Call of mountain
At 10 a.m. on Nov. 3, a special funeral service took place at Seoul National University Hospital for Park Young-seok, one of the world's best and greatest mountaineers Korea has ever produced, and for his two fellow veteran climbers. It was observed without their bodies.
Park and his fellow climbers went missing on Oct. 18 on their way to the peak of the 8,091-meter-high Annapurna in the Himalayas. The rescue teams conducted a search operation for 10 days, but failed to find them. They are believed to have fallen into a crevasse or be buried under avalanche snow. Bereaved families and almost all the people and organizations related to mountain-climbing activities in the country participated in the largest-scale memorial service ever held.
I watched the progress of Park's expedition from his triumphant start to the tragic end on TV with deep emotion and sentiment. I felt a mixed feeling of sympathy, pity, regret and envy. First of all, I thought, there was no positive reason for him to brave and weather this expedition. He had already been to the peak of Annapurna once in 1996.
He was reportedly trying a new route on the south face this time. What a vain and poor excuse it was for that perilous enterprise! Park himself must have known better than anybody else about the hardship, danger and even possible death he would be exposed to in the attempt.
And Park couldn't be more successful as a climber already. No other mountaineers in the country, nay in the whole world, could beat his records: scaling all 14 mountains above 8,000 meters high in the Himalayas, all of the seven highest summits on each of the seven continents, and reaching the South and North Poles on foot ― all done within the shortest span of time in the world.
For these unparalleled as well as superhuman achievements Park was earlier awarded the Order of Blue Dragon, the highest recognition in the field of sports in Korea by the government. But he was not satisfied.
Some words of his uttered before this tragedy were revealing as well as ominous enough. It was reported that he used to say, "I thank much for being alive. I have lost many companions while climbing together, but I survived. I was just lucky. But I think mountaineers are mountaineers as long as they go to the mountains and explorers are explorers only when they continue to explore. A mountaineer at home is, like a tiger in the zoo, a mountaineer no longer. I will keep exploring until I die."
Apparently it seems that not only was he not satisfied with what he had achieved, but also he could not feel comfortable with ordinary and everyday life. In fact, his ordinary life ended when he stood at the top of Mt. Everest in 1993, the highest mountain on earth and under the sky, when he was 30 years old as the first in Korea and in Asia. From that moment on, his life was not an ordinary one. He became an extraordinary man. He has made a name, a myth and a legend.
He became another man with fame, money and, more than anything else, with the experience he had made at the altitude of 8,848 meters. The air he had breathed into his lungs, the snow he had tasted and touched, and the wind and the sky he heard and seen with his ears and eyes up there were not the same as those that ordinary people like you and me down here could understand and imagine. He became a different man.
Then and there he got infected with mountain fever. He heard constantly the call of the mountain which was so clear and wild that he could not deny or resist it. His mind and thinking always wandered far to the Himalayas, or somewhere else, where he could test his body and courage, where he could exhaust his whole breath and energy, where the unimaginably harsh and cold weather, danger, and imminent death dwelled. He could not be comfortable with the comforts of home.
The call was powerful, seducing and intoxicating enough for him to leave everything behind ― the warm embrace of his beloved wife, the sweet smiles of his dear sons and the conviviality of his friends. He turned a deaf ear to them pleading not to do it again.
He refused to grow old as an idle man by a warm stove in winter or in a cool breeze from the air-conditioner in summer in his cozy apartment. He refused to rest from adventure. He wanted to drink the cup of life to the lees. He wanted to enjoy greatly and suffer greatly with those who followed him, and alone. How dull it was for him to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use! He refused to become a name only.
Mourning his death I would like to take a special note of his age, 48, and I pause for a moment to reflect on this. If he had just passed 50 by now, I would presume, he might have not attempted this adventure, or he could possibly have been dissuaded from doing it. Forty-eight is a very difficult age for a man of great ego still physically strong and mentally acute to stop.
As a mountain climber Park passed his prime, but most probably he would not admit or accept it. He was at a critical moment in his life. This expedition could be his last adventure, and if he had succeeded, he might have grown to be an ordinary old man as I am with joys, sorrows and miseries. I envy him.
Lee Chang-kook is a professor emeritus of English at Chung-Ang University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.