first ascents on sacred peaks change the meaning and nature of that peak for local people? Is there a way to mediate the impact of international mountaineering in these regions, perhaps by designating some peaks off-limits to climbers and the development of more culturally appropriate forms of tourism in these regions?

Additionally, in September 2012 Tate-Libby and colleague Mark Allen, an internationally certified mountaineer, hope to return to China to visit the less known Kangri Garpo Mountain Range, the Bxoila Ling Range and the Nu Shan Range to map and document sacred peaks which are still unclimbed and have not seen the tourism/mountaineering impact that Yading, Litang and Minya Konka have. The goal of this trip is to mediate future climbing activity by educating climbers and working with local people to protect their cultural heritage before these places become commercialized and the target of international climbing expeditions.

References Cited:
Baker, Ian. 2004. Heart of the World. Penguin: New York.

Bellezza, John Vincent. 2005. Spirit Mediums, Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Upper Tibet: Calling Down the Gods. Brill Academic Publishers: Ledien.

Bernbaum, Edwin. 1997. Sacred Mountains of the World, University of California Press: Berkeley.

Brown, B., Green N. and Harper, R. eds. 2002 Wireless World, Springer: London.

Burdsall, Richard L.; Arthur B. Emmons, Terris Moore, and Jack Thoedore Young. 1980. Men Against the Clouds: the Conquest of Minya Konka. The Mountaineers: Seattle.

David-Neel, Alexandra. 2005. My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City. Harper Perennial: New York.

Dyson, L.E. Hendriks, M. and Grant, S. 2007. Information Technology and Indigenous People, Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing.

Harrer, Heinrich. 1953. Seven Years in Tibet. Penguin: New York.

Herzog, Maurice. 2010. Annapurna: the First Conquest of an 8,000 meter Peak, 2nd edition. Lyons Press: New York.

Isserman, Maurice and Stewart Weaver. 2008. Fallen Giants: a History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. Yale University Press: New Haven.

James K. Fisher. 1990. Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal. University of California Press.

Keays, John. 2009. China: a History. Harper Collins: New York.

Mattheissen, Peter. 2008. The Snow Leopard. Penguin Books: New York.

Morning Post, Jan. 1, 1921; Lady’s Pictorial, Jan. 22, 1921.

Nagata, Hideki. 2004. First Ascent of Reddomain—Minya Konka Massif., accessed January 16, 2011.

Nakamura, Tamotsu. 2007. “Kangri Garpo Range in Southeast Tibet: Least Known Mountains of the Himalayas”,, accessed February 11, 2011.

Nakamura, Tamotsu. 2007. “The Untrodden Mountains in West Sichuan, China”,, accessed February 11, 2011.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1989. High Religion: a Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.
Otto, Jon. 2010. “Yangmolong (6066m) south face attempt,” The American Alpine Journal, 52(84).

Pallis, Marco. 1949. Peaks and Lamas. Shoemaker and Hoard: London

Pistono, Matteo. 2011. In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet. Dutton Books, New York.

Pei, S.J. and P. Luo. 2000. Traditional culture and biodiversity conservation in Yunnan, pp.143-153 in J.C. Xu, editor. Links Between Cultures and Biodiversity: Proceedings of the Cultures and Biodiversity Congress 2000, 20-30, July, Yunnan Province, China. Yunnan Sciences and Technology Press, Kunming China.

Ramble, Charles. 2007. The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. Oxford University Press: New York.

Ridgeway, Rick. 2000. Below Another Sky: a Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father. Henry Holt and Company, LLC. New York.

Ruchkin, J. 2010. The American Alpine Journal: the World’s Most Significant Climbs, 52(84), 2010.

Szilas, K. 2010. American Alpine Journal: the World’s Most Significant Climbs, 52(84), 2010.

Thubron, Colin. 2011. To a Mountain in Tibet. Harper: New York.

Veenhof, Douglas. 2011. White Lama: the Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet’s Lost Emissary to the New World. Harmony Books: New York.

Waterman, Jonathon editor. 1998. The Quotable Climber, The Lyons Press: Guilford, Connecticut.

Wynne-Jones, David. 2010 “Yangmolong (6066m) attempt,” The American Alpine Journal, 52(84).

One Response to Climbing, Tourism and Sacred Peaks: A Research Project in Southwest China

  1. Bill Hamilton says:

    It’s a great research project. I recall several articles dealing with similar concerns surrounding climbs in Perú, Bolivia, and Chile. I look forward to reading the articles and books that will come from the studies.

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