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Bonington sets out to conquer Tibet's unknown peak

Blanks on the map are hard for would-be pioneers to find these days. So much so that Sir Chris Bonington's title for the prospectus of his latest venture, The Last Great Unexplored Mountain Range, seems a little far-fetched.

But it is a fair description of the region of north-east Tibet that he and fellow climber Charles Clarke will head for later this week. No European has visited it, no climber has attempted any of the mountains, or penetrated the glaciated valleys that guard it, according to Bonington.

Two Europeans went to a range to the south before the Second World War and reported on the high mountains to the north. Bonington got a view from 60 miles away, while on a flight from Chengdu, in China, to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in 1982. His photograph reveals jagged ridges and steep, spiky summits. US air force and Russian surveys show at least 20 peaks over 6,000m (19,700ft).

"We know the highest mountain is called Sepu Kangri [22,700ft] but the only view we have got is from the south," Bonington said. "It looks dangerous; steep-sided with big ice-cliffs. We are hoping there's a better route from the north, but we don't know whether it can approached from that side."

The main expedition flies via Kathmandu to Lhasa in mid-April 1997, when Bonington and Clarke will be joined by three other British climbers.

The trip will be a recce; to meet representatives of the China-Tibet Mountaineering Association who handle the climbing permits, approach the range by four-wheel drive vehicle across the Tibetan plateau and then head in to unknownterritory.

"The recce, in a way, is the most exciting part of the whole thing," Bonington said. It will be the monsoon season so crossing rivers may be a problem. But it is above the glaciers that the exploration will begin in earnest, as the pair climb the flanks of the mountains, testing Sepu Kangri's defences. The recce could mean the difference between success or failure in 1997, when the team will not be able to afford to spend weeks testing dead ends.

Bonington and Clarke, a consultant neurologist, aged 53, have made several expeditions together. Bonington will celebrate his 62nd birthday as the pair fly into Lhasa on 6 August.