The fatal accident on Gurja Himal in the western Nepal last October has still very powerfully lingered on the community of Korean mountaineers. The lost is more than a disaster of sorrow but still a passerby that is unaccountable and beyond grasp. Kim Chang-ho, the leader of the expedition, was such a person with a huge role in them: an active climber with an unquestionable top carrier, mountaineer with an alternative goal in his head, explorer-researcher in his own foot and eyes, philosopher of nature-loving and reflections, and man of ethics open to the future. Korean friends lost track of a star that was believed to lead them to the next decades of Korean tradition of mountaineering.
Having said that, no other life lost in the team is less significant than Chang-ho at all. To mention a few notes on each of them could be a starting point we may pay a deserved respect to all deceased friends on mountains like them. As one of close friends of Chang-ho, I also acquainted with most of the dead Koreans and Nepalis on Gurja Himal. The deceased Koreans were Kim Chang-ho (49, Seoul University Alpine Club), Yoo Young-jik (51, Corean Alpine Club), Lee Jae-hun (24, Pukyong National University Alpine Club), Jeong Joon-mo (54, Corean Alpine Club), and Rim Il-jin (49, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Alpine Club). Those Nepalis were Chhiring Bhote (31, Sankhuwasabha), Lakpa Sangbu Bhote (23, Sankhuwasabha), Phurbu Bhote (22, Sankhuwasabha), and Natra Bahadur Chatel (29, Myagdi).
He was known in some media as "the fastest person summitting all fourteen eight thousand meter peaks." Yes, he did it in seven years, ten months, and six days, about a month shorter than Jerzy Kukuczka nearly thirty years ago. Also he did it without using supplemental oxygen. But most of his climbs on the giants, relying on the series of expedition organized by the alpine federation of the City of Pusan, was to him, in my view, a necessary step for his real achievements that followed and would follow. The list of his climbs in this side is below:
- First ascent: Batura 2 (7762m, 2008), Himjung (7092m, 2012)
- First ascent, solo: Dehli Sang Sar (6225m), Atar Kor (6189m), Haiz Kor (6105m), Bakma Brakk (6150m), all in Pakistan, 2003.
- New route: Gangapurna (7455m, 2016), Gangapurna West (7140m, 2016), Dharamsura (6446m, 2017), Papsura (6451m, 2017), Nanga Parbat (Variation of Messner route, 2005)
Chang-ho was much more than a best-talented mountaineer. He was an Himalayan explorer, geographical researcher, mountaineering expert, climbing compiler, and expedition leader. I cannot even attempt here to summarize what kinds of person he was and to what extent his legacy extends in mountaineering, which I will in a separate article.
Kim Chang-ho, June 2013. Photo by the author.
The climb to Gurja Himal had for awhile been planned as a duo of Chang-ho and Young-jik, though the two had never been together in Himalaya before this expedition. Young-jik, free-minded climbing enthusiast, therefore lacking a good, firm social connection with the mainstream climbing circles in the country, had a handful of Himalayan experiences, the most recent being a new-route attempt on the east face of Ama Dablam (6812m) in 2013.
Yoo Young-jik. Photo from the Gurja Himal expedition brochure.
Jae-hun was still a university student, former presidents for the Pusan Student Alpine Federation and for Pukyong University Alpine Club. For three times he had participated in a Himalayan mountaineering expedition. In 2017 he climbed Dharamsura in India with Chang-ho. At the last moment he joined the Gurja Himal expedition.
Il-jin was a documentary producer and cameraman for the expedition. In 2014, as a mountaineer himself he led a first-ascent expedition to Lugula in Nepal. He participated in a number of Himalayan expeditions and took in his camera a series of rare spectacles of high-altitude climbing, including the South Col of Mt. Everest. Il-jin struggled hard on the ethical approach of mountaineering as well as his own identity as a filmmaker, asking questions such as "Who am I sucking up those who are in the fabled name of alpinism struggling between heroism and climbing authenticity?"
Lim Il-jin at a Sherpa house in northern Sankhuwasabha, northeastern Nepal, during his filming trip in August, 2013. Photo by the author.
A full-time mountaineer in the 1980s, Joon-mo had climbed Nanda Devi and Annapurna 4. Though retired from active climbing, and instead a successful businessman, he had been still involved in mountaineering administration by serving as one of the managers for Corean Alpine Club (one of the two nationwide climbing and mountaineering association). At the time of the accident he happened to be at the base camp during a short visit in order to encourage the climbing members.
Jeong Joon-mo (second to the right) is confirming his sponsorship for Il-jin's film project of the Gurja Himal expedition, entitled "Hidden Valley." September 15, 2018. Photo by Corean Alpine Club.
Chhiring and Chang-ho had long been a real partner: for almost all of Chang-ho's Himalayan expeditions, as well as for many other Korean Himalayan expeditions and trekking groups, Chhiring was hired as a cook. He was fluent in Korean but also well versed in most sorts of cultural custom among Koreans. Being a Bhote, a minority ethnicity, however, he had not been able to be promoted to a more lucrative position such as climbing guide. When he was a child, he lost his parents and so was raised by his aunt. Chhiring had a son and a daughter, both attending schools in Kathmandu.
Lakpa Sangbu Bhote
The aunt who took care of Chhiring had a daughter and a son, and he was Sangbu. Sangbu had little experience in participating in Himalayan expedition, because tourism had not been in the range of his potential career. He was well educated, graceful in all personal and social manners. Sangbu joined the expedition as a kitchen helper.
Chhiriting's aunt and Sangbu's mother at her home in Parang, near Hongguong, northern Sankhuwasabha. December 2013. Photo by the author.
Bhote village Hongguong, northern Sankhuwasabha. December 2013. Photo by the author.
A distant cousin of Chhiring and Sangbu, participated as a kitchen helper. Phurbu had a number of experiences working in expedition kitchen with Chhiring. Phurbu was an honest, diligent person, a kind of truth in such the personality was loved so much by many expedition members.
Natra Bahadur Chantel
Little is known about who he was. He was apparently hired at Darbang, the town at the end of the road, to not only carry the luggage of but also guide Joon-mo to the base camp. Also, I can therefore imagine that Natra was a member of the small ethnic group Chantel, the most of whom reside around Myagdi and Bhaglung districts -- Myagdi is the region where Gurja Himal is located. To investigate the region Chang-ho visited before this expedition Gurja Khani (2620m), the nearest village to the base camp of Gurja Himal. Chang-ho told me that culture and language of the villagers was quite distinctive. I guess they are Chantels. The local guide-porter Natra was perhaps from Gurja Khani.