Once Again, to the Dark Side of Lhotse

A tiny dot on a mighty mountain face, clinging to a frozen rope in the middle of a blizzard, Hong Sung-Taek speaks to the camera: “Climbing is lonely,” he says.

In spring 2019, while crowds flocked to Everest, Hong of South Korea led a small international team on one of the biggest challenges in Himalayan climbing: the South Face of Lhotse. Once again, the weather beat him.

After missing the Olympics in judo because of a bad injury, Hong Sung-Taek turned to the outdoors. He trekked to both Poles and crossed Greenland and the Bering Strait, and climbed Everest and Pumori. But for years, the South Face of Lhotse has been his indomitable opponent. He has tried and failed six times. Now he is ready for the next round. This attempt, however, summit or not, will be the last.

Hong’s latest attempt on “his” Lhotse South Face

On his 2019 attempt on Lhotse, he battled avalanches and the sheer verticality of the 3,300m wall and managed to reach 8,200m. All he needed was 72 hours of decent weather, but the “terrifying, unpredictable” Goddess that, he insists, lives at the summit refused. The wind kept blowing hard, and eventually, Hong had to concede defeat once more. Some months later, he reflected lyrically:

“I was sobbing and praying in the white moonlight of Lhotse South Face to go to the top. Please, God, let the wind and snow stop, only for three days! However, the weather in the Himalaya is harsh, and the wind blew without stopping even when the shadows lengthened at sunset. Far away over Ama Dablam, the beautiful sunset glow, soft like silk, spread out over the sky, but at the same time, the rough wind blew toward us…and I had to come back realizing that this was not the time, again.”

“We never had more than two days of good weather,” Hong recalled. Clearly, this photo does not show one of those days. Photo: Hong Sung-Taek

At least he was alive to try again this notorious route, which took the life of Polish ace Jerzy Kukuczka back in 1989.

Nowadays, Hong obsessively monitors news reports about Covid-19 in Nepal and ponders his options to return to Lhotse “as soon as possible”. Because of the unpredictable situation, he hasn’t dared to fix a date. He has just confirmed that this will be his last expedition to the 8,516m “mountain of mountains”. After this, Hong would like to switch battlegrounds completely and embark in a Pole-to-Pole, human-powered voyage.

Explaining his obsession with the South Face of Lhotse, Hong describes it as the perfect mix of risk, high difficulty and hardship. “However, I have never perceived it was impossible to climb,” he says. “All I needed last time was a long enough weather window.”

For this final attempt, Hong admits that the main obstacle is not the forces of nature, but something much more banal, yet equally formidable. “It’s finding sponsorship after so many attempts,” he says.

Hong Sung-Taek.