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.
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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.