Lhotse South Wall: Pythom Interview with Korean Sung Taek Hong

It’s been a tough year, Sung told us
(Tina Sjogren/Kyu Dam Lee) Lhotse’s south face has rejected some of the best climbers in history. It includes an overwhelming mass of rock and ice over 3,000 feet tall, and provides one of the most challenging climbs above 8,000 meters. Only two people ever reached its summit: Russians Sergey Bershov and Gennadiy Karataev climbed onto the top on October 16 in 1990.

Over the years Lhotse south face brought drama, controversy and marked the lives and deaths of men such as Jerzy Kukuzkca, Tomo Cesen, Ricardo Cassin, Cristof Profit and more.

One who knows it well is Korean mountaineer, and skilled polar skier, Sung Taek Hong.

Former mate to the late Mr Park, season after season Sung has been returning to the notorious wall, last year providing video footage of the conditions: relentless avalanches punishing the Korean climbers like a never-ending river.

Hopefully, the spring-quake managed to shake some of that loose rock and snow off. Sung is back to find out and we caught up with him yesterday.

Pythom: This is your fourth attempt on the face, last time you stayed until November! What’s the plan this year?

Sung Taek Hong: Yes, it is my fourth attempt on the face. I’ll climb a bit later than before, the main ascent will probably happen in October, when the temperatures should drop a little and there should be less snow. I’ll climb the same route as last year and use fixed ropes for safety.

Pythom: You had lots of snow and avalanches between C2 and C3. Will you do anything different this year to work around the problems?

Sung Taek Hong: Yes, the later season and I’ll also climb early in the mornings, between 1 am and 11 am. Dawn and mornings should bring less avalanche and rock fall so I’ll avoid the afternoons whenever possible.

Pythom: Last you told us you needed team mates that are strong and fearless enough to climb freely on a very big vertical wall (2000 meters) on high attitude. Did you find them?

Sung Taek Hong: No, I couldn’t find the mates I wanted so I would like to do it by myself, and not be dependent on other members. I expect my expedition support to secure and belay me as needed for safety.

Pythom: You’ve tried several routes, latest one that bypassed the overhang sector (40~50 m) at the end of the couloir. Which line do you have in mind this time?

Sung Taek Hong: I will attempt the same route as last year. It’s loftier, but I think it has less rock fall and weaker avalanches.

Pythom: So much pain, so much danger, so many failures: How did you feel coming back and seeing the wall again?

Sung Taek Hong: It’s actually not a good feeling. Sometimes, I felt weak and empty when I returned home. It knocked down my self-respect. I was concerned about what other people thought, had second thoughts, hurt myself thinking I had not done my best.

Did I really try everything, I asked myself? I couldn’t test all my abilities before I closed the expedition last year. I think this time I’ll stick it out to the very end, before making any conclusions, to make sure I exhausted all possibilities.

Even if I don’t manage to summit I’ll know that I gave it all I had, and accept the honorable failure, without regrets.

Pythom: You told us last time that it’s the Korean food that makes a Korean strong. What will you bring this time? Kimchi? Bibimbap? 🙂

Sung Taek Hong: I hope to cook Korean-food like Kimchi at base camp. I’ll also carry instant lunch boxes that warm food automatically by pulling a string. Less water to boil and saving time at high altitude.

Pythom: Any other plans?

Sung Taek Hong: If I finish this climb, I am planning a complete circumnavigation of the Arctic circle around the North Pole.

(Ed note: there has been some confusion on the correct spelling of Hong’s name: He asks it to be spelled Sung Taek Hong, which the article now reflects. The story was also edited to reflect that Sung was not yet in camp at the time of the interview as first stated.)

Previous interview (2014 debrief) with Sung: