Above: Mountaineers Dick Burdsall and Terry Moore climbing Minya Konka, October 1932. (photographs courtesy University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives)
This article relies upon Moore’s own published and unpublished accounts; letters between Moore and Hincks from the archives of the University of Alaska Fairbanks; descriptions from his family and other climbers; and other historical sources.
I. The first time Terris Moore (MBA 1933, DCS 1937) saw the magnificent Minya Konka was in March 1930. He was sitting in the cozy library of the Explorers Club in Manhattan. Although the club had only recently moved into its eight-story home on West 110th Street, the room already had an air of timelessness. The wood-paneled walls were lined with portraits of great American adventurers and the trophies they had brought back from the edges of the earth. Men in bespoke suits with pipes reclined on leather sofas around the warmth of the fireplace.
Only 22 and a first-year student at HBS, Moore—Terry, to his fellow mountaineers—was not yet a member of this illustrious society. That honor was reserved for those who had “added to the geographical knowledge of the world,” true explorers like the one sitting next to him: Allen Carpé. Carpé was a World War I veteran and an accomplished research engineer with Bell Telephone Laboratories whose exploits included the stormy first ascent of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak. The two men bowed their heads over a new book, Trailing the Giant Panda, an account by two of Teddy Roosevelt’s sons, Kermit and Theodore Jr., of their experiences in western China and eastern Tibet. The onion-skin map of their journey tucked behind the last page caught Moore’s attention. He traced their path for 500 miles to the northeast corner of the page and paused.
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“Thirty thousand feet?” Moore asked in astonishment. “Thirty thousand feet?” There, marked on the map with the same attention given any other summit was an indistinct sketch of a mountain, labeled Mount Koonka, height 30,000 feet above sea level. A curly question mark followed the measurement. “Is there really any chance Mount Koonka could be that high?” Mount Everest—then considered the world’s highest peak—had been measured at 29,002 feet above sea level; it had never been successfully scaled.
Carpé was skeptical. He knew there were still unsurveyed mountain ranges in the world—“blank areas on the map,” as he called them. In fact, he was just now planning an expedition to a blank area of southeast Alaska. But a summit higher than Everest? Carpé flipped through the book to learn more about the mountain better known as Minya Konka, but the Roosevelts did not elaborate. He and Moore then searched the library’s other resources but found no definitive answer there either. An article from the previous month’s National Geographic hinted that another mountain in western China, which the magazine called Amnyi Machen, might also rival Everest.
It was the question mark that fascinated Moore—that kept drawing him back. For several years he had dreamed of climbing Everest, but it wasn’t the mountain’s height alone that entranced him. It was the unknown.
II. Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest point, wasn’t quite visible from the shores of Lake Onawa, but Moore had always known the mountain was there. Though raised in a wealthy community in southern New Jersey, Moore spent most summers at his father’s family camp near the lake in the wilderness of central Maine. When his parents divorced—an unusual occurrence in 1920—12-year-old Moore took refuge in exploring those primeval forests.
The summer after he turned 16, Moore hatched an idea: He would hike to Katahdin, 35 miles away, by himself. He planned carefully, making lists of provisions and collecting rough maps of the untracked land, which would later become the last miles of the Appalachian Trail. He set out on the morning of August 6, 1924, returning four days later. He didn’t reach Katahdin—his diary offers no explanation for the change of plans—but he would forever view the trip as his “emancipation.”
Moore thrived on the freedom. A few years later, while attending Williams College, he set off to canoe Maine’s winding Allagash River, all the way to the Canadian border—a “thrilling education.” And the summer after that, he bought a Model T for $50 and drove from New England to British Columbia. There, he sold the broken-down car for train fare and rode the boards back home.
In February 1929, Moore returned to Katahdin. Now a tall 20-year-old college senior with a blond cowlick, he was ready to climb the mountain. The sky was cloudless and the temperatures near zero as Moore and his friend Lewis Thorne skied through the heavy forest. At the tree line, they abandoned their skis and scrambled upward. They reached the summit—5,267 feet above sea level—at twilight and raced nightfall back down.
The exhilaration of that climb hooked Moore on mountaineering. At the time the sport was an exclusive one of well-heeled explorers, not endurance athletes, and many untouched peaks beckoned. Moore and Thorne’s adventure to the top of Katahdin was itself one for the record books, the first-known winter ascent of the mountain. Moore was well suited for the gentleman’s hobby—lean and strong, with an unbridled curiosity—and for the mountaineering community, a convivial and competitive group.
