Unraveling the Mystery of Lhotse Middle

Publication Year: 2002.

Unraveling the Mystery of Lhotse Middle

Think all the 8000-meter summits have been climbed? Then you need the vision to see a peak like Lhotse’s middle summit, Nepal

Yuri Koshelenko

The history of the Himalaya and Karakoram says that there are only 14 summits with altitudes higher than 8000 meters. But massifs are not Egyptian pyramids, and a mountain is often crowned by several summits. Kangchenjunga has the most of all: five peaks. Each of its summits was climbed separately. According to a list compiled by Reinhold Messner, the Lhotse massif has three obvious summits: Main (8501m), East (8414m), and Lhotse Shar (8386m). Lhotse East has another name: Lhotse Middle, the 26th summit on the Messner list.

My impressions of Lhotse were shaped mainly by my friend and coach Alexander Pogorelov. He took part in the first south wall direttissima on Lhotse, in 1990. Alexander didn’t reach the summit as did Karataev and Bershov, but his group came very close to success. Pogorelov, Turkevich, Kopeyko, and Hitrikov were the first to reach the 8350m point. They fixed ropes on the most difficult part of the route, from 7600m to 8100m during four days, and then moved in alpine style, practically without food and bivouac gear, having only two ropes and a short ice-axe. Pogorelov and his friends spent three nights at an altitude higher than 8000 meters. Carving their way up the snow ridge, they rushed to the summit with all their strength. Lhotse’s knife-sharp ridges above 8000 meters were dangerous and exhausting work in a snow trench. The climbers performed huge efforts that were technically difficult, then they descended by a miracle after 10 days on the wall.

As always, there are inspiring people in climbing, mountaineers who generate ideas and are able to light others by their fire. People gather in their magnetic field to accomplish the hard work. The idea of climbing Lhotse Middle belonged to Vladimir Bashkirov. The way to Lhotse Middle was not easy, although Bashkirov’s first suggestion about the route contained inside itself today’s success. Nevertheless it took several expeditions for climbers to understand the beauty and clarity of the new line. This was not a standard solution of the Lhotse Middle problem, but on closer examination it turned out that it was the only answer.

First to make the attempt was the 1997 Russian Lhotse Middle Expedition. Unfortunately, it finished tragically for Bashkirov. Shortly before the Lhotse expedition Vladimir Bashkirov had been working as a guide on an Indonesian expedition. Vladimir died, probably due to coronary deficiency, during the descent from the Main Lhotse summit. That year climbers only glanced at the ridge that leads to the east, to the uncertainty.

In 1998 Bashkirov’s friends organized an expedition to reach Lhotse Middle via Lhotse Shar. The expedition partially succeeded: Sokolov, Timofeev, Foigt, and Vinogradski only reached Lhotse Shar’s summit, but it was a success in itself.

In 2000 two expeditions intended to ascend Lhotse Middle. In the spring it was the Georgian-Russian attempt, again via the Main summit. Then, in the autumn, the expedition of Russian Ministry of Emergencies planned a dizzying route on the south wall of the Lhotse massif. This expedition ended tragically, too: Vladimir Bondarev died in an avalanche.

These attempts caused some resonance around the world, and in 2001 three expeditions intended to reach Lhotse Middle. Korean and Spanish teams planned the traditional traverse. The Korean climbers set their base camp under Lhotse Shar, but after they had examined the situation, they moved their BC to the Khumbu Glacier. A Spanish pair of climbers planned to set their Camp 5 behind the Lhotse Main summit and conquer Lhotse Middle from there. It’s not a secret that climbing the ridge full of roofs and cols at an altitude of 8400-8500 meters is very difficult technically and, above all, is a psychological problem.

The Russian team had experience from the previous year and perspective on the route to the Middle summit via the Kanchung (northeast) wall. This was the route originally proposed by Vladimir Bashkirov, but many climbers thought it was too ambitious because of the high risk of avalanches on the northeast and north slopes of Lhotse massif. Nobody knew where the gate was to the Kanchung wall: via the South Col or via the north ridge of Lhotse Main. The important traits of the northeast wall route are its logical line that leads directly to the Middle summit without any intermediate points, and its protection from the Nepal-side winds that are prevalent here. During a traverse, it’s psychologically easy to turn back after an intermediate summit is reached, such as Lhotse Main or Shar. But on the northeast wall there is only one target—if we turn back, then we lose the summit. It is useful sometimes to drive oneself into a corner where the only exit is to climb.

