Hope fades for missing South Korean amputee climber on Broad Peak

Published July 20, 2021
Kim HongBin, the South Korean climber, hailed as the “fingerless maverick” with no fingers, had become the first person with disability to complete the coveted 14 x 8,000 challenge. — Photo provided by author
Kim HongBin, the South Korean climber, hailed as the “fingerless maverick” with no fingers, had become the first person with disability to complete the coveted 14 x 8,000 challenge. — Photo provided by author

South Korean amputee climber Kim HongBin, 57, is presumed missing on Broad Peak (8047m) since early Monday, with sources confirming to Dawn.com that he fell on the Chinese side of the mountain after detaching from the safety rope.

The South Korean climber, hailed as the “fingerless maverick” with no fingers, had become the first person with disability to complete the coveted 14 x 8,000 challenge. Kim was leading the 14-member International Broad Peak Expedition 2021 which had climbers from Korea, the US, Belgium and Canada. The 8,000ers are 14 of the tallest mountains in the world located in the Himalayas and Karakorum mountain ranges which lie in Nepal, Pakistan and China.

Talking to Dawn.com, Haji Ghulam Ahmed, the head of Blue Sky Expeditions (a local tour operator company which was managing Kim’s climb), said he was hopeful that the Korean would be found.

“A search team that was dispatched earlier saw him on the Chinese side. I really hope that is he found,” Ahmed said.

Rescue operations

Following a successful ascent, tragedy struck as the climbers made their way down. According to Korean media, Kim made a call back home using his satellite phone. “It’s late at night. I stayed up all night in distress. It is very cold,” he said.

A Liaison Officer (LO) report seen by Dawn.com says that on July 18, at around 8pm, Anastasia Runova, a female climber from Russia, fell into a crevasse during her descent from Broad Peak. “Her body remained hanging by the rope, blocking the descent of more than 15 climbers from various expeditions on top of Col (8,000m above on Broad Peak).”

“A rescue was coordinated with the climbers already available at Camp 3 to rescue the climber. At around 2:45am on July 19, she was successfully evacuated from the crevasse. As she was being brought down to Camp 3 at around 3am, Kim was understood to be in distress. Another rescue was coordinated.”

Two British climbers Peter Brittleton and Paul Etheridge, two Russians Anton Pugovkin and Vitaly Lazo and three local high-altitude porters (HAPs) Muhmmad Hussain, Mohammad Yousaf and Imtiaz Sadpara began searching for Kim.

“At around 11am, Vitali discovered that Kim had fallen through a crevasse overhanging the Chinese side of Broad Peak near the main summit Col at approx 7,800m elevation.”

According to sources, the Korean mountaineer was found hanging by a rope and unable to move up or down, but “appeared conscious and responsive”.

Sources said that during the rescue effort, Kim did not comply with all of the rescuers instructions — perhaps due to language barriers.

“At some point during the rescue, Kim got detached from the rescue rope, and subsequently fell and disappeared down the steep face on the Chinese side of the mountain. Vitaly and the rescue team searched the upper face but could not find any sign of Kim. The rescuers noted the fall down the Chinese face was not survivable,” the report added.

Talking to Dawn.com, Alpine Club of Pakistan secretary Karrar Haidri said Korean diplomats were on their way to Skardu. “A search operation will be carried out in the coming days. Local high-altitude porters (HAPs) will be sent on the mountain.”

A formal announcement will be made by the family and the Korean embassy in the coming days.

On behalf of the ACP and the Pakistani climbing community, Haidri said that Kim was a friendly and passionate man who must be remembered for his courage. “Over the years, he came to Pakistan many times. He loved this country and was looking forward to celebrating his 14 x 8000 success here as well as in Korea. The pandemic delayed his goal but finally he made it here.”

A life without limits

Born on Oct 7, 1964, Kim has been an avid climber for most of his life. In 1991, at the age of 27, he lost all his fingers due to frost bite during the solo ascent of Denali (formerly known as Mt McKinley) in Alaska, USA. However, the tragedy did not deter him from climbing and he continued to push the limits.

“If the accident at Mount McKinley had not happened, I would have remained an ordinary climber. The hardship made me challenge the seemingly impossible. I overcame the handicap a mountain gave me by climbing mountains,” the climber said in an interview.

“I returned to Korea after three months of treatment at a hospital in Alaska, but it was impossible to live my everyday life without help from others. I couldn’t even eat by myself. I was tempted to take my own life several times,” Kim said.

However, with encouragement from his colleagues, Kim got back on his feet again and began training more rigorously than ever. “Since I cannot take advantage of climbing equipment such as ropes, sticks and an ice axe, I have to build up my physical strength.”

Kim made a successful comeback as a mountaineer on Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe (5,642 meters) in July 1997. Two months later, he scaled Mount McKinley, a bitter-sweet victory that tempted him to go for more. “I declared that I would conquer the highest peaks on all seven continents. People cheered me in my presence, but I know most were skeptical about my plan,” Kim said.

Due to his handicap, Kim relied on help from fellow climbers or accompanying porters for very basic things like unzipping his pants to relieve himself, putting on socks and lacing his hiking boots. Still his spirits were up and he went on to do great feats. Over the years, the ambitious high-altitude climber competed for his home country at the Paralympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 and completed the Seven Summits.

He summited two 8,000ers — Gasherbrum II and Shishapanmga — in 2006 and since then there was no looking back. Sunday’s successful ascent was the last peak he needed to complete the 14 x 8000.

For many, hearing stories of climbers getting into life threatening situations may seem like a death wish. But to climbers it’s a feeling that is hard to explain.

Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt in his famous 'Man in the Arena' speech summed it up perfectly when he said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

For Kim, climbing was a passion and each successful summit made him invincible. “Even if I meet difficulties in the course of advancing on my new goal, I will never give up,” he had said.

Kim 'the fingerless maverick' went on to do what he loved the most — climb mountains, test the human spirit and overcome adversity.

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