Only a few months after that first climb, Moore and Thorne joined Moore’s father, a zoologist at the California Institute of Technology, and his stepbrother on an expedition to Ecuador to climb two Andean volcanoes. The ice-crowned Sangay still threatened to spew lava; no one had ever stood on its rim, 17,464 feet above sea level. After 18 days of trekking through the rains, they reached the blinding sunshine of Sangay’s snow line. It took three attempts to cut a path into the frozen slope to climb the remaining 2,500 feet, but on August 4, 1929, Moore and his father stared down into the never-before-seen crater. Three weeks later, Moore led the second successful ascent of the dormant Chimborazo, once considered the tallest mountain in the world. In the process he logged the highest overnight stay in the Western Hemisphere, a sleepless six-degree Fahrenheit night at 20,300 feet above sea level.
Moore’s intrepidness made him a celebrity in mountaineering circles when he moved to Cambridge in the fall of 1929 to attend Harvard Business School. Moore was invited to join the Harvard Mountaineering Club and the American Alpine Club, where he first met Allen Carpé in January 1930. Several years earlier, Moore had read in Appalachia magazine about Carpé’s failed attempt to summit Alaska’s Mount Fairweather; it had inspired Moore’s own explorations. Now Carpé invited Moore to join him in the first ascent of Alaska’s Mount Bona that summer. As a business school student, Moore was expected to spend the summer working for a company. He convinced his advisor that because of Carpé’s work studying high-altitude cosmic rays for Bell Labs, the expedition fit the School’s requirements.
Following the successful expedition to the top of Mount Bona, Moore requested a leave of absence from the School to join Carpé and two other mountaineers on their second attempt at Mount Fairweather. As his classmates finished their studies, Moore departed for Alaska in March 1931 to prepare for the June climb. But the men did not expect the fierce late spring blizzards they encountered. As the snow piled up outside their tents 9,000 feet above sea level, the men faced a tough decision: How long could they safely wait for the weather to clear to continue to the summit, 15,325 feet above sea level? Only a few days of food and, more vitally, heating fuel remained. To give Carpé and Moore a greater chance for success, the other members of the team decided to descend. The storm lasted four more days. When it was finally over, the men crawled through the deep, fresh snow in the unending Alaskan twilight. Just after sunrise on June 8, they reached the elusive summit.
Those who knew Moore were not surprised by the tenacity that propelled him from HBS to the top of Mount Fairweather. For Moore, one college friend would later say, “to hatch an idea [was] to act on it.”
top – Terry Moore, October 1932.
bottom – Clockwise from top left: Lamb Expedition members Dick Burdsall, Jack Young, Moore, Lewis Thorne, and Art Emmons.
III. On the evening of Saturday, November 28, 1931, more than a year and a half after that day in the Explorers Club library, 23-year-old Moore stood on the deck of the Tai Ping Yang as the freighter sailed out of New York Harbor bound for Shanghai. He was joined in what he would later call an “impractical” and “romantic” adventure by Gene Lamb, a veteran explorer who carried the symbolic red, white, and blue Explorers Club flag as the leader of the expedition, and seven others, including his dear friend Lewis Thorne. To Moore’s great disappointment, his climbing companion Allen Carpé declined to join the lengthy trip, citing family and professional responsibilities. The Lamb Expedition was to be a two-year-long tour through China to Tibet to map the region, collect specimens of flora and fauna for study, and record the voice of Tibet’s Grand Lama. Moore would then lead an ascent of Amnyi Machen, better known as Machin Shan, which the explorers now believed to be the most promising rival to Everest.
A year earlier, National Geographic had published Joseph Rock’s account of Minya Konka, most accurately pronounced “gungka” or “goong-ga.” The widely traveled botanist had first spied the triangular massif in 1928 through field glasses from a distance of more than 100 miles, towering over the peaks that surrounded it. The sight made him gasp. He immediately planned another expedition to map the range, returning with dramatic close-up photos of Minya Konka’s snow-capped heights. The images had been as inspiring to the adventurers as the caption was deflating: “This magnificent 25,600-foot peak” it read in part, slicing more than 4,000 feet off the Roosevelts’ mountain. With that, Moore and his fellow explorers had turned their attention to Machin Shan.
But there remained a question mark atop Minya Konka, the “great snow mountain” considered sacred by the Tibetan Buddhists who lived in its shadow. The published height did not match Rock’s estimates. A second expedition that same year, led by a Swiss geologist, had measured the mountain at slightly more than 25,000 feet above sea level, and National Geographic had chosen this more conservative figure. Rock’s measurement methods had been crude—a pocket compass and a barometer—but his message was one an explorer could not easily ignore. He had cabled the National Geographic Society from the base of the mountain: “MINYA KONKA HIGHEST PEAK ON GLOBE 30,250 FEET. ROCK.”
Art Emmons measuring the mountain.
As the map of the world had shifted while the Explorers Club expedition formed, so had its geopolitics. At home, any hope that the American economy would rebound after Black Tuesday had disappeared as wages declined and unemployment grew, plunging the nation into what would become known as the Great Depression. Halfway around the world, tensions between China and Japan exploded. On September 18, 1931, less than three months before Moore’s departure, the Japanese Army invaded northeast China, the first incursion of an occupation that would last until the end of World War II.