When planning a great achievement we have to understand what is the main objective. Any additional goals always decrease the probability of victory. One characteristic of our expedition was that we refused any extra objectives. There would be no traversing or climbing of vertical walls. We used extra oxygen, and Himalayan, not Alpine, tactics. The previous expeditions’ experience persuaded us on this strategy. Looking at our photos, we understood that reaching Lhotse Middle is a very difficult problem. The Kanchung wall looks harsh, and the most difficult climbing waited for us near the summit. Later, when we looked at the summit from the east side of the South Col, our impression about the difficulty of the route became even stronger.

Our expedition reached a base camp on the Khumbu Glacier on April 1 before ropes had been fixed. Other expeditions didn’t hurry to start their ascents. Our group together with Simone Moro and Denis Urubko fixed ropes to Camp 3. The west slopes of Lhotse shined in a black reflection without snow. By the end of April the route to the South Col was done and our group (Gilin, Ermachek, Sokolov, myself) had ascended to set up Camp 4. Meanwhile two other groups (Timofeev-Vinogradsky-Bolotov-Kuznetsov and Cherny-Elagin-Yanochkin-Volodin) descended to Deboche for a rest. (Editor’s note: the team members are briefly profiled at the end of this article.) In spite of Sherpa help we had to carry loads of up to 17 kg. It felt heavy for a first ascent above 8000 meters. When I’d reached the South Col, our tent was already installed; Gleb Sokolov and Denis with Simone had set up the camp. There was not much snow; it seemed like we were on the debris of a shipwreck due to previous years’ accumulation of expedition garbage.

The main task of the advance group was to find a gate to the Kanchung wall of the Lhotse massif. We did this task not so well, partially due to the bad weather, partially due to insufficient acclimatization (we hadn’t used extra oxygen yet). On May 1 Sokolov, Gilin, and Ermachek carried some loads to the east side of the South Col and descended. I waited for Timofeev’s group to help them. Next day we five together had reached our loads and atmospheric conditions allowed us to have a good look at the rock walls of the Middle summit. This view didn’t give us any optimism. There was no way that was pleasing to us because the slopes were too steep and they were dangerous due to avalanches. Sergey Timofeev decided to seek a way via the north ridge of Lhotse Main. I was advised to descend, and my friends put on oxygen masks and went up along the Geneva Ridge. May 2 and 3 they carried gear and ropes to about 8100m.

In the next days the weather grew worse and Cherny’s group couldn’t ascend above 7300m (Camp 3). The three of this group descended to the BC while Vladimir Yanochkin remained in the Camp 3 intending to move at his own risk. He didn’t have a radio and we could only get information about him from other expeditions. Yanochkin only reached our ropes at 8100m and his words about the closeness of the Middle summit were taken by a majority of our climbers with some amount of distrust.

On May 10, after a rest in Deboche, our group began ascending again. We had to find a way from the north ridge to the inside corner that lead to a drop in the ridge between the Main and Middle summits. After the bad weather all the upper camps were covered deeply with snow, and we as the leaders had to work with a spade. The biggest surprise waited for us at the South Col. Yanochkin didn’t tie the door to our tent as required (he said he wanted to help us get in the tent) and wind and snow had made use of it before us. When I looked inside, I saw some emotions on Gleb Sokolov’s face as he tore ice from our sleeping bags. This was a depressing picture: a snowdrift inside the tent had melted a little and our warm clothes and sleeping bags had permafrost and a moist freshness.

We spent a night and in the morning reached 8100m. The weather was not so bad; the wall of Middle summit was sometimes visible. East and northeast slopes were overlain with fresh, free-flowing snow. Moving toward the Kanchung wall was like suicide. Gleb Sokolov ascended along the ridge for reconnaissance; Gilin and I took photos and movies; Ermachek was next to us. Then Gleb called down. There was a gendarme in the ridge like a column. I attached myself to the rope and ascended into the cloud. To the right overhung a huge ice serac, downward a steep ice slope. It was impossible to know distances inside the strong fog that blends with the white slopes. We talked with Gleb and decided to go farther. But above the gendarme the slope became steeper and more difficult. I returned into the cloud. It was an incredible feeling: the crisp slope, a serac whose wall led into infinity, and us—two living points on the huge unconscious area of this mountain.

