Two years had passed since the Tokai section of the Japanese Alpine Club tried the first winter ascent of Lhotse’s giant south face. The attempt, which took place in December 2001, eventually failed at 7,600m due to a biting winter blizzard. A second expedition was organized in 2003, JAC’s centenary. The idea was to train five top men in excellent physical condition and acclimatize by climbing an 8,000m peak immediately before the route, pushing for the summit as early as possible in winter.
On October 14, all five reached the top of Shishapangma Central and by November 14 base camp had been established at the foot of Lhotse’s south face. However, we discovered that the bottom one-third was in worse condition than last time. On November 22 we set up Camp 1 on a rock rib at 5,900m. On November 28 Camp 2 was established at 7,100m and then on December 3 an interim C3 was placed at the site where the Slovenian team pitched their C4 many years ago.
Conditions were good, with rock fall less frequent than the last time. On December 5 we climbed past our high point of 2001 and on the 9th set up Camp 3 at 7,850m. How much we had dreamed about occupying a high camp, from which we could finally head for the summit! Everything, so far, had gone smoothly and according to plan. The summit would surely be in our hands.
But it was not to be. The crux of the entire face actually began above our top camp. We opted to follow the couloir to the right of the final crest and in order to reach it had to make a 200m descent rightward from Camp 3. By doing this we would avoid the seemingly difficult
ridge up which Tomo Cesen climbed.
We found the couloir far from easy. From the beginning we struggled on the delicate traverse to reach it. The couloir itself comprised stiff pitches of climbing one after the other, and the two parties, led by Tanabe and Kitamura, worked away day after day, eventually reaching 8,250m.
The final attempt was made by Tanabe’s party, which started out from base camp on December 18. That night at Camp 1 the weather forecast reported a probability of snowfall, which in turn implied a high risk of avalanches. Only 250m left. To this point there had been no serious injuries, although eight members out of a total of 20 had been hurt by stone-fall or suffered frostbite.
I concluded that there are only three possible ways in which this face can be climbed: an alpine-style ascent by a genius like Tomo Cesen, a sieged climb following the rock ridge throughout like that achieved by the former Soviet expedition, or a speedy ascent in pre-winter season.
Osamu Tanabe, Japanese Alpine Club