SOUTH FACE OF LHOTSE, 1990
A Look into the Future
MY 1989 CLIMB OF the north face of Jannu1 raised a lot of attention upon arrival home. The alpinist press was highly complimentary and appraised the climb as a remarkable achievement. It kept reminding me of what I felt (or at times didn't feel) while climbing the face. Prior to the departure, the majority judgement was that it can't be done. For many reasons, Jannu was a very important step. I proved to everyone, but mainly to myself and the few others who share my veiws as to the progress of Himalayan climbing, that even the highest mountains in the world can be approached in the same manner and style of climbing as practised in the Alps. I also learned that the limits of risk and impossibility are very different for different people.
In 1985 I reached the top of Yalung Kang (8505 m) and found out what the magic limit of 8000 m means. The memory of my first Himalayan experience has a bitter taste. During descent, my friend had lost his life and I had to bivouac with no equipment at 8300 m. 1 was lucky to survive. This was a valuable experience which convinced me that the human body can survive even in very severe conditions. I realized my own limits in a moment when I could no longer tell whether I'm still on this or already on the other side. Since then, I know precisely how much my body can take. In 1986, it was Broad Peak's turn and the south face of K2, where I experienced how it feels to be alone on the face of eight thousand metre peak. In between was a series of extreme solo climbs in the Alps, both on ice and on rock. I'm convinced that to achieve the most in the Himalaya the climber needs to be excellent in all types of climbing. And after I added last April the north face of Jannu to all the other climbs I did, I felt I now have accumulated everything needed for a high and difficult face ending much above 8000 m. This way the idea for the south face of Lhotse was born. I needed a while to decide on Jannu, but not for Lhotse. In the back of my mind I knew well who all had "tried and how many times the Lhotse south face was approached unsuccessfully. I carefully prepared myself, with analysing previous attempts trying to find the possible mistakes to learn from. But at the end I was back with my old belief - I trust myself more than anyone else. At no time achieving first ascent of the face played any importance whatsoever. Even after I applied for the permission in Kathmandu, there were three more attempts on the south face. But what was important for me was to do it my way : solo and in alpine style. I just don't feel it would be right that at the current level of alpinism the face should be climbed by a large expedition, in traditional style and with the use of oxygen.
1. See H.J. Vol. 46, p. 13.-Ed.
To me, the true problem of the south face was its middle part, which was tried in 1981 by the Yugoslav "expedition led by Alex Kunaver. He dreamt of the face 20 years ago and studied it carefully. Two months prior to the expedition in 1981 he had sent a small team under the face with a task to monitor everything happening on it. What was produced is a photograph showing every single snow or rock avalanche. Looking at this photo I couldn't figure out why later no one (except for the French team of Michel Fauquet-Vincent Fine in the fall of 1985) tried this direction. According to the report of the reconnaissance team, this was the safest route. The attempt of the two French climbers who reached 7400 m in the alpine-style, was for me a sufficient proof that the solo ascent of the south face in alpine-style is possible. I got useful information from the climbers who were on the expedition in 1981. And lastly, in 1987 I spent two months on the southeast ridge of Lhotse Shar - to the right of Lhotse. From there, the face can be looked at as closely as the palm of one's hand. Thus I left for the south face of Lhotse fully prepared.
