Friday, June 17, 2016

Commencement Speech

Commencement Speech


Four years ago, I stood atop of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world. I climbed the mountain as part of my dissertation research studying about mountain climbing. It was one of the greatest moments in my life. This personal achievement as a researcher and a mountaineer could have been unthinkable if I was not a member of the UCR community. While other universities had no interest in my non-traditional research, only UCR, especially my advisor in anthropology, Dr. Sally Ness, agreed to support and constantly encouraged my intention of studying mountain climbing.

When I returned from my two-year field research in the Himalayas, I found she was seriously sick. She became almost blind and even couldn’t recognize my face. But she still wanted to help me as I set off the long process of writing a dissertation. She let me stop by her place every week to talk about my writing progress. What we shared during the uncertain days and months was hope for the future. Now I am more than happy as she is attending here and clearly seeing me.

It was not only my advisor who shared a community of hope, but also fellow graduate students, undergrad students, and staff members who were all equally significant in my six years at UCR. When I was taking courses, my cohort and I didn’t merely attend classes, but we also collaborated in a number of ways. We gathered at someone’s house, discussed difficult theories all night, and shared food, laughter, and everyday chit chat. As an international student, I couldn’t speak English well during the first couple of years, but they tried to understand what I struggled to say. Personal agonies became collective concerns.

I met one of my undergraduate students at K-Mart near UCR, where he was working as a part-time clerk. Being a student is tough for many people partly due to fast increasing tuition. Tensions arose between students and the administration over tuition hikes. While UCR wasn’t able to keep tuition as low as we would have liked, the administration kept the decision-making process as transparent as possible. Even when we don’t agree, we shared a common ground envisioning a better future for all of us and for the society at large. What we as a community have shown during the past several years is that hope, community, and unity are not something merely written on the wall, but the living principles with which we have lived here and will perform each of our lives in every corner of the world. I believe this is what we call tradition, the tradition of UCR which supported me as I climbed the top of the world. Without having a deeper sense of hope and trust, and so without deeply thinking about your own life and death, for example, you’ll never be able to dare to climb such a high and risky mountain. Being a member of the UCR community is therefore more than a sense of pride. It’s now part of my life, a second nature by which I and you, my fellow alumni, will go through all the uncertain moments that’ll follow in our lives.

June 11, 2016

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Brief History of Korean Mountaineering

For thousands of years, people in the Korean peninsula have lived within mountainous landscape and flourished their culture along with the mountain. In the ancient thought, the mountain was more than an object of veneration but an essential part of their lives. People enjoyed their lives located near the mountain and stream, cultivated moral virtues in nature, and harmonized every aspect of their life in relation to the mountain.
In Confucian tradition, Korean scholars and government officials viewed reaching the top of high mountains including the highest Mt. Baekdu (2,744m), as an achievement to cultivate virtue and learn philosophical knowledge. In an intensifying national opposition in between China and Japan in the 16-17th century, mountain excursions were often sponsored by the government. Geographers published maps based on mountain systems. Two massive expeditions successfully reached the previously untrodden summit of the highest mountain respectively in 1740 and 1764.

In the late 1920s and under the Japanese colonial occupation, a number of Koreans began climbing rocks near Seoul, the capital of the country, with experienced Japanese climbers and British visitors. Because of the political tension, Korean and Japanese climbers somewhat competitively ascended difficult rock peaks and high mountains that offer quite severe climbing conditions.

In the social and political turmoil after the independence of 1945, Corea Alpine Club (CAC) was founded and inaugurated mountaineering events nationwide. Activities in this period were more or less focused on rebuilding national identity and basics of mountaineering. Since the Korean War (1950-1953), the history of mountaineering in South Korea may be said a constant development thus far. In the 1950-60s dozens of university alpine clubs were founded among high and middle class college students, followed by the foundation of Korean Alpine Federation in 1962. The economy had thrived drastically in 1960s, and in 1970s dozens of non-collegiate alpine clubs were founded. Mountaineering in the country was no more an exclusive avocation of a small circles of elite climbers but became a popular sport across the country.

