On a Bungled Flight to Nowhere, They Sought a Chinese Mountain High

When a ballpoint pen czar and a hotshot pilot went looking for the world’s tallest peak, all they found was trouble

Tribes in wild and remote western China believe that Anyemaqen, the icy forbidding mountain that towers above them, is sacred territory and anyone who tampers with its mysteries will provoke divine wrath. One of the mountain's darkest secrets for years was its height — was it taller than Mount Everest? In 1948 a trio of Americans embarked on a mission to find out by measuring it from an airplane using the latest technology. Bradford Washburn, the world's foremost mapper of mountains, Bill Odom, a daredevil pilot who had recently broken Howard Hughes' round-the-world speed record, and Milton Reynolds, a multimillionaire pen manufacturer who so craved publicity that he was willing to underwrite the expedition, rendezvoused in Shanghai during the bitter Chinese civil war. Immediately things started going awry.

Now, 50 years later, with the 87-year-old Washburn's lucid recollections and his 134-page handwritten diary in which he chronicled every frustrating mishap, and the memories of Roy Rowan, then the bureau chief for Life magazine in Shanghai, it is possible to unravel the events of the expedition gone haywire. Rowan's article for Smithsonian Magazine is a roller-coaster tale of dedicated scientists on a collision course with hucksters and egotists run amok. And who knows: perhaps the thwarted expedition was evidence of Anyemaqen's wrath for meddling in its secrets.

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