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The south face of Lhotse (8516m) showing the line of the Japanese winter attempt in December 2006. Their previous attempt in 2003 had reached a point half-way up the final gully; their recent high point, on the summit ridge at the top of the gully, was just forty-one meters below the main top. The rock and snow ridge left of the gully leading directly to the summit was attempted to 8250 meters in May 1981 by a very strong Slovenian expedition. The only line generally recognized to have been completed on Lhotse’s south face is the 1990 Soviet Direttissima up the long rock rib to the right of the Slovenian/Japanese attempt. [Photo] Jacques Belge

After previous attempts in the Nepalese winter seasons of 2001 and 2003, a Japanese expedition led by Osamu Tanabe has made the first winter ascent of the 8516-meter Lhotse’s massive south face, though the successful party was forced to retreat from a point on the summit ridge just forty-one meters below the top due to the lateness of the hour.

In May 1981, a powerful Slovenian exedition had been one of the first to make significant progress on the face. Andrej Stremfelj, Pavel Podogornik and Nejc Zaplotnik, in a very spirited effort and after one previous attempt, reached a height of ca. 8250 meters (just above the last rock step and the final snow arete) on May 14, before being forced down by very high winds and drifting snow.

To date, the only line generally recognized to have been completed on Lhotse’s south face is the 1990 Soviet Direttissima up a long rock rib, to the right of the Japanese attempts detailed below. The main summit has only been reached by one man during the calendar winter season: a magnificent solo effort by Polish winter specialist Krzysztof Wielicki on December 31, 1988, via the Standard Route on the west face.

Forty-five-year-old Osamu Tanabe is one of Japan’s leading high-altitude specialists, with ascents of seven 8000-meter peaks to his credit, including K2 via the west ridge and Everest during the Nepalese winter (on December 20, 1993, one day outside the officially recognized start of the calendar winter). In December 2001 Tanabe, with fellow members from the Tokai section of the Japanese Alpine Club, tried the south face, following the line of the 1981 Slovenian attempt. On this first attempt, Tanabe was defeated by ferocious blizzard conditions at only 7600 meters.

Tanabe returned with a small Tokai team in December 2003 and set to work on the same line, following the difficult rock spur in the upper part of the face to establish Camp 3 at 7850 meters. Above lay the final ridge, on which Slovenians Stremfelj, Podogornik and Zaplotnik had reached their high point. Tanabe found the start of this ridge highly problematical and instead opted to descend 200 meters to the right in order to gain a prominent couloir, which leads to the summit ridge east of the highest point. This couloir did not prove easy and it took the climbers five days to fix rope from their high camp to a point 250 meters from the top. A bad weather forecast on December 18, 2003, forced the retreat.

In 2006, Tanabe again aspired to make the first winter ascent of the wall. In the autumn, he led a six-member expedition back to Nepal. The team acclimatized on Shishapangma during the months of September and October (no summit), then set up base camp on the Lhotse glacier below the wall at 5250 meters on November 12, together with a Korean expedition intent on the same line.

Both teams began equipping the face almost immediately. Camp I at 5900 meters was established on the 18th and Camp 2 at 7100 meters on December 1. The first summit attempt by two Japanese and a Korean on December 24 failed due to slow progress in high winds; team members found conditions significantly worse than on their two previous attempts, with heavier snowfall and wind speeds of more than seventy kilometers/hour on virtually every day.

On Christmas Day, Tanabe, with fellow countryman Takahiro Yamaguchi and High Altitude Climbing Sherpa Pemba Chorten, reached Camp III at ca. 8000 meters. On the 27th they reached the summit ridge at 8475 meters a little after 3:30 p.m. but realized they could not safely gain the 8516-meter summit and return to camp the same day. At 4:17 p.m., exhausted by their efforts, they gave up the attempt and descended, regaining high camp at 9:15 p.m., fifteen strenuous hours after leaving.

While the Nepalese winter season runs from December 1 to February 15, very much at variance with the official northern hemisphere calendar season of December 21 – March 20, Tanabe’s summit attempt would seem to fall within both categories.

Another view of the south face of Lhotse, showing the 2003 Japanese winter attempt led by Osamu Tanabe. [Photo] courtesy of Tamotsu Nakamura