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A Climber We Lost: Kim Hong-bin

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You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.

Kim Hong-bin, 57, July 19

Kim Hong-bin, “The Man Without Fingers,” wasn’t just an icon in the world of mountaineering. He was an inspiration for disabled individuals around the world. 

A competitive rock and ice climber in his early years, the Gwangju, Korea-based climber went on expeditions to Everest (8,850 meters) in the winter of 1989 and then Nanga Parbat (8,125 meters) in 1990, before losing all 10 of his fingers to frostbite on the West Buttress of Denali in 1991. 

Despite this debilitating injury, over the next thirty years the Korean racked up one of the most impressive mountaineering resumes in history for any climber, abled or disabled.  

He became the first disabled Korean mountaineer to summit Everest in 2007, scaled the Seven Summits, and, between 2006 and 2021, summited all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, all without a single finger. He became the first disabled climber to achieve the feat (and only the 44th person officially verified to have done so). 

“No one believed me when I set out to climb mountains taller than 8,000 meters. People thought, ‘He’ll stop after a while,’ or say, ‘You don’t have to do this anymore, you’ve tried hard,’” Kim said in a 2019 interview. “No one told me I could go all the way. But I dreamed that I [could] do it, and that I wouldn’t stop until I accomplished my dreams.”

“Someone has to go out in the front and be the first,” he said. “That way, others can see that it is possible. They can have [the] courage [to] try it, too. My hope is that more people can accomplish their dreams.”

Kim said he was aware of the risks of high-altitude mountaineering, but would continue to climb despite them. “I can’t avoid snowstorms. I can’t avoid crevasses I can’t see,” he said. “But if I train diligently, then I can avoid at least some of those potential dangers.”

“If the accident [on] Denali hadn’t happened, I would have remained an ordinary climber,” Kim told Korea JoongAng Daily after climbing the Seven Summits. “The hardship made me challenge the seemingly impossible. I overcame the handicap [that] a mountain gave me by climbing mountains.”

Beyond climbing, Kim enjoyed a plethora of other sports, including inline skating, running, skiing, and cycling. He was an extremely competitive skier, in particular, and represented his country in the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City. More recently, Kim took first place in the 2019 Korean National Paralympic Winter Games Alpine Skiing Competition, in addition to winning a total of six gold medals for alpine skiing in the National Paralympic Winter Sports Festival between 2015 and 2020.

He also founded the nonprofit “Creating Hope with Kim Hong Bin,” which sponsors outdoor activities like climbing and camping for Korean children with disabilities. 

His laundry list of accomplishments, both in and out of climbing, is impossible to completely document, but it’s likely that summiting all 14 8,000ers, a feat only a few dozen have managed in history, was the most impressive accomplishment of Kim’s illustrious career.

Sadly, he did not live to enjoy the success of his achievement. The 57-year-old fell into a crevasse while descending from Camp IV on Broad Peak (8,047 meters), on July 19, 2021, at an elevation of around 25,920 feet. The mountain was his final 8,000er. 

A statement from his wife reported that Kim had told her to make sure no additional accidents would occur from search efforts if he went missing, so the search was called off after a week. His body was never found.

Kim was inducted into South Korea’s Sports Hall of Fame five months following his death, and was also awarded the Cheongryong Medal, the country’s highest sporting award. He is survived by his wife, Bang Young-eun.

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.