Prior to my departure, there were 13 expeditions or individuals. Since 1972 Lhotse south face was becoming more attractive day by day. With no doubt it has been the best known climbing problem in the Himalaya. The events over the last two or three years only added to its popularity and increased the degree of difficulty. Two other members accompanied me, doctor Janko Kokalj who was with me at Jannu and the cameramen Tomaz Ravnihar. Small team, small problems. But this time we couldn't envisage fully what was waiting for us upon our arrival at Kathmandu. Due to political and military unrest we lost a week. Finally, on 9 April, we landed at the grassy airport of Lukla and from there Ihings started to move. The base camp was already set on 15 April .it 4900 m about half an hour from Chukung, the last village en-route to Lhotse. Usually, most expeditions located their base camp much higher, but at that location there is no water and a lot less comfortable area, exposed to the afternoon winds. The comfort in the base camp outweighs the additional hour and a half walk, which was what the difference was between locating the camp where we did. To acclimatize, I chose the southeast ridge of Lhotse Shar. I know it well from three years ago, it isn't too difficult and it is safe. Lhotse is about 800 m higher than Jannu, so 1 figured 1 needed-better acclimatization than last year. I went up Lhotse Shar four times and reached 7200 m at the highest. While doing this, 1 could also observe the planned route on Lhotse. The south face is a very complex problem. How fast and how safe one can climb, depends on snow condition. Technical difficulties begin at the altitude above 8000 m. To this, one has to add the weather. The morning sun warms the face and sets off loose falling rocks. From the distance it all looks beautiful and nice, but when you're under, your heart sinks. In the afternoon, the weather practically always turns sour. Clouds, fog, snow and wind. And as a consequence, avalanches. The most dangerous is the lower half of the face, both on account of avalanches as due to the falling rock and ice. It would be clearly crazy to try to climb the most dangerous part during the daytime and in the sun.
On 22 April, 1 felt I can begin. The sleeping bag, bivouac sack, two ice axes, crampons, helmet, harness, ice and rock pitons, extra gloves, socks and goggles, camera, walkie-talkie, 100 m of 6 mm rope, specially made clothes, food and drinks. Cheese, chocolate, dextrose, cheese strudel, cookies, and special full - wheat cookies. And three litres of coffee for liquid. I decided to start in the afternoon and try to climb the most difficult part during the night. Jani accompanied me to the beginning of the face and then kept 'following' me until he lost the sight of me in the darkness of the night. I started at 5 p.m. much further to the left from where the Yugoslav expedition started back in 1981. I reached snow ridge above the rocky part, which they called 'telescope', in its second half. The condition here was reasonably good, especially at the steeper part at the beginning of the face. The traverse over the snowfield under the large triangular rocky face, reaching nearly to 8000 mt was a bit more difficult again. From there, I chose a diagonal ramp towards the left and another one towards the right to the upper snowfields. Here I found a number of rather steep, but luckily only short stretches. I, climbed only half-way up the steep snowfield, ending at the large pier by the left edge of the giant rocky face. On the basis of talks I had with friends who were climbing here with the Yugoslav expedition, I decided it would be easier to try to reach the couloir at the left side of this pier. Somewhere in the middle of the traverse, about 7500 m high, 1 bivouacked for the first time. I had climbed for 15 hours, I needed some rest. Sun had already lighted up the wall and rock-fall could be expected. In spite of being so high, it was unbelievably warm. I was on a completely safe spot, very calm and even managed to sleep for a while. 1 continued in the early afternoon. The beginning of the couloir resembled a gorge, since it was surrounded on both sides by steep walls. The beginning was rising gently, but it was quite obvious what happens here during the avalanches. The desire to climb fast was here much stronger than the actual capabilities of the body. After this part, I went around a steep rocky step, followed by a nasty traverse with a few steep spots and from there to the beginning of the rocky pillar, only a long snowfield was left. Due to the potential danger of avalanches it was important to choose the route very carefully. Late in the evening I reached at the foot of the rocky pillar at 8200 m. This second bivouac was a close copy of the one on Yalung Kang. The location itself was much better, but due to the extremely cold night I couldn't even try to sleep. But, what can one say! With words a night like this can hardly be described. A tedious fight with the night, cold, loneliness. I knew well that the next day will be the decisive and the most difficult. The rocky pillar above the 8200 m is the key part.
I have to admit I was thinking of this part almost the entire time. For the rest, I was quite sure I can make it, but this particular part of the route was a mystery to me. I was aware of the fact that I might discover that I cannot climb over it and will simply have to return. From the photographs I could find that there are some passages on the left side of the pillar. But I also knew from previous experience that things can look very different from close-up. To find out what the truth is one has to climb the 3000 m of the face first.
