Um Hong-Gil’s Project Impossible

Famous Korean climber’s next goal after summiting the world’s 16 highest peaks is to build schools across Nepal

At 7,300m on the perpendicular south face of Lhotse Shar, considered among the most dangerous climbs with the highest fatality rate among all eight-thousander peaks, Um Hong-gil suddenly saw his Nepali climbing companion slip and fall down the mountain.

A fall at that altitude and on that face would have been impossible to survive, but miraculously his Sherpa partner only sustained a leg injury and was helicoptered to Kathmandu.

It was at that moment that the famous Korean mountaineer remembered his previous failed attempts to ascend the 8,383m peak during which two of his team mates had been killed. He also recalled all the other 15 peaks that he had taken over two decades to climb.

On his first attempt of Lhotse Shar in 2001, Um Hong-gil was forced to turn back at 7,600m due to bad weather. In 2003, just 150m below the summit at 8,250m, the team lost two members in an avalanche and the expedition was abandoned. At 8,200m in 2006, the team retreated once again due to avalanche risk.

As he clung to the rocky Lhotse Shar recalling his mountaineering feats in Nepal and Pakistan,  and a lifetime of narrow escapes with death, Um Hong-gil made a solemn promise to the mountain gods: “If I survive this climb, I will use rest of my time for the service of less privileged people of Nepal.”

Korean climber Um Hong-gil after reaching the top of Lhotse in 2001.

On 31 May 2007, Um Hong-gil set a new world record. He became the first mountaineer to climb all the world’s 16 highest peaks. Unlike Nirmal (Nims) Purja and 44 other climbers who have summited 14 eight-thousanders, Um Hong-gil regards Yalung Kang at 8,505m and Lhotse Shar at 8,383m also deserve the status of independent peaks even though they are part of Kangchenjunga and Lhotse-Everest massifs in Nepal.

No one else has climbed all 16 peaks since, but this feat came at enormous cost to the Korean. He has lost 10 team members, six Koreans and four Nepalis, during his  mountaineering career. He himself lost the rotational movement in his right foot at the ankle during descent from Annapurna, and has had several toes amputated due to frostbite.

Altogether it took 38 attempts and 22 years, 14 of which were dedicated to summiting the 14 highest peaks, unlike Nirmal Purja who achieved the same success in a mere six months.

Read also: Alpine style in the Himalaya, Kunda Dixit

“There is a distinction between analogue climbing of those days and digital mountaineering of today,” said the stocky white-haired climber in an interview last week in Kathmandu during one of his frequent visits to Nepal.

He explains: “We couldn’t tell when it would be best to climb or if the weather would be favourable, all our decisions were based on past experience, and luck. The success rate was extremely low. There was no technology to guide us nor the helicopters there are today to speed things up.”

After conquering the 16 highest peaks in 2007, to keep his promise to the mountain gods, Um Hong-gil turned his life around to dedicate it to humanitarian causes. He set up Um Hong Gil Human Foundation in Seoul in 2008.

Initially, he didn’t know where to begin. Remembering a lifetime looking up at lofty peaks rising up to the sky, for the first time he turned his attention to those living at the base of the mountains. Inevitably, they were under-served and neglected by society.

“I realised that the reason for their intergenerational poverty was lack of access to quality education,” says the mountaineer turned philanthropist.

And thus began Hong-gil’s Human School Project in what he calls his second home, Nepal.

Humble beginnings 

Besides his world record, Um Hong-gil also has the unfortunate distinction of being dubbed among the most accident-prone climbers. Yet his love for the mountains and climbing never wavered.

In fact, having survived all those near-death experiences, Um Hong-gil is convinced he was saved for a reason: to give back to the people of the mountains.

Read also: Of mountains and people, Shristi Karki 

For the native of a country where the highest peak is less than 2,000m, Um Hong-gil says he never set out to climb all the world’s highest peaks. But his inspiration were Korea’s mountains.

Born in South Gyeongsang in 1960, at the age of three, his parents took him to Uijeongbu in Gyeonggi Province where they set up a small shop at the entrance of Mangweol Temple at Mt Dobong.

From an early age, he was a natural-born hiker, having to go up and down the slopes every day to get to his school which was one hour away. He resented not having electricity at home until he was in high school, but he was also constantly exposed to weekend trekkers on their way up Mt Dobong – sparking an early interest in mountaineering.

