Yugoslav Himalayan expedition to Lhotse
Part I: Preparation and beginning of the expedition

I dedicate this story to the later deceased members of the expedition; Aleš, Beni, Borut, Filip, Franček, Marjon, Nejc, and Pavle. Perhaps the present record will evoke memories of the others, now gray-headed and bald-headed members of the expedition with whom we shared fear and happiness at that time.

For Pavle and me, the day of departure of the expedition was a wonderful present for our twenty-third birthday." - Peter Podgornik, alpinist

In preparation for the expedition  

Many years ago (March 10, 1981), the eighth Yugoslav Himalayan expedition set out, with Aleš Kunaver, who led a strong group of climbers and a few members of the accompanying team to the world's fourth-highest peak. The goal of the expedition was a new route in - at that time - still virgin southern face of Lhotse (8516 m). The face is about 3300 meters high.

All previous attempts of various expeditions ended very low in the face; most of these expeditions diverted to the southern wall of neighboring Nuptse. After a previous reconnaissance expedition and after a long and detailed study of the wall, Aleš chose the possibility of ascent in the central part of the wall, following the logical and fairly safe rock formations in the fall-line of the peak. In addition to the ideal line of the ascent to the top, Aleš also had backup plans - to the left and right of the top. 

The south face of Lhotse is a part of a huge natural barrier in the south of Sagarmatha - Mt. Everest. For many years, the summit of Lhotse (in Tibetan it means Southern Peak of Sagarmatha) was even thought to be its southern pre-peak. Lhotse south face consists of large snow flanks that are interrupted by rock steps, steep gullies, snow edges, and steep rock walls in the upper half of the mountain. The weather here is mostly changeable - the usual daily snowfalls mean constant danger of avalanches due to the steep slope. Strong winds are additional danger. 

As it is customary in Nepal, in addition to bureaucratic problems, there were also problems with the arrival of equipment and the possibility of air-transport to the mountains. The members of the expedition came under Lhotse in separate groups, due to flight problems from Kathmandu to Lukla, and the bulk of the equipment came to base camp long after them, when they were already high in the wall. Aleš mostly managed to form rope-teams with experienced Himalayans and young aspiring climbers, who were gaining the necessary experience from the older climbers. The ascent took place in the expedition style, the members of the expedition attached fixed ropes during the ascent, they set up intermediate camps and they took turns in the wall. The Nepalese high altitude porters - Sherpas - were of great help, working hard for their daily bread in this steep and dangerous wall.

Members of the expedition:

Aleš Kunaver – leader 

Jovan Popovski

Peter Podgornik

Andrej Štremfelj

Franček Knez

Rajko Kovač - Rok

Borut Bergant - Čita

Marjan Kregar

Slavko Frantar - Čopk

Filip Bence - Tačrn

Marko Štremfelj – Mk – leader deputy

Stipe Božič

Ivan Kotnik - Ivč

Marjan Manfreda - Marjon

Vanja Matijevec

Iztok Tomazin

Miro Šušteršič - Čeha

Viki Grošelj

Janez Benkovič - Beni

Peter Markič - Pero

Željko Perko - Želo

Jernej Zaplotnik - Nejc

Pavel Podgornik

Dr. Matija Horvat, the doctor of the expedition

Accompanying team: 
Ivan Skumavc - Čivč (chef), 
Janez Majdič (radio operator of RTV Slovenia) , 
Miroslav Stankovič – Mika (cameraman of RTV Novi Sad) and Petar Antonijevič – Peka (journalist of RTV Novi Sad).

Despite the fact that such an expedition requires a lot of joint work and appropriate discipline, each of the members experienced it in his own way. Just as our photos are different, so would be the stories. Certainly, the most exciting story is the story of Franček and Vanja, who, as the last rope-team of the expedition, managed to climb to the edge of the Lhotse face on the West ridge.

South face of Lhotse with the drawn route of the ascent (The eighth Yugoslav Himalayan expedition) 

 Photo: Ricardo Cassin, drawn route: Peter Podgornik

In the south face of Lhotse

We are digging at the altitude of close to 7000 meters. Under the newly fallen snow, we are looking for equipment left here by friends a few days ago. With Pavle and Filip we are preparing a place for the third camp. We are lucky, we have come to the snowy area where we will soon prepare enough place for a tent. Aleš and Vanja join us, and together we quickly manage to set up the third camp. In the middle of the afternoon, there is already a twin tent, well fixed to the snowy slope. A thousand-meter-high overhanging wall rises above us. The rocks that break in it fly over our nest.

