[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021), which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 75 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
10:41 p.m., July 14, 2005. Staggering against icy gusts in the dark, Kim Chang-ho reached the top of Nanga Parbat. Soon after, Lee Hyun-jo hobbled to join him. The duo hugged, wordless. They’d completed a new variation on the massive Rupal Face. As Chang-ho collected summit relics–including a container with a log that Reinhold Messner left in 1978–Hyun-jo radioed a tearful lament to the other Korean climbers at base camp: he regretted that he’d relished the ascent without them. “What I’ve just climbed was an imaginary Nanga,” Chang-ho later wrote in the Korean magazine Mountain Monthly. “This mountain was full of selfish desire. What could be the true Nanga to me?”
CHANG-HO WAS BORN in 1969 in a rural town in South Korea. After joining the Alpine Club of the University of Seoul, he devoted most of his energy to ambitious climbs. In 1996 he was partway up the unclimbed east face of Gasherbrum IV when he failed to find any cracks for protection amid the sheer granite and relentless spindrift. “Let the rope go if I slip here!” he exclaimed to the belayer. Eventually, Chang-ho retreated. Years later, he regretted such episodes of youthful bravado.
From 2000 to 2004, he ventured unsupported on solo explorations into nearly every glacial valley across northern Pakistan. His collection of mountain photos and route descriptions included hundreds of unclimbed peaks, four of which he ascended alone in 2003.
His experience on Nanga Parbat was one of several moments that helped him carve out his own philosophy. During his lone treks, local farmers and herders sometimes fed him. When he was choosing a peak for his next climb, in turn, he considered how local people regarded the mountain, and he asked his teammates to learn about the region and its folklore.
In 2008 he led the first ascent of 7762-meter Batura II, but he faced criticism for the reliance on fixed ropes and the large team of nine. On many subsequent expeditions, he used less equipment and climbed in smaller groups. He didn’t consider alpine style a goal in itself, but a means to access different forms of learning. Obsessive style-seeking athleticism, he believed, reduced the mountains to a playground and depreciated their beauty and enchantment. He avoided what he ambivalently called “smart climbing”: the practice of skimming images on smart watches and phones instead of contemplating the mountain itself and studying its geographic and historical contexts to see where, when and how to climb. He dubbed his approach “being-mountaineering.”
In 2013, Seo Sung-ho, Chang-ho’s longtime climbing partner, died while descending from the top of Everest (Chomolungma). Chang-ho had just completed summiting all fourteen 8000-meter peaks without oxygen. Devastated, Chang-ho was unable to imagine himself climbing again. Instead, he founded the Korean Himalayan Fund to uphold Sung-ho’s desire of helping younger generations set out on “creative and adventurous” ascents. Chang-ho’s daughter, Danah, was born in 2016. Gradually, he felt ready to initiate his own expeditions to remote, unclimbed peaks once more. He launched a new climb series, which he called “Korean Way.” A new route on the south face of 7455-meter Gangapurna in Nepal earned an honorable mention from the Piolet d’Or–an award he likened to hanpuri, or relieving old regrets of past Korean mountaineers who had aspired to such recognition.
Two years later, Chang-ho led his third Korean Way expedition to the unclimbed south face of 7193-meter Gurja Himal in central Nepal. On October 12, news reached a nearby village that all those at base camp–five Koreans, including Chang-ho, and four Nepali staff–had died in a storm, perhaps as the result of an intense wind blast from an ice avalanche.
Since Chang-ho’s death, many of his friends have been carrying out his legacy of clean adventure climbs. Last January, I began examining Chang-ho’s meticulously compiled database, kept intact thanks to his wife Kim Youn-kyoung. A true treasure for mountaineers, it contains extensive notes on the geography, climbing records and exploration history of most alpine peaks across Nepal and Pakistan, as well as the local names for the peaks. The archive, I realized, offered a glimpse into his belief system. Over the course of his more than fifty expeditions in the Greater Ranges, Youn-kyoung said, “Chang-ho wanted to show integrity by living through his own words.” Being-mountaineering is perhaps in the details.
[Oh Young-hoon is the former editor of Alpinist Korea. This story originally appeared in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021), which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 75 for all the goodness!–Ed.]