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To Heaven

Posted June. 13, 2006 03:08,   


This book is a story that takes place under the heavens of three young people whose great accomplishment coincided with deep woe in 1998 when they disappeared while scaling the Indo-Himalayan peak Thalay Sagar’s (elevation 6,904m) north face. With just over 100m left while climbing this face, nicknamed the “devil’s red peak,” three people, Shin Sang-mahn (32), Choi Seung-cheol (28), and Kim Hyung-jin (25), vanished without finishing their climb.

The three were climbing partners with a great mutual understanding of each other, to the point that they would have been happy together even in their last moments. They succeeded in being the first to climb the toughest part of the so-called “suicide section,” nicknamed the “black tower,” thereby opening a route to the top.

However, right after reaching the 6,800m point which opens up to the peak, they disappeared into the clouds. All three, tied together on the same rope, plummeted 1,300m. Why they, who had succeeded in climbing the devil’s black tower, fell, still remains a mystery.

On September 28, 1998 at 4:15 p.m., clouds rushed in and it suddenly became dark, and to make matters worse, as the wall from which they hung became enshrouded in the clouds, their colleagues in the base camp were unable to see what was happening. The three fell away in a manner in which only the clouds know.

Rather than just focusing on the summit of the northern face of the Thalay Sagar, the book includes the complicated isodrosotherms that make it a symbolic object for mountain climbers. After the first attempt by Korean mountain climbers in 1993, there had been several attempts, but because of bad weather and lack of skills, they had always failed. A Hungarian expedition team called it a “suicide area” in 1991 and turned around, and in 1997, an Australian team called it ‘terrible” and gave up.

Finally, three young men from Korea succeeded in opening a route as they scaled the black tower on the north face, worthy of its name. They simply weren’t able to live to return home.

In the pages of this book, compiled by mountain photographer Sohn Jae-sik, who had participated in the expedition to photograph and document the trip, the friendship of the mountain men that grew stronger as they approached the life and death situation is readily apparent. As young alpinists with distinguished climbing skills and a solid climbing philosophy, and as people who lived genuinely, rather than trying to go up high, the three were more concerned with how to climb the mountain. “The more you get into mountain climbing, the harder it is to separate it from death,” they would say.

They are probably still looking to the summit as they approach Nirvana. The story of these young people, who sought the meaning of life on that wall and gave meaning to the “course of ascent,” who went out like a spark, is sad but beautiful.

We can mull over the quote by French mountain climber Gaston Rébuffat: “Even the beauty of the summit, the freedom in a giant space, or the rediscovery of intimacy with nature, was all meaningless without the true friendship the mountain climbers shared.”