Oh Eun-sun: South Korea's top mountain climber, but hardly the only one

Four of 21 people who scaled the world's 14 tallest peaks came from South Korea, where mountain climbing is a pastime. Oh Eun-sun claims to be the first woman to do so.

Shruti Shrestha/Reuters
South Korean mountaineer Oh Eun-Sun speaks during a news conference in Kathmandu Monday. Oh claimed the record as the first woman to summit all 14 of the world's peaks over 8,000 meters when she scaled Mount Annapurna in Nepal last week.

The world may have been surprised when South Korea’s Oh Eun-sun became the first woman to summit the world’s 14 tallest peaks last week.

But Koreans themselves had no disbelief. Hiking and mountain-climbing are popular hobbies in South Korea, where the land is 70 percent mountainous and citizens are enjoying more leisure time.

Even as young people spend more time at their computers, hiking trails remain packed on the weekends. On tougher climbs in Nepal, some sherpas have even learned to cook Korean food to cater to their clientele.

IN PICTURES: Mountain climbers

In a 2006 poll by the Seoul National University Sports Science Research Center, Koreans ranked hiking as their favorite sport, with 13.2 percent the vote. Soccer came in at 11.8 percent, while running ranked third at 11.5 percent.

“I think it’s part of a new leisure lifestyle, as South Korea becomes more like a developed country,” says Im Seong-hui, a restaurateur, looking down at Seoul with her husband from atop Munsu Rock in Mount Bukhan National Park.

Ms. Im also cites the shift by South Korean businesses from six-day workweeks to five days, which began in 2003. “People want to enjoy life and find new challenges.”

Surrounded by mountains

Sixteen of South Korea’s 20 national parks are mountains, and altogether they saw nearly 38 million visitors in 2007. The skyline of Seoul, its densely populated capital, is dominated more by towering peaks than skyscrapers. (Ancient rulers hoped this would provide good feng shui as well as protection from invaders.)

On sunny weekends here, thousands of residents don visors and bright outdoor wear, retreating from their urban lives to hit the trail.

One reason hiking is so popular is because it’s accessible, says Jung Soon-hui, who sells hats and other gear near Mount Bukhan National Park. The park, a lush 30 square miles in northern Seoul, is where Ms. Oh got her start nearly three decades ago, according to the daily Chosun Ilbo.

“There’s no entrance fee, and you can easily take the bus to get here ... even if you don’t have money you can come and enjoy the mountain,” says Ms. Jung.

The sport’s low barrier to entry appeared to lure many as the economy sank in 2008. Sales of inexpensive hiking shoes and other equipment such as trekking poles at Korean online shopping site Auction increased 20 percent that October and November compared with a year earlier, a report by the JoongAng Ilbo noted.

Climbing vs. computers

Hitting the trail is not a new trend in South Korea, says Sang Jin-wook, a college senior and head of the Hiking Academy, which teaches students about hiking and rock-climbing.

The Korean Student Alpine Federation, which runs the program, was founded in 1971 and claims 62 participating schools and tens of thousands of members – most of them former students, whom Mr. Sang says remain active. Oh, who entered college in 1985, is a KSAF member, he adds.

Hiking has lost popularity among young people over the past two decades, Sang says. “This is comparable to Japan,” he says, explaining that hiking also saw considerable popularity there in the 1960s and 70s, before its economic boom. “Younger people nowadays aren’t interested in strenuous outdoor activity.”

Still, this Hiking Academy’s spring session will have 25 instructors and about 80 students, says Mr. Sang. It plans to hold nine events this year, including a four-week seminar.

Frequent “traffic jams” on trails here testify to the sport’s popularity, as do the trails in other countries that cater to Koreans.

During a 2008 trek in Nepal, Ha Jinyoung was surprised to find that some of the sherpas there had even learned to make kimchi, Korea’s ubiquitous pickled side-dish, to cater to the large number of hikers from this country.

“Koreans are hard core” when it comes to hiking, says Ms. Ha, who owns a design firm.

‘Hard core’ about hiking

In one sign of that resolve, among the 21 people to have climbed the world’s tallest peaks, four are South Korean.

South Korea’s highest mountain, Mount Halla, is 6,400 feet (1,950 meters). That’s miniscule compared to Mount Everest, which rises 29,035 ft (8,848 meters) above sea level, or even compared to more moderate mountains like Washington State’s oft-climbed Mount Rainier at 14,411 feet (4,392 meters).

Going big, of course, has its perils. South Korean Ko Mi-young fell to her death last year while descending Nanga Parbat mountain in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the world’s ninth-tallest peak. Ms. Oh is said to have carried a picture of Ms. Ko during her ascent of Annapurna in Nepal, the world's 10th tallest peak.

Whether Ms. Oh successfully climbed all 14 of the eight-thousanders – so-called because these Himalayan peaks are all over 8,000 meters tall – is disputed by her Spanish rival, Edurne Pasaban. Ms. Pasaban also seeks the record, but must still tackle Tibet's Shisha Pangma – the lowest of the 14 peaks.

When Ms. Oh met with unofficial Himalayan climbing arbiter, the historian Elizabeth Hawley, on Monday, she was questioned about her ascent of the world's third largest peak, Kangchenjunga, which lies on the border of Nepal and India. Ms. Oh confirmed that she had indeed reached the summit.

Congratulations,” Ms. Hawley reportedly responded, while still entering the climb as “disputed” in her records.

Many of her compatriots are proud nonetheless. “We knew she could do it,” says Noh Hyun-woo, a businessman, standing in Mount Bukhan National Park. “Koreans are an active people. … It’s part of our personality.”

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IN PICTURES: Mountain climbers

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