Hwang Gi-yong, Shin Dong-seok, and I started climbing a new line on the left side of the north face at 1 a.m. on December 13 [the prominent spur immediately left of the 2008 Polish route, Independence Day. See AAJ 2009]. We had hoped to find the way by moonlight, but when we reached 5,000m at 2:30 a.m., it was simply too dark, and we had to wait until 6:30 a.m. before continuing. At first the terrain was mixed, but at ca 5,200m we had to climb an eight-meter overhanging crack followed by 10m of unprotected slab, for which we took off crampons. Above, we gained the lip of a protected snowfield and settled down to bivouac for the night at 5,367m.
On the 14th we climbed moderate sections of rock and snow (5.7-5.9 and 65-85°). Toward the end, rockfall became prevalent, and we stopped to bivouac at 2:30 p.m. The following day Hwang, who was in the lead, showed signs of slight fatigue, though at this stage we didn’t realize there was a problem. There was ice and mixed terrain to 85°, but placing screws was almost impossible; we resorted to protecting ourselves with rock features protruding from the snow, and snow bollards.
On the 16th, after a bivouac at 5,863m, I took over the lead in order to speed things up. At ca 5,900m, after climbing through mixed ground at 60°, we came to a steep 25m crack. We left our sacks at the base and carried only cameras. Although the crack was merely 5.9, it was loose, and we had to climb it carefully, making sure the rope didn’t snag on precariously balanced rock. Above, we experienced dangerous rock fall, but climbed the intervening ground to the summit of Pharilapcha East without too much effort [the east summit is almost as high as the main or west top]. We took summit shots with Everest in the distance. Hwang was elated, showing no visible signs of distress. We descended to our sacks and then traversed to the east ridge, which we downclimbed to 5,735m, where we bivouacked. Although Hwang had not felt right since day two, when he started to suffer stomach pains, his condition had not deteriorated. Neither had he complained of any major discomfort. We simply had no idea that there was something seriously wrong.
The following morning, in the initial stages of our rappel descent, Hwang suddenly collapsed and died. Shin Dong-seok and I continued down, arriving at Machermo in the Gokyo Valley at 5 p.m. Four days later, with help from Sherpas, we retrieved Hwang’s body and transported it to Kathmandu for cremation. (Hwang was with me on the successful 1997 Gasherbrum IV west face expedition and had recently made a special trip to Seoul to suggest we made a pure alpine-style ascent together.)
We named the line the Korean Route. There were 1,200m of climbing, in which no pegs or bolts were placed. We rated it VI 5.9 A3 M5 WI5+. We climbed in alpine style and left only slings and carabiners during our descent.
(Translated by Peter Jensen-Choi)