HPA-AN, Myanmar (AFP) - A two-week jungle trek followed by a sheer climb up avalanche-prone slopes to a jagged ridge of icy pinnacles awaits three Myanmar mountaineers planning to take on Hkakabo Razi, a peak so treacherous it has been conquered only once.
Believed to be the highest in South-east Asia, the mountain stands at an estimated 5,881m in the northern tip of Myanmar near the border with China and India, a Himalayan cap of the largely tropical nation.
The formidable route to the top starts with a gruelling 240km slog by foot through Kachin state's dense jungle, filled with venomous snakes and bloodsucking leeches.
But it is the challenging climb itself that has thwarted nearly all of the handful of attempts to reach the summit, one of which resulted in a deadly rescue attempt.
"The difficulty level of the mountain is extreme," Mr Zaw Zin Khine, 32, told AFP during a break from a training session on a limestone karst cliff in eastern Karen state.
The team will have to negotiate precipitous faces of loose scree, frequent avalanches and a choice between ridges spiked with towers of rock and shrouded in snow and ice.
"There is a risk we won't come back alive," the climber added.
He and his two partners Pyae Phyo Aung, 36, and Aung Khaing Myint, 32, aspire to make history as the first all-Myanmar team to summit the mountain.
They also hope to settle a decades-long dispute over whether Hkakabo Razi or the nearby Gamlang Razi - also in Myanmar - claims the honour as the region's highest peak.
'MAKES EVEREST LOOK EASY'
The three climbers, now waiting for the right window in the weather to start their expedition, have been in intensive training for months, including a trip to Nepal and sessions in a Yangon gym, wearing masks to simulate low-oxygen levels at altitude.
Team member Pyae Phyo Aung is one of only two people from Myanmar to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, but he says Hkakabo Razi's isolation and lack of infrastructure makes it far more perilous.
"Even if you're 70 years old, you can get to the top of Everest if you have the money to pay people to pull you up," he says.
"They maintain the routes from the base camp to the summit, have lots of porters and it's easy to find people by air if they're missing. That's not the case on Hkakabo Razi."
The first known attempt to scale the mountain was by British explorer and botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward in 1936.
In his book Burma's Icy Mountains, he describes how the peak "utterly defeated" him, forcing him to turn back a vertical kilometre below the top.
It took another 60 years before Japanese mountaineer Takashi Ozaki and his Myanmar climbing partner Nyima Gyaltsen prevailed on their third attempt.
Mr Ozaki, the first-ever climber to successfully tackle Mount Everest's north face, reportedly described the peak as "one of the most difficult and dangerous mountains in the world".
Two separate expeditions in 2014 were both met with costly failure.
One local Myanmar team never returned, a tragedy magnified when a rescue helicopter crashed, killing one pilot.
The other ill-fated ascent is the subject of a National Geographic documentary.
The expedition ground to an icy halt on what team member Emily Harrington remembers as a "nightmare ridge" that dropped off for hundreds of metres on either side, leaving them "depleted on all fronts".
"We kinda assumed it would be like Nepal and Pakistan, where the culture is centred around the mountains," the 31-year-old told AFP from California.
"But it's not. They're not used to people coming here to trek, so we had to take more on ourselves."
'LISTEN TO THE MOUNTAIN'
This year's expedition organisers are preparing for anything.
Tycoon Tay Za, who was behind both the 2014 Myanmar team's failed attempt and the successful ascent of Everest, is also bankrolling this venture, which is expected to take around two months.
The three climbers will have a five-member support team and some 70 porters to help - compared to 25 last time - as well as several rescue helicopters on stand-by.
"If we complete this, we can be proud Myanmar citizens," Mr Zaw Zin Khine said.
"We plan to plant the nation's flag with our own hands at the summit." He also hopes they will inspire more climbers in a country that only boasts a few dozen enthusiasts.
But Ms Harrington warns that reaching the summit is not everything and advises the team to "listen to the mountain".
"If it's telling you not to go for it, then don't go for it. In my head, the only thing that matters is that you come back alive."