American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Nepal, Mahalangur Himal—Khumbu Section, Lhotse South Face, Winter Ascent

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

Lhotse south face, winter attempt. The 2006 Korean Lhotse South Face team, comprising Lee Choong-jik (leader), Kim Hyung-il, Choi Jun-yeol, Seong Nak-jong, Kang Ki-seok, and I arrived at base camp on November 14. We joined forces with the Japanese Alpine Club expedition, alternating leads and fixing rope as we opened the route. The Korean contingent was eventually forced to retreat ca 300m shy of the summit due to injuries, weather, and lack of provisions. I reached the Korean highpoint of 8,200m on Christmas Eve and the following is the story of my summit push.

Early in the morning of December 21, a group of Japanese Sherpas reached Pasang Poti, Kang Ki-seok, and me at Camp 2 (7,100m). They had to carry gear to Camp 3 (8,000m) and get down the mountain, so we let them go ahead. The headwall above Camp 2 was particularly hard and I remembered how difficult it had been a few days earlier to hammer pitons solidly while leading through this section of continually steep mixed climbing and hard ice. To add to the difficulties, temperatures in the morning hours, when the face was in shade, would be extremely low, while afternoon sunshine would warm the face and cause showers of rock fall and spindrift. In fact, constant rock fall made this section something of a climbing hell.

At several points on this section we jugged past Slovenian wire ladders. There were three sets of these between 7,300m and 7,500m, where the ground was very steep. Despite many areas of damage, wed opted to use them while opening the route.

By 3 p.m. Pasang Poti and I had arrived at Camp 3 (8,000m) near the top of a steep snow face. Ki-seok’s oxygen had become depleted at ca 7,860m and an hour after our arrival at camp, Pasang rappelled to help him. The Japanese found a good spot for their camp and cut a slot out of the ridge for a four-man tent. A large, mushroom-shaped lump of snow was frozen to the vertical wall and Pasang and I realized that by chopping away at it we could make enough space for a two-man tent. Unfortunately, our tent was three-man, but the ledge would have to do. That night was the first we spent tied into our harnesses.

The following morning, December 22, there was a fierce wind. Ki-seok, suffering badly from altitude, retreated to advanced base, while Noriyuki Kenmochi, Atsushi Senda, Pema Tsering Sherpa, Pasang, and I began on the route above. Unfortunately, the altitude now began to take its toll on Pasang and at 1:10 p.m. he decided to return to base camp. This left only myself from the Korean team. I’d worked very hard to get as far as this and it was great to be able to continue upward in the good company of the Japanese.

Our total for that day was five pitches. Tanabe’s team had previously traversed right for 200m, fixing rope to a point where we could rappel into a couloir. From here, we alternated leads on a second traverse further to the right, which led in 300m to a second, narrower couloir rising toward the summit. The final traverse pitches were a terrifying business. On lead, the obstruction caused by my oxygen mask and thick gloves made it really difficult to maintain critical balance whilst grabbing gear off my rack and hammering pitons. At 3 p.m., Pema Tsering began having difficulty with the altitude and retreated to Camp 3. Senda and I fixed the lead rope and also started our return to camp. Next day I rested for what I hoped would be our summit bid on the 24th, while in the meantime the Japanese continued to push out the route.

The 24th proved to be the only Korean summit attempt. The weather was perfect except for the continually harsh wind, something with which we were never able to come to terms. Kenmochi, Senda, and I made up the summit team, with Senda and me setting off at 8 a.m. Kenmochi was not feeling so good and followed a little later. I deposited a bottle of oxygen between the first and second couloirs, then continued to our previous day’s high point: from here, protection would primarily rely on pitons. Our line lay up the couloir between two ridges, the one on the left marking the line of the Slovenian attempt and that on the right, the Russian route. Surrounded by massive walls on both sides, we were extremely exposed to rock fall and a huge gust of wind could release loose rock at any time. We had to move quickly.

Halfway up we were hit by a small shower of rocks. Senda’s goggles were shattered, Kenmochi’s face was grazed and bloody, whereas I took one on the left hand. We paused and stared at each other, but knew we would have to go on. Senda led through a second ice section and gave me the signal to climb. A few meters up, a huge rock smashed into my left forearm. I screamed out in pain. Senda lowered me. I couldn’t move my fingers, and when I peaked under my sleeve, I could see a huge mess of blood. Ten minutes later I was able to move my fingers again: luckily I hadn’t broken any bones and felt good enough to continue.

I led the next 50m pitch and Senda led through for a second rope length. However, at 8,200m the pain in my forearm became too much to bear. I radioed base camp and told them there was nothing more I could do. The two Japanese and I agreed to rappel to Camp 3 together. That would be all for our team.

So that’s the way it happened. Lhotse did not grant our wish of completing the south face to the summit in winter. I was hit and still have the scar, but am grateful to have returned alive and equally grateful to all those who helped make our efforts possible.

Ahn Chi-Young, Korea (translated by Peter Jensen-choi)

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