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South Korea: Controversy Overshadows Woman Climber’s World Record

South Korea's Oh Eun-Sun is believed to be the first woman to have successfully climbed the world's 14 highest mountain peaks, though one of her climbs (her claims to have scaled the Kanchenjunga) was disputed around last week of April. Now the dispute has reignited after one of largest TV networks in the country, SBS,  broadcast an hour-long investigative report on Oh’s climbing record.

As public opinion veers towards the argument that perhaps she had indeed failed to scale the aforementioned Himalayan peak, bloggers delved deeper into the story looking at causal factors that underlie the current controversy.

In the annals of mountaineering,  8,000 meters (26,247 ft) height above sea level, is often referred to as God’s realm – the sacred area that mortals do not dare to touch. At that height, with extreme cold and thin air, you can take only two to three steps before being forced to stop and pant for the next 5 minutes due to the extremely low level of oxygen in the air.  People have been known to frequently doze off or see hallucinations as the brain struggles with the low levels of oxygen and extreme conditions.  nevertheless, several women have challenged the harshness of Nature and some have returned with stunning achievements. Oh Eun-Sun was one of them, or rather the one who stood first among them by creating a world record of scaling all 14 eight-thousanders on April 27, 2010.

An image of Mt. Kangchenjunga from Wikipedia.

The record got blemished pretty soon. Earlier, Oh's scaling of Kanchenjunga in 2009 had been questioned by several Western media including a BBC report. The controversy stemmed from this photo reportedly taken by Oh at the summit of the Kanchenjunga. Though too blurry to confirm the exact location of where she stood but it was the only evidence that could prove her ascent. One of the Sherpas who accompanied Oh supported her claim while another disputed it. Ferran Latorre, a Spanish climber, said that the green rope affixed to the mountain by Oh's team stopped 200 meters short of the summit. Also, Oh’s unexpectedly short span of time taken to descend the mountain was one of major controversial points.

But the suspicions later cooled down after she appeared in a talk show, tearfully explaining her stance.

The recent SBS report however, has bolstered several points skeptics raised against Oh and the local media is buzzing with new reports on the controversy.  People are questioning as to how it is possible that the photo is the only evidence. Oh hadn’t planted her flag on the peak and she claimed that she had lost the flag but later her flag was found several hundred meters below the summit and other photos of Oh show that the flags were kept safely inside her jacket.

This is just one example. The evidence against her is mounting but the evidence supporting her is non-existing. Many are concluding that she was somehow mistaken (whether subconsciously or had been mislead by the guide or Sherpas) into believing that she had reached the summit. And since it is such a big deal to be recorded in history and she is endorsed by the Black Yak Company, Oh, who had so much to lose, has let an honest mistake mutate into a gigantic, ugly lie. Blogger Danbis commented as follows

개인적으로 등산에 관심이 많고, 관련 책이나 다큐도 몇번 보았지만, 정말 고산지대에서 벌어지는 일들은 인간의 상상을 초월하고 죽어가는 사람들 보고도 그냥 지나친다고 하는데, 죽기보다 힘든 상황에서 유혹에 빠졌을 수도 있지 않을까 싶다. 더욱이 다른 사람들과 경쟁하고 있는 상황에서 뒤쳐지고 있을 때라면 더욱 그런 유혹에 빠지기 쉽지 않을까 싶다. 문제는 거짓말이 거짓말을 낳고, 더욱 의혹만 증폭이 되어가는 것이 아닐까 싶은 생각이 들고…

I am deeply interested in mountain climbing and have read books and watched documentaries on it. It seems that what is happening at the high altitude is unimaginably harsh so much so that people even walk past dying people. I guess that (near) death-like situation was probably why Oh was tempted to tell a lie. The temptation would have gotten stronger since she faced competition and (felt that she) lagged behind competitors. But after you tell one lie, that lie will lead to more lies and the suspicion is amplified over and over.

Many Korean mountaineers have been blamed for obsessively climbing mountains on tight schedules under the guidance of a strict leader of the team, taking zero consideration into the situation of others. One Korean Climbers’ Association even admitted to this rude practice and held a conference on the climbing ethics in November. This tendency towards over-achievement has become intensified with corporate sponsorship.

The woman climber is a fascinating subject of advertisement. It is extremely rare to see women climbers climbing Himalayan Mountains. It is somehow a win-win for both, as the climbers need large sponsors and financial support which is indispensable in climbing high mountains. It takes around 160 thousand dollars to climb a Himalayan mountain that is an 8-thousander.  Oh Eun-Sun was endorsed by the Black Yak and her rival Go Mi-Young was sponsored by the Kolon, another outdoor clothing and equipment company. The competition between two was pretty intense before it ended abruptly last year with Go’s death. Go lost her footing during her descend from another Himalayan summit. To win the competition, Oh kept up her brutal climbing schedule. It sometime took only two to three months, and in some cases only several weeks, before she scaled a peak and went climbing up another 8,000 meter high summit.

