Through the Unknown to the Impossible: Lhotse Middle

At 8,516m, Lhotse is the fourth highest mountain on earth. The Himalayan giant sits next to Mount Everest, and the two connect via the South Col. Lhotse and Everest climbers share their normal route to Camp 3, after which their paths diverge.

First ascents of Lhotse Main and Lhotse Shar

Lhotse has three summits, one main and two secondary. The two secondary peaks are not considered independent mountains, although their tops are clearly separated and they rise over 8,000m. A long and dizzying ridge connects the main summit to its secondary summits, 8,410m Lhotse Middle (or Lhotse East), and 8,383m Lhotse Shar.

Lhotse Main, Lhotse Middle (East), and Lhotse Shar. Photo: RussianClimb

 

Ernst Reiss and Fritz Luchsinger of Switzerland first climbed Lhotse Main on May 18, 1956, with supplemental oxygen, via the West Face. This became the normal route.

Its first no-O2 ascent took place 21 years later, on May 11, 1977, by  Germany’s Michel Dacher. As of spring 2021, a total of 933 people have summited Lhotse Main, 183 without supplemental oxygen. The vast majority of ascents followed its normal route.

The route from Camp 3 to the main summit of Lhotse. Photo: Animal de Ruta

 

Lhotse Shar was first climbed on May 12, 1970 by Austrians Josef Sepp Mayerl and Rolf Walter, with bottled oxygen. The two Austrians skirted the southern wall of Lhotse, along the Southeast Ridge route. Shar’s first ascent without O2 was on May 20, 1984 by Zoltan Demjan. Until 2021, only 24 people reached the top of Lhotse Shar, 13 without O2. It was last climbed in 2007. These are serious subpeaks, with no moderately easy routes.

Almost all Lhotse Main ascents follow this route on the mountain’s West Face. Photo: Animal de Ruta

 

What about Lhotse Middle?

If asked which route is the most demanding on Lhotse, many would say the South Face route to the main summit. And in fact, the South Face of Lhotse has always been one of the most important challenges in the Himalaya. In his book, Lhotse South Face: The Wall of Legends, Edward Morgan tells the exciting history of this face and some of its tragic outcomes.

Everest and the gigantic South Face of Lhotse Main, Lhotse MIddle, and Lhotse Shar from the upper Hongu Valley. Photo: Mountains of Travel

 

However, the most demanding route may be totally different than expected, an absolutely unnecessary climb yet an extremely attractive one: the summit of Lhotse Middle.

Lhotse. Photo: Tom Weager

Almost impossible

To get to Lhotse Middle, you have to follow a very steep and dangerous knife blade from either Lhotse Main or Lhotse Shar. These would seem the only two logical routes. Steep walls make any direct ascent up Lhotse Middle almost impossible. Not surprisingly, for over 40 years since the first ascent of Lhotse Main, almost no one thought to target Lhotse Middle.

The ridge before the summit tower of Lhotse Middle. Photo: Gleb Sokolov

 

Kukuczka came closest

In 1985, during his attempt on the South Face of Lhotse, Jerzy Kukuczka unintentionally came closer than anyone before him to the summit of Lhotse Middle. He passed just beneath it on his way to the main summit. Kukuczka died four years later on the same route when the second-hand rope that he bought broke at 8,200m, causing a fatal fall.

Jerzy Kukuczka on Lhotse’s South Face. Photo: Jerzy Kukuczka Virtual Museum

 

Erhard Loretan saw a line

In October 1994, Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet reached the main summit of Lhotse via the normal route, without supplemental oxygen, and in bitter cold and wind. From the top, Loretan saw that a route connecting the other two peaks of Lhotse, but they had no equipment to make the traverse. Loretan considered that it might be more suitable to try it in spring. They could later descend via the South Face of the Lhotse.

His idea never came to fruition, and Troillet was not enthusiastic about the plan, either. Even Loretan admitted that at that altitude, “It is one of the most difficult traverses you can do.”

Vladimir Bashkirov studied at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Later he combined two jobs. He created software programs for space stations. Then while his colleagues tested his programs, he guided in the Himalaya. Photo: Author’s personal archive

 

Attracted only by the unknown

For years after, Lhotse Middle remained unclimbed and unnoticed on anyone’s radar. Eventually, however, a Russian mountaineer came along who dreamed of Lhotse Middle. His name was Vladimir Bashkirov.

Bashkirov was one of the best mountaineers in his country and was also a good leader. His calm under duress conveyed security during his climbs. Bashkirov had already climbed all the highest peaks in the then-USSR, and so earned the Snow Leopard Award. In 1994, he forged a new route on Ama Dablam. Then in 1995, he began guiding in the Himalaya. In a single year, from May 1996 to May 1997, he climbed five 8,000’ers.

