American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Nepal, Mahalangur Himal—Khumbu Section, Lhotse South Face, Winter Ascent (Not to Summit)

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2007

Lhotse south face, winter ascent (not to summit). On December 27, our six-member expedition from the Tokai Section of the Japanese Alpine Club finally climbed the south face of Lhotse (8,516m), though the successful party was not able to continue up the last section of the summit ridge due to the lateness of the hour. It was our third attempt. In 2001 we had aborted the climb at 7,600m, while it 2003 we had reached 8,250m before having to give up.

When we were defeated in 2003,I personally felt that I wouldn’t be going back: for one thing, the rock fall was just too dangerous. However, in 2005 I joined a team from the Gunma Federation on Nanga Parbat and talked about Lhotse with one of the members, Noriyuki Kenmochi. He was very enthusiastic and the result was that I found myself organizing a third attempt.

On September 3, 2006, we left Japan for Xixabangma, in order to acclimatize for our Lhotse attempt. Despite heavy snow, all members reached to the main summit on October 9. After a rest in Kathmandu, we traveled to Lhotse base camp at 5,200m, where we met a Korean party led by Lee Choong-jik. They also planned to attempt a winter ascent of the south face. Fortunately, the Koreans were very friendly and good-natured, so we decided to conduct a joint operation and open the route together. In the end we would fix 5,700m of rope.

The face was in very snowy conditions but on November 18 we started climbing and on the 21st established Camp 1 at 5,900m, in exactly the same spot as 2003. Thereafter, we were harassed by strong winds: not the fierce winds you find in mid winter but still strong enough that on November 28 Atsushi Senda and Toshio Yamamoto were blown 10m across the face at an altitude of 6,800m. Fortunately, they were clipped into fixed lines. Advancing the route proved very difficult and the strong wind caused powder avalanches and rock fall, which often threatened our load-carrying Sherpas and caused several casualties.

Despite the brutal conditions, we managed to set up Camp 2 at 7,100m on December 1 and five days later establish a temporary Camp 3 at 7,300m. Wed hoped to finish the route by Christmas Day, after which, in a normal year, cold and violent gales make climbing almost impossible. However, last year the monsoon lasted longer, meaning that true winter was also late in its arrival. Even so, strong winds after December 6 prevented any climbing until the 13th.

One of the reasons for the 2003 failure was the site of Camp 3, which that year was placed 150m lower than planned. Takahiro Yamaguchi, Ngawang Tenzi Sherpa, and I took charge of pushing the route out to 8,000m, where we eventually established the 2006 Camp 3. On the 21st Noriyuki Kenmochi, Atsushi Senda, and Pema Tsering Sherpa took over and began the final push for the summit. They were joined by Ahn Chi-young of the Korean expedition. As in 2003, the final prow was avoided by the couloir on the right. In three days Senda’s party reached 8,200m, then Yamaguchi, Pemba Choti Sherpa, and I took over.

On December 26 we found an old fixed rope high in the couloir. This was a major surprise, as I hadn’t realized anyone had climbed in this couloir before [these originated from Polish expeditions in the 1980s—Ed.]. The last part was a vertical rock wall of 20m with no cracks. It was impossible to climb. I’d imagined that the couloir would give a direct route to the shoulder left of the main summit but actually it was a dead end. The only possible escape looked to be up the fragile rock wall on the left side of the couloir. This wall led to the summit ridge, but reaching the main summit would involve a descent and subsequent re-ascent along the crest: exhausting work at that height. That day we climbed 50m of the route up the left wall and then returned to camp.

On the 27th Yamaguchi made a bold lead up the rotten rock wall. We finished up an extremely difficult, quasi-vertical snow face and arrived on the summit ridge at 8,475m. Everest, complete with snow streams, was clearly visible ahead. The time was 3:35 p.m. I was deeply touched: my dream of climbing the south face had come true. There still remained a horizontal distance of ca 200m and a vertical gain of 41m to the summit but we had no energy left to make the necessary descent and re-ascent. At 4:17 p.m. we turned back without hesitation, finally reaching Camp 3 at 9:15 p.m. after 15 hours of demanding climbing.

Osamu Tanabe, adapted from a translation by Tamotsu Nakamura, Japanese Alpine News

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