The fact that there was a crag only 10 minutes away from home added to his growing fascination with rock climbing. By 14, he had started training professionally on rock, ice and mixed terrain.

“I was practically raised by the mountains, maybe that is why I have always felt at ease among them wherever in the world,” says the climber, who looks much younger than his 61 years.

During his mandatory military service, Um Hong-gil trained with an underwater demolition team in the Korean Navy. The physical and mental strength required to be deep underwater for long periods was useful for his future mountaineering career.

By the time he was 25, Um Hong-gil turned his eyes to the Himalaya – not just the range, but Mt Everest itself in winter. Without any experience of climbing at high altitude and the terrain, he admits it was a foolhardy thing to do to aim for Everest as his very first Himalayan climb -- especially because he was attempting the difficult southwest face in winter. Predictably, his 1985 attempt to climb the difficult southwest face of Everest in winter failed.

For the first time, he realised that climbing in the Himalaya was not like climbing in Korea. Hong-gil retreated, but returned undeterred the very next year with a better understanding (and more respect) for Nepal's formidable peaks. But once again, he had to abort the expedition when his guide Surdip Dorje fell into a crevasse and his body was never retrieved.

The loss of this Pangboche native would play an important role decades later when Um Hong-gil started building schools in Nepal.

It was only in his third attempt in 1988 that he successfully summited Mt Everest via the South Pillar. He made it to the top two more times climbing the world’s highest peak from both the north and south sides.

Even then, Um Hong-gil had no inkling that he would someday be spoken about in the same breath as mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner, the first to summit Mt Everest without oxygen in 1978, and to climb all the 14 eight-thousanders in the world.

But there would be many failed expeditions and tragedies on mountains before Um Hong-gil could achieve his own record in 2007.

Read also: What next for Reinhold Messner, Kunda Dixit

Close encounters

Mountaineering makes for some of the most thrilling works of literature and cinema. That may or may not always be true for real-life summiteers but Um Hong-Gil with 38 attempts, more than half of which were unsuccessful, has had more than a fair share of close encounters with death.

The Korean alpinist attempted Annapurna I five times before he finally reached the summit in 1999. It goes to show the tenacity of the man that he kept his focus on the summit despite so many failures.

During his third expedition in the spring of 1997, a Nepali team member fell into a crevasse and died right before his eyes. The team eventually recovered his body and he was buried.

Exactly a year later in 1998 on his fourth attempt on Annapurna, at an elevation of 7,600m, he saw his Nepali climbing companion slip on ice. Um Hong-gil quickly belayed him with his rope, only for it to wrap around his right ankle and twist it. He fainted, and on regaining consciousness found out that his toes was pointing backward.

Another Nepali guide helped him realign his foot, but he had no control over it. He cut his shoe, and bandaged his leg with fabric from his backpack. It took the injured climber three days to descend to Base Camp at 4,500m from where he was helicoptered to a hospital in Kathmandu. He got metal implants for his right foot, and the surgeon told him his mountaineering career was as good as over.

But within 10 months, he was back on the Annapurna to finish the job. In March 1999, he finally got to the top from the north face, even as he could still feel the metal implants in his right foot move every time he sat down.

From there, there was nothing that could shake his determination which had by then extended to climbing all the highest 14 eight-thousanders as well as Yalung Kang and Lhotse Shar. But before that could come into fruition, Um Hong-gil would have to undertake one extremely painful yet healing expedition.

It was in 2005 when the ‘Human Expedition Team’ was formed to bring back the body of a former teammate who had died near the summit a year earlier during an ascent of Mt Everest. Um Hong-gil had previously climbed with compatriot Park Moo-taek on four different occasions.

The team located Park’s body at 8,750m and brought him down for a funeral. This heroic tale was later adapted into a 2015 South Korean adventure movie The Himalayas starring Hwang Jung-Min as Um Hong-gil.

Read also: On screen Mountains, Sahina Shrestha

While a hit domestically, the film went relatively unnoticed elsewhere -- much like many of Um Hong-gil’s achievements. Looking into the Korean’s impressive mountaineering resume, one wonders if he would have gotten more recognition if he was a Westerner, a sentiment echoed by Nirmal Purja in his 2021 Netflix documentary 14 Peaks.