Moving by touch under the overhangs of fragile blue ice along the narrow strip of loose snow, I compared my steps with the inside voice of my heart. The oxygen mask disturbed me and made technical actions difficult; I removed it often. Snow was sometimes so loose that together we began to slip to the edge of the ice slope. I touched the snow with my hands and asked it not to fall into an avalanche. The most dangerous place was where the ice serac ended. The ice wall lost its steepness there, turning into the slope. At some moments I felt I would lose my balance, but it ended well. Our rope stopped five meters from the firn. Gleb fixed the rope using a pair of firn anchors and we had a chance to catch our breath. Thirty to 40 meters above us hard firn turned to a downy snow slope. We stayed. This seemed like the natural break line of possible avalanches. We looked to the east and saw between clouds our future route and Lhotse Middle’s summit. We realized clearly that the route was real and the summit could be reached. We returned to the South Col. During the night the weather turned into a storm; it seemed like the Earth began to rotate faster. But yesterday we had met the summit face to face and it did not seem so bad. We needed two to three days of good weather above 8000 meters and we’d reach it.

In the camp at 6400m we met Timofeev’s group. Our words about the situation had a double effect. I can’t say that their reaction was joyful—we didn’t reach the inside corner, didn’t perform our task. But we had found new facts about the route, and they gave us hope for reaching the summit.

Victor Kozlov told us by radio that the weather over the next few days would be bad and Timofeev and his group should descend to BC with us. But other news was good, because on May 16 we got the permit for Lhotse Middle in a ceremonial atmosphere. Victor Kozlov’s joy was the greatest. He had been pressing for this permit for several years.

Our schedule was corrected due to new circumstances. Though our tactics were slightly changed, our strategy remained invariable. On May 17 Yanochkin and Volodin carried loads to the beginning of the ropes we had fixed; on the 18th Bolotov and Kuznetsov ascended further, as did Timofeev and Vinogradsky on the 19th; Sokolov and Koshelenko had to start their ascent on the 20th, but at the insistance of Nikolay Gilin we started a day later. Ermachek descended to receive medical treatment. Vasily Elagin was now in our group, but ascended only to 7000m; he refused his attempt because he had caught a chill and didn’t want to slow anyone on their way to the summit.

In the meantime our success was increasing. Yanochkin and Volodin had made two cargo ascents to the gendarme and descended. Bolotov and Kuznetsov passed 300 meters of the slope; next day Timofeev and Vinogradsky helped them. Their group had reached the inside corner and set Camp 5 at the beginning of the traverse of the Kanchung wall (8120m).

The leading group now had a chance to reach the summit, but the most difficult part of the route was still ahead of them. On May 23 our three reached the South Col. There it was slightly windy, but not bad weather for 8000 meters of altitude. We hadn’t any radio contact with Timofeev’s group. The base camp couldn’t contact them, either, but we explained this by an influence of the north ridge between us. The common excitement grew. This feeling was like a rush to be in that day with our friends, our hopes of their success, our concerns about their fortune, and our sense of nearing the final outcome. Clouds covered the valley below 6000 meters, and Gleb started another discussion about the character of the monsoon.

At 17:00 we heard at last from our leading group. Audibility was very bad, but we made out an occasional word. We in our tent and the people in the base camp wondered out loud what they could be saying. At 18:00 Timofeev confirmed than a group was descending from Lhotse Middle’s summit. After accepting our congratulations, he answered our questions about the route condition and fixed ropes; he also told us to bring two more ropes.

At 5 a.m. our three left Camp 4 on the South Col and ascended the Geneva Ridge to the north ridge, reaching Camp 5 at 7 a.m. The sun was already high, but clouds covered the valleys. Our way shone in the sunrays. It was warm and calm. We congratulated our friends again on their ascent, and learned that they hadn’t climbed the big firn roof on the summit, being afraid of it falling. They advised us to avoid it as well. Evgeny Vinogradsky and Peter Kuznetsov told us that two ropes would be enough and we could pick up the ones they had dropped by the wayside.

We descended along a serac. The snow conditions were excellent in comparison with my previous experience. During a week of a good weather the snow had consolidated. Avalanche danger remained, but didn’t appear as fatal. We passed the snow slope quickly and started ascending along rock ledges covered with snow to the center of the inside corner. Our leading group gave us good tracks, but we still needed to move carefully. There was very difficult climbing, especially in the beginning of the inside corner. I found the rope that was promised and cut about 70 meters off of it. Gleb carried the next rope. Nikolay Gilin shot video. We had passed by the snowed rocks and reached the ridge. The beautiful tower of Lhotse Middle was now in front of us. Its shape was like tongues of flame with the scroll of the summit roof. To the right and below, touching slightly the line of clouds, was the pyramid of Lhotse Shar. The rope led us to the base of the tower. Our friends’ tracks meandered fluently on the snow ridges, disappearing on the rocks and showing up again. This pointed spire was definitely the key to the route. Later we were told that Alexey Bolotov, who lead the difficult sections, climbed 12 to 15 meters of vertical rock wall after two unsuccessful attempts. This was the most serious obstacle on the way to the summit. Alexey did it by free climbing without any protection. He had lead out all the rope and then fixed it by a firn anchor in the horizontal firn that turned to the scroll of the summit roof. This was the point where the fixed ropes ended.