Blogger Semison08 expressed that it was sad to watch the pure spirit and love to the mountains evaporate, to be replaced by capitalism.

지난해 히말라야 낭가파르밧 정상에서 하산을 하다가 실족을 당한 故 고미영 씨는 당시 누가봐도 무리한 등정을 하고 있었다. 그 해에만 8000M급 산을 무려 4봉이나 올랐고, 여유 없이 빠르게 정상을 밟아 나가고 있었던 것이다. 故 고미영 씨가 그렇게 까지 무리하게 등정을 했던 이유는 아무래도 전세계여성 산악인들 사이에 있던 ‘여성 최초 14좌 완등’ 타이틀 경쟁 때문이었을 것이다. 누가 최초로 히말라야 14좌를 완등하느냐…산악인 누구나 맨 처음 산을 오르는 이유는 그저 산이 좋아서 였을 것이다. 산을 오르면서 자연을 음미하고, 온전히 산에 자신을 맡기면서 산과 하나가되는 그러한 느낌에 등반을 시작했을 것이다. 그러나 언제부턴가 산을 정복의 대상으로 여기고 스포츠처럼 경쟁적으로 산을 오르다 보니 이런 안타까운 일들이 발생했던 것이다. 이번 오은선 씨의 의혹 또한 이러한 경쟁적 등반 의식의 산물이라고 해도 과언이 아니다. 오은선 씨에게도 또한 故 고미영 씨처럼 빨리 14좌를 완등 해야한다는 시간적 압박감이 있었을 것이다. 그러한 압박감이 혹시라도 오은선씨에게 잘못된 선택을 하게 한 것은 아닐지 안타까운 마음이 든다.

The deceased Go Mi-young, who lost her footing in her descend from another Himalayan summit, the Nanga Parbat, was keeping up with impossibly tight climbing schedule. She climbed 4 summits over 8,000 meters that year alone and without much time given to rest she was making a fast progress to the next summit. The reason that the now deceased Go forced herself to climb on such unreasonably tight schedule was to get the glorious title of ‘the first women who climb up 14 eight-thousanders and to win the competition surrounding it…Almost every climber when they first climb up the mountains, do it purely because they like the mountain. While climbing, they taste Nature and become one with Nature and those feelings which led to the  drive that made them start mountain climbing. But at one point, they started treating the mountain as a subject of conquest and climbing it competitively like a sport. This mentality has lead to this series of tragedies. The dispute surrounding Oh is also a product of this competitive climbing pattern. Oh must have gone under the time pressure like deceased Go had to finish the 14 eight thousanders fast. I feel sorry for her if she made a wrong decision of (lying) due to that pressure.

8000M급의 고봉을 등반하기 위해서는 산악인 자신의 체력적 문제뿐만 아니라 비용의 문제 또한 고려해야 한다. 해외 등반을 위해서는 등반을 위한 산에 대한 정보를 수집해야 하고, 루트 선정, 그에 따른 대원들의 선정도 함께 해야 한다. 또한 산의 고도나 지명도에 따라 일부 국가에 상당한 액수의 입산료를 징수해야만 하고 그 외에 항공료나, 교통비, 숙식비 등을 따지면 한번 등반에 대략 2억원 가량의 비용이 든다. 그저 산이 좋다는 이유 하나만으로 등반을 하기에는 부담스러운 비용이다. 히말라야 원정이 별로 없었던 초창기에는 8000M 이상의 고봉에 오른다는 사실만으로도 놀라웠기 때문에 스폰을 해주는 기업체가 많았다. 사실 당시 스폰을 해주는 기업도 ‘최초’ 라는 타이틀을 가지고 충분히 광고를 할 수 있었기 때문에 크게 손해가 나는 장사는 아니었던 것이다. 그러나 지금처럼 히말라야 원정이 크게 대수롭지 않게 된 지금에서는 시시한 등반이나 이름 없는 산악인을 흔쾌히 스폰 해주기는 어렵다. 그래서 ‘최고 높이’ 라든가 ‘최초 등반’ 같은 수식이 붙은 산이 아니면 그들에게도 더이상 의미가 없다는 말이다. 오은선 씨 또한 ‘여성 최초’ 라는 타이틀을 목표로 등정하고 있었기 때문에 후원사의 도움을 받을 수 있었던 것이다. 후원사와 오은선 씨 사이에는 빨리 등정을 해야만 하는 충분한 이유가 있었고, 그러한 이유들이 지금 같은 의혹을 만들어 낸 것은 아닐까.

