Did this woman really scale all 14 of the world's tallest peaks?
Korean claims mountaineering record – but her rivals say she missed one out
In a sense, the South Korean climber Oh Eun-Sun began her attempt to reach the summit of the world's highest mountains back in 1997 when she ascended Gasherbrum II in Pakistan – one of 14 peaks higher than 8,000 metres.
There was a pause of seven years before her ambition gathered pace with the ascent of Everest, a climb that was rapidly followed by her ticking off others on the list.
More than 13 years later, Ms Oh was last night facing either celebration and seeing her name in the record books, or else bitter disappointment. In an endeavour that was broadcast live on South Korean television, the woman born in the city of Namwon reached the summit of Annapurna, the last of the 8,000-metre mountains on her list.
Yet even while she and millions of people in Korea celebrated her becoming the first woman to achieve such a feat, a bitter controversy involving her rival climbers was raging as to whether she has actually climbed every mountain she claims to.
Reaching the summit of 8,091m (26,545ft) Annapurna by crawling on all fours, Ms Oh pulled out the South Korean flag, waved to the camera and then burst into tears before throwing up her hands and yelling: "Victory."
"I'm so happy, and I would like to share this joy with the South Korean people," said an emotional Ms Oh, murmuring, "Thank you, thank you."
If her achievement is verified, then the 44 year-old woman would certainly have plenty to cheer about. In 1986 the legendary Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner became the first person to climb all 14 peaks – all located in Asia's Himalayan and Karakoram ranges – and since that accomplishment only 18 other climbers have done the same, none of them a woman. Driven by her desire to become the first, Ms Oh had set out before dawn for the Annapurna summit from her final camp. It took her 13 hours.
"If I manage to do this I will be incredibly proud, not just for myself but for my country and for Asia," she told Agence France-Presse on arrival in Kathmandu to launch the expedition. "I don't know why no female climber has managed it. I suppose it is down to women's position in the world, which is still not the same as men's."
Yet back at lower altitude, a dispute is burning as to whether Ms Oh has actually matched Messner's feat.
A Basque female climber, Edurne Pasaban, who has herself climbed 13 of the 8,000-metre mountains, has claimed Ms Oh failed last year to reach the summit of Mt Kanchenjunga, on the border of Nepal, India and China, as she said she did. Ms Pasaban, 36, told a Spanish newspaper she had doubts as to whether Ms Oh had reached the summit. Others also raised questions and said that photographs provided by Ms Oh and supposedly taken on the summit did not show the actual peak of the mountain.
Such was the controversy that Ms Oh's sponsors, the mountaineering equipment manufacturers Black Yak, organised a press conference last December in Seoul to which it flew three of the Sherpas who had accompanied Ms Oh on her climb.
Ms Oh broke down and insisted the photo had been blurry because there had been a snowstorm from which she and the Sherpas had had to hide. One of the Sherpas said: "We stayed on the summit for just one minute. Due to violent gusts of wind, we had no room to do other things but take a couple of photos to prove her success."
The press conference appeared to have settled some of the allegations yet the controversy has resurfaced as the contest between Ms Oh, Ms Pasaban and an Austrian woman, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who has climbed all but the world's two highest peaks, has neared a climax. Another Korean climber, Ko Mi-young, a lifelong rival of Ms Oh, had also been in the running until last year when she fell to her death while descending from Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth-highest peak.
Crucially, the allegations of Ms Pasaban – who was climbing Mt Kanchenjunga at the same time as Ms Oh – appear to have swayed the opinion of Elizabeth Hawley, an 86-year-old American who has spent decades living in Kathmandu and whose organisation keeps records of all the climbs in the Himalayas. While no official body oversees contesting claims, Ms Hawley's rulings are the closest thing and anyone completing an ascent is interviewed by members of her team before they verify the climb.
Ms Hawley has now marked Ms Oh's 2009 ascent of Mt Kanchenjunga as "disputed" in her database. She has said she wants to re-interview some of those who took part in the climb when they return on Sunday. "I hope that some of the Sherpas with her on Annapurna were also with her on Kanchenjunga, so I will be able to talk to them too," Ms Hawley told The Independent. "I will listen to both sides and it will all go into the database."
Ms Hawley said Ms Oh was still "credited" with an ascent of Kanchenjunga, but that it had been marked disputed. She said she doubted the dispute was going to be resolved. Meanwhile, as Ms Oh makes her descent from Annapurna and as the world's mountaineering community continues to debate her achievement, Ms Pasaban is racing to Tibet where she will attempt to climb her final 8,000-metre summit, Shisha Pangma. She is expected to make an attempt with the next three weeks. By then, the entire affair may be a little clearer.
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