In 1980s, more and more Korean mountaineers turned their eyes to higher mountains in other parts of the world. This was partly because traveling abroad was liberalized. The success of Korean expedition to Mt. Everest in 1977 was acclaimed as a national achievement, sanctioned mountain climbing as a national sport being worth to sponsor and feature on media. In 1980s, all women expeditions ventured high mountains and rock towers abroad. Sheer ice-falls in deeper gorges were firstly ascended. Rock-climbing competition was initiated in 1981, albeit with endless criticisms against its competitive nature.

Mountain tourism for Koreans has been always more than an athletic venture. In 1990s, one third of Korean citizens enjoyed hikes on the mountain at least once a month. More than sixty percent of the land of Korean peninsula is mountainous, yet it seems not sufficient for satiating all the tastes of the mountaineers. They have constructed more than fifty artificial ice-falls every winter for ice climbing, and about two hundred of sport climbing gyms have provided beginners with an appetite of climbing as well as athletes with a place for exercise today. Sport climbing became a popular sport in this period. Backed upon this popularization of mountain culture in a modern sense, more and more Korean mountaineers continued climbing to Himalayan mountains and other peaks abroad. This trend has continued to this day, as for example, currently six Koreans have completed climbing fourteen eight-thousand meter peaks. Climbing techniques and styles have also been variegated, such that Koreans climb ice-falls solo or the Himalayas in the minimalist alpine-style. In tandem with all this practical development, scholars, writers, critics, and government officials have extensively engaged in flourishing mountain culture of the country through magazines, monographs, TV programs, exhibitions and other cultural programs. (Published in the brochure of the 2015 UIAA General Assembly Seoul, Korea)


Insu-bong near Seoul. Because of its proximity, Insu-bong has played a major role in the recent development of modern climbing and mountaineering in Korea throughout the twentieth century.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Langtang Wanderers 2014

Langtang Valley, north of Kathmandu in Nepal, has been one of the most popular spots for mountaineers as well as lay nature-lovers in the world due to its relative proximity.  But this has never meant that the peaks might have lost their glimmers to climbers, including the late Slovenian Tomaž Humar, who died on the precipitous South Face of the highest Langtang Lirung in 2009, was unescapably attracted to the marvelous peak in the midway of the area.  They enticed too me (Oh Young-Hoon) and Kim Jin-Seok, letting us to plan dare to climb four lower peaks among a handful number of those closer to the center of the Valley within a period of twenty days in January, 2014.  They were: Gangja La Peak (5,652m), Naya Kanga (5,863m), Yubra (6,264m) and Langshisa Ri (6,427m).

Langtang National Park (in Korean)

Three peaks (names in red) of Langtang National Park

Gangja La Peak, commonly called so by the villagers yet without an official name, has an easy slope on its east side (PD for the entire ascent) up to its top where we climbed for acclimatization.  Its northern side, where a large glacial plain formed the way, let us to camp on its foot (5,130m) before trudging deep snow on the glacier.

After spending two nights at Base Camp where the HMG-Finn map refers to as (Naya Kanga’s) “Low Camp” on 4,300m, we crawled up directly below the Northeast Face of Naya Kanga, the second peak as we planned, through what we call “Hom-Thong” (meaning gutter in Korean), a large chimney shaped against rock and glacier walls, and camped the night up on the glacier (5,230m).

Before and after our journey, meanwhile, we found this peak's naming somewhat controversial.  Firstly, Nepalese government has announced the peak’s name ‘Kangja Chuli’ with the height 5,844m and endorsed NMA (Nepal Mountaineering Association) to manage it.  NMA, in turn, named the peak Naya Kanga as to which now popularly referred.  However, the plotting of the latitude and longitude to designation by the institutions points out a spot about five kilometers to its west, and this is the point where the popular HMG-Finn map that you can easily buy from a Thamel bookshop marks Naya Kanga.  Also, it names the peak that we aimed “Urking Kanggari.”  The so-called Schneider map, relatively more legitimate in mountaineering world, notes our peak Naya Kanga, describing the whole ridge of the peak as “Urgen Kangri.”  We have not been sure still of which to be correct, although Lindsay Griffin, the American Alpine Journal editor believed the latter.

