Female climber Oh Eun-sun ¡°stands¡± at the top of the 8,586-meter Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas in the photo taken on May 6. Oh¡¯s peer mountaineers question her claim that she conquered the world¡¯s third highest mountain, citing, among others, the fuzzy background of the photo that makes it difficult to confirm where she stands. / Courtesy of BLACKYAK
By Park Si-soo
Female mountain climber Oh Eun-sun's quest to become the world's first woman to conquer the 14 over-8,000-meter peaks in the Himalayas is sandwiched between a rock and a hard place.
The 43-year-old is the front runner in the race after having conquered 13 out of the 14, with the 8,091-meter Annapurna peak being the only one eluding her. She plans to go for it next May at the earliest.
But some of her mountaineering peers have openly questioned her claim that she climbed the 8,586-meter Kangchenjunga in May this year.
They argue that there is little proof that the spot she stood on in her photo was indeed its summit as the background of the photo was too blurry. They also cited the fact that it notably took her a shorter time than others to reach the top, which experts claim is virtually impossible.
The questioning first started when a Korean climber said that he found her flag placed slightly below the top. This led to widespread suspicions in the climbing community that either Oh mistakenly believed she had reached the mountaintop or had lied.
Based on the allegation, a news report skeptical of her success was released late last month along with the blurry photo she claimed to be taken at the summit, providing grounds for her peers to openly argue another suspicion that the time she spent ascending the mountain was "mysteriously short."
It argued that the background of the photo her Sherpa guide took to prove she was standing at the summit was too foggy to say for sure that it was indeed the top of the world's third-highest mountain. Oh acknowledged the difficulty in confirming her location, but claimed she definitely made it.
The report claimed that she took three-and-a-half hours to ascend the last 500 meters despite adverse weather conditions. But many climbers, including male mountaineers, say this is all but impossible except for a "superwoman."
Veteran male climber Huh Young-ho said in a recent radio interview that climbing up 500 meters of an icy mountain at such a high altitude without oxygen-supply equipment in three-and-a-half hours was virtually impossible regardless of gender.
"If it's true, her last-minute strides toward the top were much faster than any of the previous climbers," Huh said. He urged Oh to climb the mountain again to end the controversy.
Oh denied all suspicions raised against her in a press conference at the headquarters of BLACKYAK, her sponsor, in southwestern Seoul, Thursday.
"All suspicions sparked by the news report were completely wrong. I really conquered the mountain," she told reporters. "I do not climb mountains to set a new record, but for my own pleasure and self-satisfaction."
She said taking photos of her with a blurry background were inevitable at that time due to a violent snowstorm and dense fog.
The Sherpa, who guided her to the top, also refuted the allegation, saying: "We stayed on the summit for just one minute. Due to extremely violent gusts of wind, we had no room to do other things but take a couple of photos to prove her success," the Sherpa from Nepal said.
The career climbing guide stressed he has reached the top of Kangchenjunga four times so far and clearly remembers how the top and surrounding areas look like, ruling out the possibility he guided the Korean climber to the wrong spot.
Oh played a video clip featuring the landscape of Kangchenjunga that Spanish climber Edurne Pasaban filmed some weeks after her arrival to make it possible for reporters to compare the shape of the summit shown in the controversial photo.
On the suspicions of a "mysteriously short" climbing time, she said it was a miscalculation by people unfamiliar with mountaineering. Oh said it took 12 hours and 40 minutes to ascend the last 500 meters, not the controversial three-and-a-half hours.
"I will never hesitate to call myself a superwoman had I really done it within the alleged time span," she said.
The press conference continued for more than one hour with her supporters and other climbers standing aside. Seemingly exhausted, she stopped answering questions a couple of times to wipe away tears.
"Through this report, I found out how much my preparation for climbing and recording what I achieved was poor. I think this is a sort of rite of passage to become a better climber," she said.
Oh is now engaged in a razor-thin competition with two other overseas contenders - Gerlinde Kaltenbruner of Austria and Edurne Pasaban of Spain. Both have conquered 12 out of the 14 peaks in the hope of becoming the world's first female to achieve the feat.
In October, Oh failed to conquer Annapurna, the last peak, due to a raging blizzard and thick fog.
She first drew attention in 1997 by climbing to the top of the 8,035-meter Gasherbrum II. The first climber to top all 14 mountains was Reinhold Messner of Italy in 1986. Koreans Park Young-seok, Eum Hong-gil and Han Wang-yong have also achieved the feat.