When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Mount Everest in May 1953, humans conquered the globe’s highest peak. In the 70 years since, thousands have joined them in climbing Everest, and humans have conquered countless more of the world’s highest mountains.
And yet, despite numerous attempts, nobody has ever made it to the top of Gangkhar Puensum.
Gangkhar Puensum is located in the kingdom of Bhutan, on the border with Tibet. It is Bhutan’s tallest mountain and the world’s 40th-highest peak, standing at 24,836 feet (Mount Everest is 29,030 for context). Gangkhar Puensum translates as “White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers” in the Dzongkha language of Bhutan.
Difficulty climbing the mountain was initially caused by an inability to accurately measure its height or map the surrounding area. In the mid-1980s, the first team of mountaineers attempting to climb Gangkhar Puensum were unable to even locate the mountain, such was the inaccuracy and variety of the maps. To this day, the precise geography of the mountain remains disputed.
More teams attempted to reach the summit during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1994, these expeditions came to an abrupt halt, when Bhutan made it illegal to climb over 19,685ft, out of respect for local spiritual beliefs. In 2003, mountaineering in Bhutan was banned entirely.
Speaking to the BBC, Lindsay Griffin, chairman of the Mount Everest Foundation screening committee who climbed over 65 previously unclimbed mountains himself, described Gangkhar Puensum as “awful but fascinating”. He also elaborated on why climbing is outlawed in Bhutan. “The Bhutanese are very keen on protecting their own people,” he said. “They just looked at what was going on in Nepal with Everest and decided that they’re not going to be part of that.”
The laws in Bhutan mean that Gangkhar Puensum is likely to remain the world’s highest unclimbed mountain for the foreseeable future.