We climbed the central couloir of the face before joining the 400m east-west snow ridge that led us to the top (D).  The normal route on this peak heads up toward the Gangja La before traversing west across the large glacial terrace on which we camped, to climb a little gully onto the crest of the northeast ridge, which is then followed to the summit (PD+/AD-), and this is the route we climbed down.

Ganja-la Peak through the east ridge

"Naya Kanga" or "Uriking Kangri" (?) through the central rib of northeast face route - we named it "evergreen"

Jin-Seok on top of the central rib of the northeast face of "Naya Kanga"

I, traversing the iced summit ridge of "Naya Kanga"

On top of "Naya Kanga" (taken by Jin-Seok)

We moved Base Camp to the place HMG-Finn map describes Chalepoche, 4200m, a Yak-grazing field between Langtang Lirung Glacier and Yubra Glacier, one-and-half hour walk to the north of Kyangjin village (pronounced Gengjin), to climb Yubra.  Yubra has seen at least a dozen times attempts since it was opened in 2002, notably by different Japanese climbers, as I checked the database of NMA.  The peak was officially first-ascended by two Japanese and three Sherpa climbers earlier that month.  Mr. Griffin opined it FAed earlier, however, as he described Langtang as “always an excellent place for people to climb without permits, and I think most of the peaks there - except for the very high and difficult - have been climbed.”

The peak is far inside of the Yubra plateau up on the glacier, and so we had to scramble half-glaciated terrain for about five hours to reach at what we called “shoulder” to camp the night (5,420m).  This part of Langtang Himal must have generated interest to many climbing-oriented trekkers since such stunning peaks like Kinshung and Yansa Tsenji, perhaps not ascended yet to my view, rise next to the plateau.  The next day we were relieved to find the plateau being with crevasses less than we concerned, and, after three hours of trudging the glacier, we finally arrived at the foot of the Southwest face.  The face was of about 70° and relatively straightforward, although its bergschrund was wide and deep.  We climbed about 800m on the face, still 200m shy from the top and yet, seeing clouds were approaching from southwest -- perhaps signalling an arrival of winter monsoon -- decided to turn back.  We spent one night more on the shoulder camp and retreated to the village.  We called off our last plan of climbing a new route on the North Face of Langshisa Ri, for it seemed tougher than our spirit we discovered.  The remarkable face saw only a single and solo ascent twenty years ago: the late-but-must-be-remembered Slovenian Vanja Furlan, who died on Julian Alps in 1996 a few months after his great climb on Ama Dablam in Khumbu that brought him a posthumous honor of the Piolet d’Or, ironically duoed with Tomaž Humar.

Yubra seen from Ganja-la side

Making a campsite on the "shoulder" of Yubra (taken by Jin-Seok)

Climbing Bergschrund of Yubra

Climbing the southwest face of Yubra

Climbing the southwest face of Yubra

The stunning north face of Langsisa-ri

At Thimbu (1500m) where we took a bus to Kathmandu - I cannot by far find any single moment that may be comparable to the mixture of relief, comfort, and nostalgia one would have to face at an actual end of journey.  Realizing I was seeking this bliss at every end, then, "wandering" -- going aimlessly -- has always to be ironic, if not helpless faking.

