Mountaineering & Expeditions

The Highest Unclimbed Mountain In The World

The summit of Gangkhar Puensum, in Bhutan, is the highest unclimbed point in the world. We take a look at the rules around the mountain, and discuss some of the planet's other unclimbed peaks as well

With a summit 7,570 metres above sea level, Gangkhar Puensum is not only the highest mountain in Bhutan but also the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Because mountaineering has been around for such a long time now, the revelation that there are peaks in the world yet to be summited can be a surprising one. However, there’s actually quite a lot of these unclimbed mountains on the planet. You just need to know where to look, and do a bit of reading. That’s where we come in.

There are numerous reasons why “virgin peaks”, as unclimbed mountains are sometimes known, might not have been summited yet. Sometimes this is down to geographic isolation, sometimes it’s down to political instability, and sometimes it is because the mountain has been designated off limits due to the religious beliefs of a country.

In certain cases as well, mountains can remain unclimbed simply because taller mountains end up getting more attention and focus than mountains that aren’t quite as tall.

Why hasn’t Gangkhar Puensum been climbed then?

Pictured: The Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. Bhutan is home to the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. Credit: Ameya Sawant

Climbing Gangkhar Puensum has been prohibited since 1994. With no sign of a rule change anytime soon, it’s a state of affairs that could continue for a while.

Located in Bhutan, near the border with China, because Gangkhar Puensum is over 6,000 metres it fell under the country’s blanket ban of climbs above that height. The reasoning for this rule was based on local customs that believe this peak, and several others nearby, to be the sacred home of deities and spirits. Another factor in the decision was the lack of high-altitude rescue resources in the vicinity.

In the year 2003, the prohibition rule was taken even further when mountaineering, in all of its forms, was disallowed entirely within Bhutan. Unless the government of Bhutan changes its rules, a shift they’ve shown no sign of making, the high mountains located within this Buddhist kingdom on the Himalayas’ eastern edge will remain climber-free.

What is the highest unclimbed peak that can be climbed?

Pictured: The end of the Batura glacier in Pakistan

With its summit 7,452 metres above sea level, and a prominence of 263 m, Muchu Chhish in Pakistan is the world’s highest unclimbed mountain that can be legally climbed. Situated within the Batura Muztagh sub-range of the Karakoram in Pakistan, the mountain is in an extremely remote and inaccessible area.

Some attempts have been made to climb Muchu Chhish over the years, but none of them have been successful. The attempts to climb it have been via the south ridge. In 1983, this ridge was climbed by a Polish expedition who used fixed ropes while ascending Batura IV – which is 7,531 metres high and just west of Muchu Chhish.

In 1999, a Spanish expedition reached a height of 6,650 m on the southern ridge. Just over 20 years later, in 2020, a small Czech expedition that included climber Pavel Kořínek and politician Pavel Bém – who fulfilled his”childhood dream” when he climbed Everest (the highest mountain in the world) in 2007 – made an attempt but did not reach the top. Bém, the former mayor of Prague, is no stranger to mountaineering feats. He climbed K2 in 2012 without supplemental oxygen.

What is a peak in mountaineering?

Many, many, mountains have a highest point or peak sticking out above smaller subpeaks. Despite an objective, consistent, criteria being put forward previously there isn’t actually one widely agreed standard for distinguishing.

Back in 1994, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, based in Bern, Switzerland, declared that 82 peaks in the Alps, which were at least 4,000 metres above sea level and which had at least 30 metres of topographic prominence over any neighbouring mountain pass or col, were their own distinct peaks. Their definition stated it’s a mountain summit if it has a prominence of at least 300 metres. Otherwise, it’s a subpeak. This is a useful yardstick to note when considering what has and hasn’t been climbed although not everyone agrees with it.

What is topographic prominence?

Pictured: The difference between topographic prominence and elevation

When it comes to classifying the world’s unclimbed peaks, topographic prominence is important. What is topographic prominence though? Well, in layman’s terms, it measures the independence of a summit. We could get complicated here but, in short, see it as the minimum height you will have to descend to get from a summit to higher terrain. It is the hill or mountain’s height relative to the lowest contour line adjacent to it.

With so many of the planet’s mountains part of a mountain range, topographic prominence helps us to consider what is a summit in its own right and what is simply a milestone on the way to a higher peak.

The highest unclimbed Peaks in the world

In the following list, ‘prom’ refers to prominence.

  1. Gangkhar Puensum (Bhutan / Tibet) – 7570 m (Prom: 2995 m)
  2. Muchu Chhish (Pakistan) – 7453 m (Prom: 263 m)
  3. Kunyang Chhish West (Pakistan) – 7350 m (Prom: 202 m)
  4. Summa Ri I (Pakistan) – 7302 m (Prom: 246 m)
  5. Lapche Kang III (Tibet) – 7250 m (Prom: 570 m)
  6. Apsarasas Kangri (India) – 7243 m (Prom: 607 m)
  7. Karjiang I (Tibet) – 7221 m (Prom: 895 m)
  8. Tongshanjiabu (Bhutan / Tibet) – 7207 m (Prom: 1757 m)
  9. Skyang Kangri West (Pakistan) – 7174 m (Prom: 194 m)
  10. Yermanendu Kangri (Pakistan) – 7163 m (Prom: 163 m)

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