Europe is buzzing right now with revelations that Oh Eun-Sun, the South Korean woman climber who is poised to climb Annapurna in a few days and become the first woman to summit all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, did not actually reach the top of Kanghenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.
In an interview with the Spanish daily newspaper Diario Vasco, Edurne Pasaban, who just climbed Annapurna and is tied with Oh with thirteen 8,000-meter peaks, said there are "many doubts" that Oh summited Kangchenjunga last year. Apparently the Koreans took a photograph of Oh Eun-Sun on the summit, but that point was not actually the summit. Other climbers who have been there pointed out that it was not a summit shot.
The Koreans then held a news conference and brought one of the expedition's Sherpas to Korea to verify the ascent. They admitted that the photo was not taken on Kanghenjunga's summit but that after taking the photo they had continued to the top where conditions were too bad to make more photographs.
Last February the Spanish climbing magazine Desnivel asked Oh, who was traveling in the United States at the time, about the summit photos. Her response was: "My summit photo was taken a few meters below the summit of Kangchenjunga because my Sherpa and I were under the threat of high winds and weather conditions could cause an accident with my equipment at the time we reached the summit."
Other Sherpas have now stepped forward and disputed Oh's ascent. They will be going to visit Elizabeth Hawley, the official Himalayan expedition record-keeper for the past 50 years, in Katmandu and will give her official statements about the legitimacy of the ascent.
Climbing, whether it's ascending big mountains or short boulder problems, has always relied on honesty. If you say you did the climb, you did the climb. That ethic, however, flies out the window when first ascents, money, and nationalism are involved as it is in this absurd race to be the first woman to ascend the 8,000ers. If Oh Eun-Sun stopped a few meters below the actual summit of Kangchenjunga, then she did not climb the mountain in its entirety. Simple as that. She needs to go back and stand on the tippy-top to say "I was there." Only she...and her Sherpa...know for sure. And who knows how much money he might be paid to shut up.
If this scenario is true, then it's cheating and perverts the essence of climbing. The great Spanish mountaineer Oyarzábal Juanito, who has reached more 8,000-meter summits than anyone else, told the Spanish newspaper El Diario, "There are possibilities for cheating and you can fool many people, but not yourself." Last year the UIAA agreed on a climbing code of ethics that made clear that reports of an ascent should be detailed and accurate and that it relies on the "honesty and integrity of a climber unless there is incriminating evidence."
Is this story about cheating on the high mountains or a bad case of sour grapes? Stay tuned. I'll report more about this strange unfolding story as more details emerge and after the Sherpas speak with Elizabeth Hawley.
Photograph above: The disputed photo of Oh Eun-Sun below the summit of Kangchenjunga on May 6, 2009. Photograph courtesy Desnivel