Life had changed for Moore, too. When he had joined the expedition as its lead mountaineer, he was single. His romance with Katrina Hincks, a Vassar grad now living in New York, had ended abruptly, and that, along with dim prospects for the career in publishing he had envisioned when he enrolled at HBS, made it easy to accept the invitation; he extended his leave of absence from the School. As the date of departure had approached, however, he and Hincks reconciled. They were now engaged to be married, and Moore had begun to worry about a future beyond mountaineering.
Hincks was not on Pier 38 as the Tai Ping Yang faded into the horizon. “Please don’t think I had anyone else down to see me off,” Moore begged. He wrote her frequently, filling page after page with his sprawling script, though the opportunity to send and receive mail was rare. He shared gossip about the expedition team, reviews of the books he was reading, declarations of love in several languages, and carefully detailed but ever-changing plans for their future together.
“If I had you at the time this opportunity was offered [to] me, I never in the world would have accepted it,” Moore promised Hincks when he arrived in Shanghai in January 1932, after more than a month at sea. “Having you and the responsibility of taking care of you and keeping you happy, I have no business whatsoever setting out on a venture which was quite so uncertain and risky.”
IV. “I started out to climb the highest mountain in the world,” Moore wrote to Hincks in June 1932, “and landed in the lowest law court in the land.” Moore was again in Shanghai; in the five months since his arrival in China, he traveled only as far as Peking, 144 feet above sea level. First, the expedition had been waylaid by the outbreak of war when the Japanese attacked Shanghai. In the city’s International Settlement, under the control of Britain and the United States since 1863, all able-bodied men were encouraged to join the battle. Moore and several others signed up and were issued bandoliers, rifles, and bayonets. They stood watch over the settlement and witnessed violent clashes between the Japanese and Chinese armies along the banks of the Suzhou Creek but were not part of the fighting. Ten days later, the danger to the International Settlement passed, and Moore was once again a civilian, ready to continue with the planned expedition. Then dissension broke out among the explorers.
“There stood Minya Konka, clear and near and wonderfully huge against a background of cobalt sky. We knew it was a mountain indeed.”
“There stood Minya Konka, clear and near and wonderfully huge against a background of cobalt sky. We knew it was a mountain indeed.”
Months earlier Moore had grown suspicious of the expedition’s leader, Gene Lamb, so much so that he had devised a code to secretly communicate his concerns to Hincks by telegram. Moore believed that Lamb was a crook who had committed fraud during his previous visits to China and had misrepresented his connections there. Now, the explorers needed permissions to travel through the country, and Lamb could not obtain them. Lamb planned to continue on illegally, but Moore and several of the others refused to do so, and the lawsuits began. Moore lost most of the $6,000 he had invested in the trip, paid from a sizable trust fund set up by his grandfather, but he reasoned that much of the money had come from securities, and it was “much better to have sold them and lost the money in this adventure out here, than to quietly watch it melt on the stock exchange.”
The expedition was over. Lewis Thorne had already departed for the United States, and Moore considered doing the same. Hincks had asked him to come home—“job prospects are brighter” she had wired him in May—and he had finally settled on a plan to finish his MBA and pursue a doctorate at HBS. It would give him options, he said. “I can support you by teaching, or if the education system goes broke, by ‘cogwheeling’ in a publishing house, or if they all go broke, by being a trapper in the north woods.”
But Moore had promised Hincks again and again that this expedition would be his last, the end of “the traveling and knocking about part of life,” and “selfishly,” he confessed, he could not give up on the adventure quite yet. “I really ought to do SOMETHING out here to properly impress the Business School people before coming home,” he wrote. After trying and failing to join a British mountaineering team headed to Everest, he decided he would undertake his own expedition through China.
Moore concocted a plan to travel 1,200 miles up the Yangtze River toward Tibet with three members of the original Lamb Expedition: Art Emmons, a Harvard undergrad and an experienced climber; Dick Burdsall, an engineer with the necessary skills to measure a mountain; and Jack Young, an American of Chinese descent who had traveled with the Roosevelts. “We will pick a good, safe mountain, of course, and climb it,” Moore pledged to Hincks, but he already had a destination in mind: the summit of the mysterious Minya Konka.
The Ascent of Minya Konka: (1) Terry Moore and his companions at base camp; (2) Jack Young just above 17,000 feet; (3) looking toward Tibet from 18,000 feet; (4) the view from the summit; (5) a map of the mountaineers’ route.