To climb up a high peak over 8,000 meters, not only the climber’s physical strength but the finance is a huge concern. Especially in case of climbing foreign mountains, mountaineers should gather information about the mountain and select which route to take and who to take along. Regarding the altitude and the reputation of the mountains, climbers need to pay the mountain entrance fee to certain countries and there are also the flight tickets fee, (land or water) transportation fee and accommodation…And all these included, one mountain climbing costs 200 million Korean won (USD 0.16 million) in average. It is much too burdensome to be paid by individuals just because they want to climb it. When there were fewer people climbing the Himalaya, the fact that human climbing the Himalaya itself was fascinating and many companies sponsored the climbers. It cannot be a huge loss to the sponsoring companies since the promotional effects of endorsing the ‘world’s first’ was tremendous. However, nowadays, climbing the Himalayas is no longer a phenomenally huge deal. Companies would not willingly give endorsements to some nameless climbers and insignificant climbings. Unless there are grand adjectives attached, for example ‘greatest heights’ or the ‘first (in the world)’, climbing Himalaya itself is meaningless to them. Oh could have gotten the endorsement because she was aiming for the ‘first women’ (to climb summits) title. The company and Oh Eun-Sun had shared a goal of rapid climbing and that had created these series of suspicions we are seeing now.

The competition for the first women to climb 14 eight-thousanders is not limited to the national level. Mountain climbers from German and Spanish teams were also chasing the same title. In April, Oh's main rival, Edurne Pasaban from Spain, was also aiming to become first woman to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders. After Pasaban spoke with Elizabeth Hawley who plays the role of the ultimate arbitrator when disputes are raised among climbers, Hawley agreed to mark Oh's summit of Kanchenjunga as “disputed”. Pasaban also reportedly had slipped Oh’s controversial points to some journalist which eventually led to the BBC news report on the dispute. Oh’s side has been condemning Pasaban’s move as a low blow and some conspiracy theories have broken out regarding that. A blogger Ttodasi urged that even though there is high possibility that Oh did not scale the summit, the timing of the dispute and the person who suggested it to the mainstream media should be reviewed.

Many bloggers have lamented the loss of pure mountaineering spirit and the single-minded concentration on competition. A blogger Smoker3 commented that there was nothing sacred and sincere in the current mountain climbing. Making a short comparison between the alpine style and the current’s expedition style (or siege style), the blogger commented that the blind-eyed competition of the climbing is the true reflection of our society where only the outcome matters.

(세르파) 3000이상 고산에 사는 티베트계 네팔인들의 총칭, 이들은 히말라야를 등반하는 이들과 함께 등반하면서 유명해졌는데 등반가들의 짐꾼과 가이드 역할은 이들 셰르파가 맡는다…전세계에서 가장 산을 잘 타는 이들로 알려져 있다. 만약 네팔인에게 돈이 많았다면 전세계 등반가의 등반 기록의 순위는 모두 장난이 되는 것이다. 심지어 이들은 매해 등반철이 되면 먼저 올라가면서 루트를 개척해 놓는다고 한다. 히말라야를 등반한다는 것은 산의 밑에서부터 올라가는 것이 아니고 헬기로 소위 공격지점이라는 산 중턱까지 이동하게 된다. 전통적인 등반을 중시하는 이들은 이 방법이 치트라며 좋아하진 않는다고 한다… 현재는 이미 과학의 발전으로 대부분의 산은 다 정복되었다.이제는 등반하는 것이 문제가 아니고 등반하는 방식이 더 중요한 시점이 되었다. 특히 하인 홀트 메스너 (Reinhold Messner) 가 존경받는 이유는 알파인 스타일을 추구하고 그것으로 히말라야를 올랐기 대문이다. 그는 누구의 도움도 받지 않고 혼자 새로운 루트를 개척하며 산을 오른다. 물론 자신의 짐은 모두 자기가 들고 간다. 거기가 더해서 고정 로프를 사용하지 않고, 고지대에서는 포터를 이용하지 않고, 산소 호흡기의 도움도 받지 않는다. 그야말로 자연의 거대한 산을 온몸으로 받아들이는 것이 알파인 스타일이다… 이번 오은선의 히말라야 14좌 여성 최초 완증 파문을 보면서 그냥 씁씁함만이 느껴 졌다. 과정은 필요없고 단순히 결과만을 중시하는 사회 분위기의 절정판 이라고나 할까? 플랙야크, 코오롱, 오은선, 고 고미영씨는 무엇 때문에 히말라야 14좌를 올랐나? 위대한 자연에 대한 도전이었는가? 아니면 ‘여성 세계 최초 히말라야 8000m 14좌 완등'이라는 타이틀의 결과물이 필요했던 것인가? 등반가인가? 등반 선수인가?