“I never did what I did for fame or recognition,” says Um Hong-gil modestly during a meet-up with Nepali Times last week. “Which is why I am satisfied with what I have.”

True to his passion, even after scaling the 16 highest peaks, he continued climbing. In December 2007, he reached the summit of Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica. He has also climbed Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, South America’s highest, many times over.

This week he has just returned from Aconcagua (6,961m) with an all-Sherpa team that was climbing South America's highest peak in Argentina.

“This time, I stayed at Base Camp,” he smiles.

Promise to the mountains

Um Hong-gil used to go from one year to another planning expeditions and climbing the mountains, there was no time for anything else. But after surviving on Lhotse Shar in 2007 and scaling all the 16 peaks, he decided he needed another challenge. And that was to serve the people of Nepal.

It was December of 2007 and he had raised $50,000 for his cause. And after setting up a foundation in Seoul in 2008, a year later he did the same in Nepal.

He started building schools in remote parts of Nepal, and visited Pangboche, the home of Surdip Dorje, the first Sherpa companion who died while climbing with him. He had decided to build 16 schools for 16 mountains he had climbed, and this would be the site of his very first ‘Human School’. He also supported Dorje's mother until she passed away.

“The gods kept their promise, it was time I kept mine,” says Um Hong-gil of the time.

The groundwork for the first school was laid on 5 May 2009 and exactly a year later, Pangboche Human School was completed. Since then he has built 17 schools, over-fulfilling his target, with the 18th and 19th already planned in Taplejung and Rasuwa. Each school is completed in a year and in the beginning, they were concentrated in the mountains.

But with the recommendation of the Nepal government, he has now spread out across the country, in areas with the highest need but the least access, from Sankhuwasabha and Taplejung, to Gorkha and Dhading to Lumbini and Banke, directly benefitting nearly 5,500 students.

When asked why it was Nepal he chose to focus his humanitarian work on, given his experience travelling globally in his mountaineering quest, Um Hong-gil says: “This is where I gained the most but also where I lost a lot, and where I want to give back to the best of my ability.”

He elaborates: “I came to Nepal often, I got to know the people and families of my team. They treated me like their own, so much so that I felt like it was my second home.”

And it is through education he wants to make a difference in the lives of people in Nepal. Which is why he does not only construct school buildings, but also supports staff with training, science laboratories, computers and libraries.

Human Schools focus particularly on developing reading culture among students and extracurriculars including art and exchange programs to provide exposure to young minds.

In 2017, artwork of nine children from Human Schools in Kaski and Taplejung districts were exhibited in Korea. These students now in high school are still pursuing the craft.

Lumbini Sundi Human School built in 2015 has the biggest library with 9,000 books among the 17 schools set up by the foundation, which also conducts an annual book review contest for students to promote reading from an early age.

The Human School project is also committed to sharing the learning experiences between Korea and Nepal with retired teachers coming here for an exchange program.

Um Hong-Gil Human Foundation’s works also extend beyond education. After the 2015 earthquake, the Korean alpinist led a Red Cross Korea team to Nepal for rescue and relief. And a year later, the foundation set up a fully equipped hospital in Khumbu.

It is also taking care of four Sherpa families who lost their sole breadwinners in an accident on Gurja Himal in 2019 that also killed 5 Korean climbers including team leader Kim Chang-ho. He is also taking care of 30 other children of Nepali porters and guides who have died on mountains.

Read also: What is it about Ama Dablam?, Nepali Times

Post Script 

In his most recent Nepal visit, Um Hong-gil spent most of his time in Rupandehi district to meet a group of students who have been receiving virtual reality development training through online monitoring supported by the foundation.

Immediately after that, he took off to Argentina to mentor a fellow climber attempting Mt Aconcagua. Back in Kathmandu, just a day before his departure to Seoul where he is also A-chair professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, technical advisor at BLACKYAK INC. and consultant with the Korean Alpine Federation, he told us he will be back next March if the pandemic did not keep him away.

In 2019, Um Hong-gil was granted honorary Nepali citizenship for his dedication to the country, and contribution to educating children here.

Um Hong-gil has been called ‘Tank Mountaineer’ among his peers for his dogged determination, but his goals have shifted. He explains: “I want to continue building schools and contribute to the education of Nepali children for the rest of my time. I have just begun, I’m not stopping anytime soon.”

Read also: Doug Scott: a giant among giants, David Durkan

Sonia Awale


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