V. In October 1932, 11 months after he had departed from New York, Terry Moore awoke suddenly in a tent just 2,500 feet from the summit of Minya Konka. It had been a restless night. Fierce winds buffeted the small enclosure and conjured up a storm of powdery snow inside. Huddled in his sleeping bag wearing all his clothing, Moore fretted quietly about the terrain they would encounter above. The expedition had been plagued throughout by delays and missteps; even after Moore had parted ways with Gene Lamb the necessary paperwork had taken another two months and intervention by Theodore Roosevelt Jr., then the governor-general of the Philippines. Any further delay, in the treacherous cold of late October miles above the clouds, could be deadly for the climbers.
Moore knew the dangers all too well now. The news had arrived in Shanghai in May: His friend and inspiration Allen Carpé was dead. Carpé had been studying cosmic rays 10,000 feet up Alaska’s Mount McKinley when he perished. He had ventured out after a heavy snow that had hidden treacherous cracks in the glacier. “It seems very unreal,” Moore wrote to Hincks as he continued to plan his own daring exploration. “I don’t yet quite understand that he is gone.” Carpé’s body remained on Mount McKinley, entombed in a deep crevasse in the ice.
In the darkness, Moore struck a match to look at his watch. It was 11:45 p.m., just four hours before he would begin preparations for the final ascent. Only Moore and Burdsall would be making the trek to the summit. Young, struck low with altitude sickness, had descended the mountain several days earlier to handle logistics. Then, two days before the planned ascent to the summit, Emmons had sliced his palm while cutting a frozen biscuit. He could not feel two of his fingers, making it impossible to handle a rope or an ice axe. He would remain behind at the high camp.
At about 4 a.m. on October 28, Emmons arose with Moore and Burdsall and began to prepare breakfast: Chinese bread, yak butter, and oatmeal, thinned with ice and topped with Grape-Nuts and malted milk powder. They moved slowly in the thin air; breakfast took nearly an hour. The leather of their boots, which froze each night, softened by the fire. It took another hour to dress in their outerwear as they struggled with their crampons; they did not dare touch the metal without heavy mittens.
With only the glow of a tiny flashlight, Moore and Burdsall began to climb up the ice steps they had cut several days previously. “Good luck,” Emmons called out as the men disappeared into the darkness. “Not a cloud could be seen in our entire sky,” Moore later wrote. “A deep purple line marked the rim of our horizon one hundred and fifty miles west in Tibet. Jupiter shone brightly.”
Moving cautiously, one at a time along the rocky ridges, the men averaged 300 feet upward each hour as the sun appeared. They had been studying the mountain for months, ever since it came into view as they had traveled across the Tibetan plain. It was “a great white pyramid that dwarfed its companion peaks of the range,” Moore wrote of the first time the clouds cleared to give him an unobstructed view. “There stood Minya Konka, clear and near and wonderfully huge against a background of cobalt sky. We knew it was a mountain indeed.”
Through field glasses, they had mapped and remapped their route to the summit. When they had reached the base of the mountain, they had spent nearly a month scouting the best approach to its steep granite face. Even after they had started up the mountain from their base camp on October 2, they had been forced by unexpected rock outcroppings, unstable ice, and unpredictable weather to change their plans at almost every stage. Now they were traversing new ground. There would be no time to retrace their steps if they chose the wrong path.
Moore and Burdsall were still climbing as the sun began to dip in the sky. The increased altitude and hours of exertion had slowed them to a crawl. Every few feet they stopped to rest, taking desperate, shallow breaths. “Looking down the length of rope it would appear almost impossible to me that I had taken such a very long time to climb those few steps,” Moore wrote, but “swinging my head to look upward the feeling would immediately vanish.” His destination had remained out of sight throughout the ascent, but he knew it was close. “I suddenly beheld what was unmistakably the summit a few hundred feet above us”—and he saw a narrow path.
An hour and a half later, Moore stood atop the great snow mountain. “It was difficult to realize that we now actually stood upon the spot so high in the sky toward which…we had all labored so hard.” He was so high above the world that the towering peaks that had loomed over him throughout the climb now looked like white dots against the brown plains. So high that the sun was as blisteringly hot as the wind was dangerously cold. He was higher than any American had ever climbed.
But he was not higher than the summit of Everest. Burdsall and Emmons had spent August taking some 70 measurements of the mountain with the most advanced tools available. Before he began to climb Moore knew their calculations showed that Minya Konka—now known as Gongga Shan—stood more than three-quarters of a mile shorter than Everest at 24,900 feet above sea level.
That fact did not discourage the men. “Elation over our success when we did reach Minya Konka’s summit outweighed any feeling of disappointment over its altitude,” Moore wrote. His treacherous four-week ascent of “that strange, far away mountain which few men but the Chinese and Tibetans, and not even many of those have seen” hadn’t been about the numbers. It hadn’t even been about the record books. It had been about the knowledge, about filling in the blank areas of the map.