Our group decided to improve the result and to risk reaching the summit roof. I dropped my oxygen cylinder, took Gleb’s ice axe as a second and five firn anchors, and started to traverse the snow ridge’s wall. All the time I expected to find loose snow but found strong firn instead. I lead the rope to its end, and Nikolay Gilin brought me the next rope. The roof’s 80-degree wall was seven body lengths high. The roof looked like half of a funnel. Thin fragile edges curved to the north. Some deep breaths for sure, then some light steps to the center of the roof. I fixed the rope by a firn anchor, but there was no assurance that this snow cap wouldn’t fall down with a hiss. Some moments later I found that the world didn’t turn over. Gilin and Sokolow were near me. Gleb was sitting like a cowboy on the ridge when snow begun sliding down from under his boots, but he caught his balance. We had been taking photos but every moment felt like we were on a sinking ship.

We returned from the Lhotse Middle summit, and I enjoyed the beautiful moments of having reached my destination. We took pictures of the summit with our tracks leading to it, and felt the magical clarity, the sunlight, and the intense feeling of gratitude to Him, the Creator of all that is good. It was absolutely clear from here that the world is round. On May 27 at 11:00 Yanochkin and Volodin, moving along fixed ropes, reached the summit. The weather was already unstable and they had to carve their way anew in many places. The five-year history of attempts on Lhotse Middle had ended. A number of favorable conditions had come together to help us: the right choice of route, a good team from many Russian regions, good financing by Russian businessman Pavel Kadushin, and good circumstances.

Our manager Victor Kozlov headed our expedition and film crew. Due to his efforts we got the permit for Lhotse Middle from the Nepal Ministry of Tourism.

Nikolay Cherny was the most experienced climber among us. He had taken part in the first Soviet Everest expedition, in 1983. He was our sport leader and permit leader on Lhotse Main (the Nepal Ministry of Tourism didn’t give at first the permit for the Middle summit, so we had to buy a permit for the Main Lhotse to get a chance to start climbing). Nikolay endured all the difficult, barely noticeable job of ruling the porters, Sherpas, kitchen workers, and other problems with base camp and expedition loads. A very wise man.

Sergey Timofeev combined the jobs of leader of his group and captain of our team. On May 16 he became the leader of the route on Lhotse Middle. We got the permit directly in our base camp on Khumbu glacier from the deputy Minister of Tourism.

Evgeny Vinogradsky, Alexey Bolotov, Nikolay Gilin, Jury Yermachek, and Sergey Timofeev are climbers from Ekaterinburg. They are skilled high-altitude climbers and have a rich Himalayan history. Their most significant climb was the first ascent of the west wall of Makalu. Vinogradsky has climbed Everest four times.

Vasily Elagin, Vladimir Yanochkin, Victor Volodin, and Nikolay Cherny are from Moscow. Their high-altitude experience commands respect, especially Cherny’s and Elagin’s ascents.

Peter Kuznetsov from Krasnoyarsk had a first ascent on north wall of Everest.

Gleb Sokolov first started high-altitude trophies on Khan-Tengry and Pobeda peaks on Tian-Shan. From 1996 he took part permanently in Himalayan expeditions.

Many of these climbers had taken part in attempts on Lhotse Middle. Sergey Timofeev together with Bogomolov and Babanov lowered down from Lhotse Main the dying Bashkirov.

Igor Borisenko from Moscow and Sergey Shakuro from Novokuznetsk together with producer and author Victor Kozlov made a film.

I didn’t have any previous ascents above 8000 meters and was considered by the experienced high-altitude climbers as a debutante dark horse, whose incompetence could be dangerous.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Nepal Himalaya

First Ascent: Lhotse Middle, 8414m. The route is about 3,000 meters. Everyone used extra oxygen above 8000 meters. Nine climbers reached the summit between May 23 and May 27: Alexey Bolotov, Petr Kuznetsov, Evgeny Vinogradsky, Sergei Timofeev, Yuri Koshelenko, Nikolay Gilin, Gleb Sokolov, Vladimir Yanochkin, and Victor Volodin.