Bashkirov in 1973 in the Caucasus. The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology had the best amateur climbing club, and Bashkirov learned his trade there. On a later expedition, a tent fire put Bashkirov in the hospital for a year. Doctors said that he would never climb again, but he soon proved them wrong. Photo: Author’s personal archive

 

”When you walked the road paved by others, there is no breakthrough,” commented his wife, Natalya Bashkirova. “An apprentice can repeat what others have done. But a master always does something new. Volodya was a master. He was only attracted by the unknown.”

Bashkirov wanted his fellow Russians to make a first ascent of an 8,000m peak. Lhotse Middle became his target.

Everest 1997

In the spring of 1997, he planned two climbs. First, Anatoli Boukreev invited him to help guide a big group of Indonesian military up Everest. Boukreev and Evgeny Vinogradsky went with him. It was the first time that these Indonesians had seen snow in their lives, so the expedition required a lot of careful work from the guides.

Everest summiters: Bashkirov, Vinogradsky, and Boukreev, with Indonesian clients. Photo: RussianClimb

 

Too long in Kathmandu

Ultimately, the Indonesians made the summit. To celebrate, they invited their guides to Kathmandu for the official reception. Bashkirov originally planned to spend just a couple of days in town, but for various reasons, their stay in the capital dragged on. They caught an illness and lost some acclimatization and fitness.

“We did nothing for 12 days,” Boukreev said later. “If you suddenly stop a…car speeding at 100 miles per hour, what will happen with the car? Same thing happened with our bodies.”

Lhotse East Face at sunrise. Photo: Mountains of Travel

 

Lhotse Middle, May 1997

The  Russian Lhotse Middle group’s plan was to summit Lhotse Main, then traverse over the unspoiled Lhotse Middle to Lhotse Shar. This would mean bivouacking above 8,000m. The group planned a two-day traverse. They would then descend from Lhotse Shar to the base camp of Island Peak.

Boukreev and Simone Moro had a different idea. After reaching Lhotse Main via the normal route, like the Russian team, Boukreev and Moro wanted to traverse by the shortest possible route to the South Col, then summit Everest and descend Everest via the North Ridge. The duo was an independent team.

The Russian group, under the leadership of Vladimir Bashkirov, included 11 others: Vladimir Savkov, Valeri Babanov, Sergei Bogomolov, Nikolay Cherny, Alexander Foigt, Vladimir Koroteev, Juri Outechev, Valeri Pershin, Gleb Sokolov, Sergei Timofeev, and Sergei Zoev.

While Bashkirov was still in Kathmandu with Boukreev and the Indonesians, his comrades advanced up the mountain, setting camps. They established Camp 4 at 7,750m on May 2, 1997. The climbers then went down to Base Camp.

On May 6, they returned to Camp 4, where they spent the night. The next day, they fixed ropes up to 8,000m. Then back to Base Camp again. On May 12, they went back up to C4, and down to BC.

Finally, on May 15, they went to Dingboche to meet Bashkirov, who had finally returned from his break in Kathmandu. Bashkirov did not look weak or ill, but it is also true that he was a very introverted person, who never liked to complain.

Lhotse Kangshung Face: still unclimbed, except for the upper part. Photo: Yuri Koshelenko

 

Lhotse Main summit day

On May 23, three Russians — Cherny, Outechev and Zoev — climbed again to C4. After fixing the ropes in the upper section, they summited Lhotse Main on May 24. Outechev and Zoev used O2, Cherny did not.

The other eight climbers, including Bashkirov, left the high camp together on May 26, at 5 am. They climbed at different rates. None had supplemental O2. Bashkirov’s comrades noticed that he was not well, but everyone continued climbing. Timofeev and Sokolov were the first to summit Lhotse Main, at 11 to 11:20 am, followed by Babanov.

Between 1 and 1:30 pm, Moro and Boukreev also reached the top. When they met Bashkirov, Boukreev didn’t see anything unusual about him. But when Bashkirov took off his goggles from time to time to shoot videos, Moro warned Boukreev that Bashkirov looked strange. Boukreev also started to feel bad.

In Kathmandu, both Bashkirov and Boukreev had been ill. Now at altitude, the symptoms returned with a vengeance.

Koroteev, Foigt, and Bashkirov reached the summit between 2 pm and 2:30 pm. One man, Bogomolov, was climbing so slowly that he had still not summited.

Lhotse Middle: not this time

The original plan was that six of the Russians who had reached the top, including Vladimir Bashkirov, would then try to traverse to Lhotse Middle. But the weather was bad, and visibility was too poor to attempt that knife edge. They had to accept that this time, it was not possible.

