At the base, I immediately started soaking my hands in water. The doctor gave me some pills. The injections had not yet arrived with the delayed loads to the base camp. As a consolation, I received from the doctor a liter of cognac, which was given to us by the Spanish alpinists. With tears in my eyes, I walked towards the tent, the frostbite interrupted my work on the mountain. This fact was very bitter for me. The thought of finishing somewhere above 7000 meters seemed impossible to me, because Pavle and I were doing so well. The thought that after 23 years I would leave my twin brother alone, the brother we spent so much good and bad together, the brother with whom I needn't talk to, but I still knew he thought the same as me, the brother who in this accident felt the same as me.
The doctor wrapped both my arms so that they looked like two rackets. Pavel and friends helped me to get into two sleeping bags. I took a sip of cognac hoping it would dilate all my veins and drive blood into my dead fingertips. The rest of cognac was drunk by friends who visited me regularly. Days and nights of severe pain and grief followed, realizing that it was all in vain. I could only watch Lhotse south face from the base camp with my arms folded. All members of the expedition helped me a lot, they had to feed me, guide me to the need, bandage my arms, and take care of all my needs. My fingers got a strange color; I was lucky there was no gangrene.
Work on the mountain was going on. Pavel got along well with Filip, with whom he was together almost until the end of the climb. Bad weather lasted until the end of the expedition, every day it was snowing also in the base camp. I kept an eye on everything that was going on in the wall, I listened to the conversations on the radio, and I was all the time with my friends.
For the May Day holidays, I had already recovered so much that I went for a three-day walk with the doctor and Jovan. From the base, we went to the village of Feriche, and from there we went to the base camp under Sagarmatha. We were guests of the Bulgarian climbers who reached the top of Lhotse that very day. They followed the route of the first climbers - from the north. We also met members of the Japanese expedition that climbed the Yugoslav route to Sagarmatha. So I used my "sick leave" to visit the base camp of the highest mountain in the world.
Work in the south face of Lhotse was going on in spite of serious problems with bad weather. The rope-teams of stubborn climbers were approaching to the summit in the form of an endless chain. Climbing in the wall was demanding work for the climbers and Sherpas.
The ascent above the fourth camp was getting more and more difficult and dangerous because of constant snow avalanches from the upper part of the wall. The climbing route here was also technically demanding, so it sucked a lot of power from all climbers.
Aleš, the expedition leader, worked and lived for Lhotse south face for nearly twenty years (since 1962 when he first saw this face). He was not only a leader and a splendid organizer of logistics. He kept returning into the wall with a heavy rucksack and a film camera on his shoulders and he helped to set up and arrange the camps. He helped at any work and he days and nights kept ukw contact with the climbers in the wall.
On May 1st Filip and Pavel set up the fifth camp in Yellow rock belt, formed as a snow funnel at the altitude about 7900 meters. The weather was extremely bad, snow was endlessly covering the tent and threatened to take it into the valley. After a troublesome night battle with powder avalanches, they were tired and they had to descend to the base camp in spite of their wish to climb forward. The next day Marjon and Čita experienced a torturous night in the same tent. They luckily survived and in the morning they gathered the strength to descend in the valley.
The Štremfelj brothers inventively defended the tent against the snow cover and on the next day they fixed some more rope from the fifth camp onwards. After them, Beni and Stipe came. Beni had to return to the valley due to illness, but Stipe managed to climb up to the edge of the rocky wall and set up the tent for the sixth camp under the ridge cornice in the altitude of about 8150 meters. Viki and Marjan were the next to arrive there. After the icy night, Marjan from the tent belayed Viki. In deep and unstable snow he managed to climb one rope forward towards the summit. They both were exhausted and they returned to the valley. Viki had sciatica and Marjan was very dehydrated. We waited for him with the doctor on the glacier under the wall. During heavy snowing and powder avalanches, he got infusion in a small tent. So he could come to the base camp.
The weather was getting desperately bad. It was snowing all days. Avalanches swept the wall and their airblast reached our base camp. Hurricane wind blew in the heights. This wind blew off the tent of the Spanish expedition on Lhotse Shar. Two climbers were in the tent. They were lucky to stop a few hundred meters lower, but the consequences were frostbite and snow blindness.
On May 12th Pavel and Filip arrived at the sixth camp, which was the starting point towards the summit. Pavel was thus the first Primorec (the native from the Slovenian region of Primorska) to reach a magical height of 8000 meters. I was very happy, I felt that also a part of me was with my brother at these heights. As they crossed the altitude of 8000 meters, they came out of a belt of clouds and blizzard in wonderfully clear weather. In the evening, we were happy to listen to Pavel's humourous words about the weather. They had a really beautiful view of the highest peaks of the world. The next morning, they tried to move on. The severe cold forced Filip to descend into the valley. His legs up to his knees were stiff. Pavel waited for the next rope-team to come to the sixth camp. In the evening, they huddled in a small tent under a huge overhang together, together with Andrej and Nejc. The mood in the base and in the wall was at its height. We all quietly hoped that the next day they would be able to climb the demanding last rock step and reach the summit.
They started as early as four in the morning, climbed the ridge, and crossed the snow wall. The snow was deep, with steep rock slabs beneath it. The belay could not be arranged at all. They were slowly moving their way forward, the wall was getting more and more difficult. At about noon they stopped at the altitude of about 8250 meters. The vertical rock wall stopped the work of our expedition about 250 meters below the summit.
Andrej, Nejc, and Pavel then spent 6 hours to reach the sixth camp in the terrible wind and snowing. Climbing back was mentally very demanding, as there were 3000 meters of wall under them. Due to deep and dry snow, belay was practically impossible. The following days the weather was bad again and the way of the top three climbers could only lead to the base camp.
All the members of the expedition were already very tired, some of them even seriously ill. Most climbers spent more than 30 climbing days, days of hard work, and constant fear of avalanches in this mighty wall. Only a few of them were still able to climb in such weather.
The last serious and decisive climb was made on May 18th by Franček Knez and Vanja Matijevec. From the sixth camp, they traversed across the icefield to the left towards the ridge. They crossed along the steep snow wall over extremely dangerous snow gullies, hung with cornices and they reached the western ridge of Lhotse. Their climbing in both directions lasted twenty-four hours, mostly at an altitude of over eight thousand meters in extremely bad weather. With this legendary deed the wall was climbed over, but the summit, which is usually a reward for such work, was not reached.
Because of this, we did not return home sad. In sixty-four working days in the wall, we did what we could do and what nature graciously allowed us. Our efforts were much greater than with any successful expedition, and we proved to the world mountaineering public that the ascent over the Lhotse south face is possible.
Written by: Peter Podgornik, alpinist (summer 2020)