On 20 May 2013, Kim Chang-ho reached the summit of Everest, becoming the 5th Korean to climb all fourteen of the world’s 8,000m peaks, and the first to climb them all without supplementary oxygen.
He was only the 31st person to climb all the 8,000ers, and there are still just 40. Far more have died trying. Of the 40 to succeed, only 19 have done so without supplementary oxygen. Kim achieved the feat in the shortest time (7 years 10 months, beating the Pole Jerzy Kukuczka’s record of 7 years 11 months by a whisker).
Yet he was hardly known in the West until he came to the world’s attention for a reason no one would wish for. If his life reads like a fairytale, his death earlier this month on a mountain called Gurja Himal in Nepal, is more like a mystery that will keep detectives puzzling for some time to come.
Kim was an accomplished technical climber, who won a Piolet d’Or (the Oscar of the climbing world) in 2012 for his ascent of 7,092m Himjung in Nepal. In 2017 he received an ‘honorable mention’ (the equivalent of an Oscar nomination) for another Piolet d’Or for climbing a new route on 7,455m Gangapurna.
More intriguing than this (if you’re not a technical climber) was his ascent of Everest in 2013, the fourteenth and last of his 8,000m peaks. Kim was keen to ascend it in an ‘eco-friendly’ way, by starting at sea level and going all the way to the summit without the use of motorised transport. This had been done a couple times before. In 1990 the Australian Tim Macartney-Snape started from Gangar Sagar on the coast of Bengal, India, and walked all the way to Nepal, before climbing Everest by its standard route. In 1996 Goran Kropp cycled from Sweden (a six-month bike ride across Central Asia) and also climbed the mountain by its standard route.
Not to be outdone, Kim thought of a fresh angle on the sea-to-summit approach. Starting from Sagar Island near Kolkata, he kayaked 156km up the River Ganges, cycled 893km through northern India to Tumlingtar in Nepal, then walked the last 162km to base camp, before climbing Everest by its normal route.
This achievement has a special significance for me – I care less about new, difficult routes than I do about the spirit of adventure that took Kim on a longer journey across unfamiliar country. I completed a sea-to-summit challenge of my own last year, which involved cycling, walking and climbing (I’m currently writing a book about it). I found the cycling harder than the climbing, and can’t imagine how tired I would have been had I paddled upstream too.
Gurja Himal (7,193m) is a relatively innocuous peak in the Dhaulagiri massif, linked to Dhaulagiri VI (7,268m) by an adjoining ridge. Indeed, it’s so innocuous that it’s not even dignified with the name Dhaulagiri VII, VIII or even IX. Most visitors to Nepal haven’t heard of it, though many have seen it without realising it’s there from the famous viewpoint of Poon Hill in the Annapurna region.
It was first climbed by its west ridge by a Japanese team in 1969. Only 30 people have ever climbed it, and none since 1996. Kim set out to climb it this autumn season by a new route on the south face, which he hoped to name Korean Way: One Korea – Unification of North and South Korea (presumably he still did, though it’s a bit of a mouthful).
When I first heard from the BBC that all nine members of the expedition (five Korean and four Nepali) had died in a storm on Mount Gurja, my first reaction was that if an act of nature had wiped out their entire camp, then it was more likely to have been an avalanche than a storm.
The Himalayan Times reported that it had been a massive landslide, but this theory was quashed when the Annapurna Post published a bewildering 12-minute video of the helicopter rescue flight on YouTube.
The expedition operator raised the alarm after the climbers had been out of contact for 24 hours, and a helicopter was sent. The rescuers found sleeping bags (and presumably their occupants, though thankfully the video left these details to the imagination) dispersed hundreds of metres apart across a grassy mountainside. Some lay in a boulder-strewn riverbed, while others lay on grassland.
There was not a snowflake in sight, just grass and isolated boulders, though runnels of ice lay in grooves much higher up.
The camp wasn’t buried at all, so how had it happened? The speculation started. Was it a tornado that had lifted them up, tossed them around, then flung them miles apart? Perhaps their entire camp had slid over the edge of a cliff. But how?
One of the most plausible explanations was that a serac (large chunk of ice) had collapsed, and this had caused a huge burst of wind to engulf their camp.
I witnessed the devastating result of one of these events when I trekked the Langtang Valley last year. The village of Langtang was completely destroyed by an avalanche-cum-landslide in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake. The landslide was so vast that a massive backdraught of wind shot down the valley, razing forests to the ground. When we trekked along the valley in 2017 we could see entire hillsides covered in fallen trees. Had such a backdraught swept across the Korean camp, then this might explain how the remains ended up where they were.
It’s likely we will never know for sure. The history of mountaineering is full of tragedies that are unexplained, often when there are no survivors to tell the tale.
But hopefully a time will come when Kim remains a legend not for his bizarre death, but his extraordinary life. I hope some day someone will write about his adventures and translate them into English, opening them up to new readers, and providing him with the posthumous worldwide recognition that he deserves.
My thoughts are with the families of all nine climbers who died in this freak accident on Gurja Himal. The mountains will always be dangerous in unexpected ways.