Gangkhar Puensum: World's Highest Unclimbed Mountain

Climbing is Banned on Gangkhar Puensum

Gangkhar Puensum, Bumthang, Bhutan
Travel Ink / Getty Images

Gangkhar Puensum on the Bhutan-Tibet border in Central Asia is likely to hold the title of the world's highest unclimbed mountain for many years to come. Out of respect for local spiritual beliefs, mountaineering is forbidden in Bhutan. There were four unsuccessful summit attempts before the mountain was closed to climbing in 1994.

Gangkhar Puensum is the highest mountain in Bhutan at 24,836 feet (7,570 meters) in elevation.

It is the 40th highest mountain in the world; and the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Any unclimbed points in the world higher than Gangkhar Puensum are not considered separate summits or mountains but subsidiary summits of higher peaks.

Name and Origin

Gangkhar Puensum means “White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers.” Literally, it is “Mountain of the Three Siblings.” Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, is related to Tibetan. It has many sounds that are not in English, making exact pronunciation difficult for English speakers.


Gangkhar Puensum lies on the border of Bhutan and Tibet, although the exact boundary line is disputed. Chinese maps put the peak squarely on the border whereas other sources put it wholly in Bhutan. The mountain was first mapped and surveyed in 1922. Subsequent surveys have placed the mountain in different places with differing heights. Bhutan itself has not surveyed the peak.

Why is Climbing Prohibited in Bhutan?

Local people throughout Central Asia consider the mountains to be the sacred homes of gods and spirits. The Bhutanese government honors these traditions with the ban. Further, there are no rescue resources in the region for the inevitable problems that develop among climbers, such as altitude sickness and injuries in falls and avalanches.

Climbing Attempts on Gangkhar Puensum

Gangkhar Puensum was attempted by four expeditions in 1985 and 1986 after Bhutan opened its mountains for mountaineering in 1983. In 1994, however, climbing mountains higher than 6,000 meters was prohibited out of respect for spiritual beliefs and customs. In 2004, all mountaineering was banned in Bhutan so Gangkhar Puensum will likely remain unclimbed for the foreseeable future.

In 1998, a Japanese expedition was granted permission by the Chinese Mountaineering Association to climb Gangkhar Puensum north of Bhutan from the Tibetan side. Due to a border dispute with Bhutan, however, the permit was revoked, so in 1999 the expedition climbed Liankang Kangri or Gangkhar Puensum North, a previously unclimbed 24,413-foot subsidiary peak of Gangkhar Puensum in Tibet.

The Japanese Liankang Kangri Expedition described Gangkhar Puensum from the summit of Liankang Kangri in an expedition report: “In front, the glorious Gankarpunzum, remaining as the highest unclimbed peak but now a forbidding mountain because of a political barrier pertaining to a border problem, was glittering immaculate. The eastern face precipitously falls down to a glacier. A climbing route from Liankang Kangri to Gankarpunzum seemed viable although difficult knife-edged ridge with unstable snow and ice continued and finally spiky pinnacles guarded the summit.

Unless the border problem took place, the party could have traced the ridge toward the summit.”