Women At Their Peak – In the Himalayas

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By Sudeshna Sarkar,Womens Feature Service

As the television cameras jostled to catch the best view of her and reporters thrust their microphones before her, Oh Eun-sun smiled serenely. “I speak very poor English,” said the 44-year-old apologetically. “I would like to thank all of you for your support. And the weather and fortune, all of which together made my achievement possible.”

The soft-spoken, petite South Korean marketing executive was transformed into a living legend recently when she became the first woman – and so far the only one – to conquer the 14 highest mountain peaks in the world, towering over 8,000m.

Before Oh, only 20 men had climbed all of them, the first being the legendary Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who began his quest in 1970 and ended it 16 years later. Now Oh joins this small group of extraordinary mountaineers. A retired army officer’s daughter, she completed her feat on April 26 when she planted her country’s flag on Mt Annapurna (Nepal).

“I climbed my first 8000m peak in 1997,” says a tired but triumphant Oh. “I had dreamt of climbing the Himalayas ever since my father introduced me to climbing as a little girl in Korea. And when fate gave me a chance to make my dream come true, I grabbed it.”

Although she summited Mt Everest in 2004, her quest gained momentum only in 2007 with the ascent of Mt K2 (Pakistan-China border). Oh says, “I was inspired by two women mountaineers, Edurne Pasaban of Spain and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner of Austria, both of whom were aiming to climb all the 14 highest Himalayan peaks. While Pasaban had climbed nine of them, Gerlinde had conquered 10. I had climbed only five. So from 2008, I really got going.”

Between May and October 2009, a determined Oh summited eight more peaks. Only Mt Annapurna was left. This year, when she planned to attempt the last remaining summit, Pasaban – who had become her closest rival – announced that she would stage a double assault on her two last remaining summits – Annapurna and Shisha Pangma – in Spring 2010. In a daring bid, Pasaban decided to go for both back-to-back. In April, she stood on Mt Annapurna and soon afterwards, began to make her way to Mt Shisha Pangma (Tibet).

However, a combination of favourable weather and good luck helped Oh complete her task first and make mountaineering history.

It has not been an unadulterated victory, though. On her triumphant return from Annapurna, Oh’s joy was dimmed by a controversy that erupted after Pasaban questioned her achievement. The Spanish climber reportedly said there was some doubt about Oh’s claim that she summited Mt Kangchenjunga last year as two of her Sherpas – high-altitude porters and climbing guides – had said she did not reach the top.

“I am surprised at Pasaban having said that,” says Oh. “Both of us climbed Kangchenjunga last year and she herself congratulated me at that time. A year later, I don’t know why she is expressing doubts. It makes me very, very sad.”

Despite this dampener, Oh has been hailed as a heroine across Asia, while in South Korea she is now a national icon, with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak having personally congratulated her. Nepal, the country where eight of the 14 peaks are located, including Annapurna, says there is no doubt about her having achieved the Kangchenjunga summit.

Unlike in Oh’s case, Eiko Funahashi’s climb did not end in sweet victory. Yet, this Japanese lawyer is a role model for women. Funahashi was seeking to conquer Mt Everest at the age of 70. Had she done so, she would have become the oldest woman to conquer the world’s highest peak. Unfortunately, bad weather and stomach trouble forced her to abandon her quest and return to Kathmandu on May 10. “I needed to acclimatise myself to the terrain more,” says the frail looking Funahashi. “When I go back to Japan, I will train even more rigorously so that I can come back again.”

A grandmother to a 13-year-old boy, this is Funahashi’s fifth attempt to summit Mt Everest. She had tried to do this on four consecutive years, from 2006 onwards. In 2007, she was just 40m away from the summit of the 8848m peak when bad weather forced her down. “I am also a documentary maker,” she says, explaining the reason behind her attempts every year to expose herself to such great risks. “I have been filming my ascent each year. But the documentary will not be complete until I reach the top. Therefore I must try again.”

After she returns to Japan, Funahashi plans to spend more time training. “I could not train as hard as I should have because of my profession,” she says. “I have to run longer now and spend more time practising climbing. It is important to persevere. You don’t need muscles to climb mountains, just a strong heart.”

The current record is held by Tame Watanabe, also from Japan, who summited Mt Everest in May 2002 at the age of 63. The oldest man to have climbed the peak is Min Bahadur Sherchan, who was 76 when he pulled off the feat in 2008.

There are many more climbers waiting patiently for good weather on the lower slopes of the Everest, hoping to create new records. India’s Bhagyashree Sawant, an 18-year-old class XII student, wants to become the youngest Indian woman to overcome Mt Everest. If she is successful, Sawant would break the record set in 2009 by Krushnaa Patil, who was almost 19 at that time. However, Nepal’s Ming Kipa Sherpa remains the youngest girl to have conquered Mt Everest – in 2003 – when she was just 15.

Also eyeing Everest records are Finnish Anne-Mari Hyrylinen and Carina Raihasta, both vying to become the first female Everest summiter from their country, as does Andrea Cardona from Guatemala. Cardona has a second mission as well. She plans to begin a project in Tapting, a village in remote Solukhumbu district, the mountainous gateway to the Himalayan ranges. The Guatemalan’s safe drinking water project will benefit about 200 people.

“The water tank currently in the village is a hole in the ground with dirty water that gets worse during the rainy season,” she writes on her blog. “The people do not have any health centre, the nearest being six hours away. Providing safe drinking water also means preventing infections that often lead to death from diarrhoea, especially of children who can’t be taken to hospitals in time. I realise we can’t solve all the problems in the world, but doing something small is better than doing nothing…” she writes.

Even Australian Sandy Hoby, 38, is on an Everest mission for a cause. The flight attendant aims to create public awareness about bowel cancer, the second biggest killer cancer in Australia. Hoby, who had her large intestine removed in 2001, started climbing right after the operation in 2001. “Having that operation totally changed the direction of my life,” she says on the website of her expedition. “I was told that after my operation I would not be able to do many things… That is when I decided to push myself and try and climb a mountain. If sharing my life experience with the public will help promote awareness of bowel cancer and help to save lives, if I can achieve this just by being ‘who I am’ and ‘doing what I do’, I’m all for it!”

By conquering their fears and summiting towering peaks, these feisty women are indeed an inspiration to many.