The morning of 24 April was just the kind I needed. It was clear and peaceful. I left all unnecessary equipment at the bivouac site. And soon above it, the decision was made. After a snowy ramp I reached the steep step. Most of it was rock, sometimes snow and sometimes ice of dubious quality. If this segment was to be climbed at 5000 m, it would all be much, much easier. But here, above 8000 m, what was needed was an effort much beyond normal human ability. I spent good three hours for climbing 50 to 70 m. I helped myself with pitons. My Yalung Kang experience has taught me a lot, so at the top of the step I fixed a part of the rope and thus had everything prepared for descent. The top was still far, but I was ready to give the last atom of strength to complete the ascent. I was too close to the top not to succeed. The continuation was technically not so difficult, but the altitude, occasional deep snow and tiredness took their share. First a snowy step then a long traverse towards the top. The weather was as usual, clouds and some snow, but the main obstacle was strong wind. Occasionally the gray skies broke and I could see Everest slope above the South Col or Cho Oyu in the west. To the south, there was nothing but a sea of clouds. At the very end, one has to descend a bit on to the saddle and then finally up to the very top again. On 24 April, at 2.20 p.m. the solo ascent on Lhotse south face was completed. When I called Jani on walkie-talkie at the base camp, I apparently said: 'Jani, I cannot go any higher. I'm on the top'.
Feelings after the task completed ? None, may be just the satisfaction that there is no more need to keep going up. Both, body and soul are far too tense to feel. Was the work done ? Far from it, I was only half way through. By now, I have too much experience to fool myself! And so I knew that no lost minute can be brought back. I started with the descent immediately, since I wanted to be as far down as possible by night. Till the altitude of c. 7800 m I took the same route as on the way up, but from there on it was impossible to go over the great couloir. Due to the avalanches, it would be suicidal to try. 1 was left with only one alternative, a rappel over a steep rocky step, where our expedition in 1981 had the biggest technical difficulties. The ropes were gone, of course, swept away by avalanches. But nearly all the pitons were still there. Now they were ever so useful to me. This step is reasonably safe from bigger avalanches, but loose snow is continuously coming down. So it is far from pleasant to rappel down in such conditions. On top of it, the night caught me. I can't tell how happy 1 was to feel under my feet the deep snow of the large pier under this step. The whole situation was rather chaotic. I managed to climb further down the steep segment to the large snowfields in the bottom part, and then I had to stop. I couldn't see a thing. The night, a wild dance of snowflakes, avalanche thunder somewhere in the right side of the face. Somewhere at 7300 m was a third bivouac. In essence, it was waiting for the weather to clear up. 1 checked over the radio with Jani, what the weather report said. The weather was poor in the base camp also, but apparently the report was good. They say I'm cool-tempered. But in the third bivouac I must have lost a nerve or two. To honestly admit, I found myself in a rather nerve - breaking situation, where at moments I had a feeling that the entire Lhotse is trembling from the avalanches. Around midnight, slowly the face calmed down, I spotted the first stars. I had a choice, to wait for the morning and then may be a whole day due to the new round of avalanches, or to start with descent right away. 1 decided for the second option. In the bottom part, the slope is not so difficult that one couldn't climb down quite quickly. But all the time the fear of sudden white 'river' coming unexpectedly and capable of sweeping you as you would be its very part, was there with me. On 25 April, sometime between 7 and 8 a.m. I was safe, and now it was truly over.
And the feelings now ? After such a strain, I was unable to think. The concentration and tension of the past four days were over. Have you ever truly wanted something and after a lot of effort you finally got it? Well, that's roughly how I felt. I know though, that Lhotse took part of my soul. The part that ever so often wants to feel the uncertainty and true adventure. The road, where decisions have to made and carried out all the time. The road, so similar to life, but where everything is happening on the life's very edge. On the edge where .it limes it is difficult to sense which is its right side. For bad or for flood, from the mountain tops one can see even further, the true limit is limitless. A man throws a rock - his desire, into the unknown, into the fog and then follows...
A solo ascent of the south face of Lhotse (8516 m) on 24 April 1990 by the Yugoslav climber.
South face of Lhotse. Route of solo ascent. Article 2 (Tomo Cesen)