(referring the Sherpas) They are the Nepalese from Tibet ethnic group who live in high region over 3,000 meters. They got recognized (by outsiders) as people (came down to their region to climb) of the Himalaya and they have accompanied them. Sherpas usually took the climber’s bag and guided them routes… They are known as the greatest climbers in the world. If the Nepalese had enough money (to fund high mountain climbing) all the climbing records and climber’s ranks can be reduced as a mere joke. They even open up the new route before the start of the climbing season. Climbers do not crawl from the bottom of the mountain. They first move to the attack point by a helicopter which is (roughly) half way up the mountain. People who prefer traditional way of mountain climbing hate this method, calling it as a cheating.. Nowadays, thanks to the development of science (and technology) almost every mountain had been conquered. It is time that the climbing itself does not matter that much anymore than how it is climbed. The reason Reinhold Messner is respected is that he pursued and stuck with his alpine climbing style and summited the Himalayas by the alpine method. He climbed up the mountains without anyone’s help and opened his own new route. He carried his bags by himself and did not depend on the fixed rope, no high-altitude porters and no aid from supplemental oxygen. He had demonstrated the true alpine style of mountaineering of absorbing the great mountain with his human body. I felt bitter to watch Oh Eun-Sun’s dispute. It truly reflects our society’s obsession to the outcome and ignorance on the procedure. Black Yak, Kolon, Oh Eun-Sun and deceased Go Mi-Young, for what did they climb up the 14 summits? A challenge to great nature? Or the outcome of the (effort) as in a title of ‘first woman to climb all Himalayan 14 eight-thousanders? Are they climbers or climbing sports players?

A blogger Socuteno1 reflected a perspective shared by most of the bloggers as well as ordinary people who are not much interested in mountain climbing. The blogger said that whether Oh had reached the summit was not a huge issue to them, but public wanted to see the pure mountain lover, their once respected hero ‘Chief Oh’ restoring her status by truthfully admitting the mistake. Many bloggers along with Socuteno 1, said that Oh will still be loved for her stunning feat of climbing 13 eight thousanders and the strong inspiration she gave to Korean public.

사실 전 그가 완좌를 했건 아니건 관심없어요…그가 등반에 실패했다 의혹을 제기하는 측은 구체적인 증거가 있고 정복했다 말하는 그는 구체적인 증거가 없습니다. 정말 산 만이 아는거겠지요. 만약 정복을 했다면 이와 같이 억울한 일은 없을거예요…다만 이제는 14좌를 완등한 최초의 여성 산악인이라는 타이틀 보다는 산을 사랑하고 산 앞에 한치의 부끄러움도 없는 정직한 산을 좋아하는 사람의 모습을 보여주어야 할거 같아요. 그를 몰아세우는 언론도 걱정이네요 . 목숨을 걸고 산에 오르는 산악인에게 벼랑끝으로 몰아세워 다시 칸켄중가를 등반하게 했다가 사고라도 나면 .. 그때는 어떤 기사가 나올까요? …오은선 대장님. 국민은 당신이 최초 히말라야 14좌 등반 여성 산악인이기를 원하는것이 아닙니다. 뒤늦게라도 사실을 정정하고 다시 초심의 마음으로 산을 오를수 있는 용기와 산을 사랑하는 마음을 바라는 겁니다. 이제라도 진실이 무엇인지 확실히 밝히신다면 당신에게 손가락질 할 국민보다 용기의 박수를 보낼 국민이 많다는 걸 아셨으면 좋겠습니다.

Frankly speaking, I don’t care whether she did climbed all (summits) or not…But it seems that there are hard evidence that can prove opposition side’s suspicions while Oh has no sound counter evidences. Only the mountain may know the truth…If she did summit all peaks, then this situation can be really mortifying for her…What people expect from her is that Oh to act as a true mountain lover, who holds no shame in front of the mountain [note: Oh said similar things on a talk show] even though she cannot be the first women to climb 14 eight-thousanders…the media which keeps bashing her is also problematic. If they drive her to climb the mountain again and what if something goes wrong during the climbing? What kinds of articles would they write then? Chief Oh, people don’t expect you to become the first woman to summit 14 eight-thousanders. We hope to see in you the courage to climb the mountain again and love the mountain. If you come clear now, there are so many people who will be applauding your courage rather than pointing fingers at you.

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