Aleš and Vanja say goodbye and they descend to the lower camp, but the three of us still don't know how to put into the tent three big backpacks and ourselves. Before nightfall, we succeed. The snow and severe cold soon force us into the tent. In it, we sit on a pile of equipment and food. We press our knees and heads together, and we breathe even more infrequently because there is already a significant lack of oxygen at these heights, which we feel strongly in our heads. Every move tires us, for every little task you have to think carefully about how you will tackle it to suffer as little as possible. Preparing dinner is a real pain. In a good hour, we manage to cook only a pot of chocolate, and for the appetizer, we eat a nice piece of bacon and toast. Since Pavle and I are still hungry, we start eating garlic. We eat it together with toast and it all seems normal to us. In my mind, I am at home with my poor mother. If she saw us with what appetite we ate garlic, she would feel sorry for us, especially me, who left lunch on the table so many times because of garlic. Soon after dinner, I felt the need to go somewhere.

Equipped as for climbing, with an ice axe in hand and strapped to a rope, I got out of the tent into the dark night. I didn’t go far because going back would make me too tired. After much torment, I managed to get my climbing harness and four pants below my knees. My fifteen-minute straining and moaning were accompanied by teasing from inside the tent. When I was almost sure that nothing would happen, nature moved closer, a small avalanche above me had already grown right at my knees and filled my pants. Luckily I didn’t have diarrhea that day. I returned to the tent fairly quickly with swear words on my lips. We spent the night like three stunned canned fish, two heads and one foot at the entrance, the rest on the other side of the tent, with all equipment under us, deeply breathing and catching our breath until morning.

We consoled ourselves with the thought that we would sleep when the time comes for it. We are up very early; a little warm drink will be enough for breakfast. Filip belays me from the tent as I begin to climb new meters in this mighty wall. The weather is bad, strong winds and cold nearly thirty below zero. Although the terrain looks to be easy, I have a lot of work to do. Under the deep snow, there are steep rock slabs, which I struggle to breakthrough. I have to clean the snow several times and look for cracks for pitons. I have triple gloves on my hands. I have to put off the upper gloves several times when braiding rope loops because otherwise, I am too clumsy and slow.

In three hours of hard work, I manage to fix 120 meters of rope. Eventually, I make a belay and wait for Filip to come to me with a new rope, and everything needed to move forward. In the meantime the weather was getting worse and worse, it started to snow heavily. The snow wall around us turned into an avalanche path. Filip stops about 40 m below me and nails a piton. We all agree that we cannot go on in this weather. We go down to the tent, where Pavel serves us hot tea. It is near noon as we prepare for the one thousand five-hundred-meter descent into the valley. The situation is desperate. In the crack chimney under the third camp, we meet two Sherpas and friends who hurry to the third camp. Avalanches of new snow are constantly flooding us. A little lower, our friend Čopek joins us on the descent. Visibility is so poor that we often run over each other on the rope. We don't see anything, many times we are in doubt if the avalanches of snow and stones did not cut the ropes, which would be fatal for us. One by one, we would drive into white eternity.

A little above the second camp, we pile up together again and listen in horror as the avalanche flies right there where we have to cross a dangerous gully on a fixed rope. All we can do is, to zip up all the zippers and slings on the equipment and clothes, and then we go slowly through the waterfall of snow, for which you feel that it would tear your backpack from your shoulders and pull also you with. In the second camp, our friends serve us hot tea. They also have enough work to do with the maintenance of the tents, because otherwise, it can quickly happen that with a little carelessness someone runs out of air in the tent. In front of us, there is a long snowy edge, where the descent is progressing quite quickly. We just have to wait long enough for a friend in front of you to unburden the rope and fix himself to another rope.

We experience real hell again in a 120 m high rock step. It is still snowing with all its might; avalanches are constantly flooding us. The place where we should descend 100 m down the rope, is one single waterfall of snow. When we gather at the anchorage, we try to clean the frozen glasses in vain, there is almost nothing to see. From time to time, I run a risk of lifting my frozen glasses a little and squinting into white hopelessness. Going down the frozen rope is a special »pleasure«. The wall is so overhanging that our descent goes 100 m through the air. During the descent, which does not want to end, we are covered by a strong waterfall of snow. You gather all your strength and hope that you will endure to the end, and you also hope that no ice or stone might fly in the snow, in which case you would end up on the rope. 

Our friends at the first camp serve us a hot drink again. Our way goes down, we are still strapped on a rope, every now and then we are knocked down by an avalanche and thrown on the ground. At about six in the evening, we are happily out of the wall. We have a tiring day behind us, each of us wishes, we would never experience such horrors again in our lives.

Of three pairs of gloves, only one pair - the thinnest cotton gloves - remained on my hands. The others froze and disintegrated. I felt severe cold in my fingers. Shortly before we arrived to the base camp, I took off also the cotton gloves and watched my white fingers in despair. I knew immediately that they were frostbitten. Also, Pavle was horrified to look at them. In front of the base camp, I showed my fingers to Filip and Čopek. They both knew what happened.

Written by: Peter Podgornik, alpinist

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