Hours passed, and Bogomolov still did not reach the top. Bashkirov asked Foigt to go down, and he decided to stay to wait for Bogomolov.

Foigt later said that he did not understand Bashkirov’s decision, because Bashkirov always told him that one should never stop long at high altitude without O2. But Bashkirov felt responsible for all the members of his team and decided to wait. At the same time, he likely wasn’t thinking clearly because of his bad state.

Exhausted climbers. Photo: Still from the documentary about Vladimir Bashkirov

 

The tragic descent

Bogomolov finally reached the top of Lhotse Main at 6 pm. By then, Bashkirov had clear symptoms of AMS. During the descent, he lost control of reality. Bogomolov called for help over the radio, and so did Boukreev. They started to help him down, and they reached 7,900m. They were still 100m from the tents. Bogomolov and Boukreev quickly asked for two oxygen sets, one for Bogomolov, who was also in serious trouble, and one for Bashkirov.

Bashkirov’s wife Natalya was in Moscow that day. In the later documentary about her husband, she recalled, ”I had a call at 5 am that day. I knew already what a call meant at this hour.”

One of the two O2 sets, Bashkirov’s, did not function. He died.

Avalanche on the Kangshung face of Lhotse. Photo: Lhotse South Face

 

Other attempts on Lhotse Middle

In 1998, Bashkirov’s friends tried Lhotse Middle again, via Lhotse Shar. They managed to crest Lhotse Shar, which was an important achievement, but could not follow to Lhotse Middle.

Two years later, two expeditions tried again. In the spring of 2000, a Georgian-Russian group attempted it through Lhotse Main. Then in the fall, a Russian team tried it via a highly complicated route through the southern wall of the Lhotse Massif. They did not succeed, either.

In 2001, a Korean and a Spanish expedition also tried to do the traditional traverse. Neither was successful.

The beginning of the traverse from the north ridge of Lhotse Main to the Kangchung Wall of the Lhotse Massif. Photo: Gleb Sokolov

 

Finally, Lhotse Middle, 2001

That same year, a team of nine Russians under the leadership of Sergei Timofeev managed to climb Lhotse Middle. The alpinists split into three groups, summiting Lhotse Middle on May 23, 24, and 27. They used O2 on the upper section.

Their route was the one that Bashkirov had originally envisioned, four years before the 1997 expedition. At the time, other climbers and friends thought that the avalanche risk was too high. That route was the NE Face, also called the Kangshung Face. Their concern is why Bashkirov changed the route in 1997 to the normal traverse.

First steps on the precarious summit of Lhotse Middle. Photo: Yuri Koshelenko

 

Timofeev’s 2001 team first followed the normal route on Everest to the South Col. The climbers then moved along Lhotse’s unclimbed North Ridge and out onto the previously unclimbed and untouched Kangshung Face. They did not climb the whole Kangshung Face, but traversed the upper part of it. Finally, they climbed up to the middle summit’s West Ridge. They devoted the first ascent of Lhotse Middle to Vladimir Bashkirov.

Since then, no one else has climbed or even attempted Lhotse Middle.

The route of Lhotse Middle’s first ascent in 2001. Photo: RussianClimb

 

The 2001 Lhotse Middle team. Summiters: Alexei Bolotov, Piotr Kuznetsov, Sergei Timofeev, Evgeni Vinogradsky, Nikolai Jiline, Yuri Koshelenko, Gleb Sokolov, Vladimir Yanotchkin, Victor Volodine. Bottom photo: Two members with Elisabeth Hawley in 2003, when they had to provide more photos. The first summit photo did not convince her of their success. The subsequent ones did. Photo: Yuri Koshelenko

@KrisAnnapurna reports about outdoor activities, current expeditions, and stories related to the history of mountaineering in the Karakoram, Himalaya, Tien Shan, and other ranges.


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Mikel Echeverria
3 months ago

Lhotse Middle II, a slight elevation between Lhotse Middle and Lhotse Shar, remains for some people as the only unclimbed 8000er.

Last edited 3 months ago by Mikel Echeverria
Lalena
3 months ago

Thank you, Kris!

David Pons
David Pons
3 months ago

Great article. Well researched. Thank you

Don Paul
Don Paul
3 months ago

I think all these rock faces will have bigwall climbing routes on them someday. Much safer from avalanche but you have to be able to place gear and do gymnastics while dressed like the Michilin Man. Hauling will be hard at that altitude, too.

Last edited 3 months ago by Don Paul
You-Min Lin
You-Min Lin
3 months ago

A nice piece, thanks!

fred west
fred west
3 months ago

Did any Sherpas summit Lhotse Middle in 2001 with this team