We dubbed our journey "Langtang Wanderers 2014," without hiring any guide or Sherpa, mostly because we just wanted to wander in actual from mountain to mountain without posing any sense of duty to our climb beforehand, which has, I believe, indeed been cases among Koreans on high mountains.  I have found, then, there was Langtang Wanderers 1999 of four Western climbers who climbed Gangchenpo and Morimoto without issuing permits.  One of them writes: “I'm not a criminal by nature, but the royalties and rules in the Himalayas these days are nearing extortion, and the governments of some Himalayan countries are notorious for skimming funds which are earmarked for the population. Also, I had arrived in Kathmandu with only four hundred bucks to my name.”  As it seemed this type of rendering of the law of the country not infrequent, we think of this unfair and counter-serviceable to the future of mountaineering.  We did almost same things -- we only bought a permit for Yubra, but not for the first two, to be honest and to be clear.  So we still feel sorry about that and want to make apology; but to whom?

Note: Special Thanks to Korean Himalayan Fund, who assisted our journey.

You might want to read another version of report written by myself (in Korean!!!), published in magazine mountainman&mountain; e-mountain written by Jin-Seok; or american alpine journal by Lindsay Griffin.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kyashar: Mountaineer vs. Local

"Kyashar" [pronounced ke-sar] is one of the Sherpa names for a mountain (6769m) in the Khumbu region,  northeastern Nepal.  The local Sherpas to the south of the mountain call it "Charpate", meaning square, for the peak looks square.  The mountain has been climbed at least eight times since it opened officially, including three Japanese climbers first ascent of the difficult south-pillar, November 2012.  This climb was received praise from the mountaineering community in the world, as the team was awarded 2013 Piolet d'Or (golden ice axe).

When I visited the village to the south of the peak (Thaknag or Thangnang [4350m/14,270ft]), a local Sherpani lady narrated a frustration.  "Last October, three Japanese climbed the Charpate for about ten days.  And later, the lake below the mountain broke out and so some of the houses here partly broken, with a loss of crops.  That peak has long been a mountain to which lamas offered puja."  Temba, our team guide of the time, said, "that peak had been closed long ago.  But once opened, people climbed, and it flooded.  So people requested that the government had to close the mountain again."

The Nepalese government made it happen, as they put the peak off from the opened list, May 2014.

I am just confused what it would mean by some values such as "respect for the mountain" and "pass down to future generation", as the Piolet d'Or officially announces as its aim.  If these are defined solely by the mountaineers' terms, then, I think, this business has no meaning to the local who have no duty to learn mountaineers' language.  While mountaineers may have their own ideal, as I love to do, I just hope that they are pleased not to assume themselves be a true respecter of the mountain and of the future generation.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Sherpa village lives during monsoon - 1

A few clips on the "Makalu" Sherpa village lives during monsoon period.

milling corn (for making chang)
"Chang", the locally brewed beverage, is one of the most important materials of their village life.  Women would exert powerful authority regarding the alcoholic beverage.

A sherpa working on a field
Summer, or in particular monsoon season, is the hardest period for the Sherpas.  Everything become wet, but a lot of things to do.

A Sherpani carries leaves to give as food for domestic animals
Women would work in and around the village, while men might go outside of the village not infrequently.

Sherpas weed out on a field
At least twice you should do weed out on each field.  A labor would be paid 500 NPR per day.

Sherpas working on a field - planting millet

[warning - disgusting scene] killing an animal, of course for food
To how much extent would an animal know one's own death?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Purna's Report

"'Hyungnim'(brother in Korean), Seong-ho looks weird!"

I waked up as Chi-young cried on the verge of tears.  Five a.m.  Due to snow-blinded from the last day's summit climbing I could not open my eyes.  My memory of the time reveals me only sounds and feelings.  Chang-ho and Il-jin, spent the night sharing the tent with me, left out to their tent.  Many thoughts struck my head.  Perhaps he might not die.  Yet If it was the case, Chi-young must have waked us up much urgently.  Tried to keep my ears open, and guess from this, that the only thing I could do.  The 'hyung'(brother in Korean)s frequently checked my condition and asked whether I would be able to climb down that day.  It had been very painful until last night, whereas this morning, although I could not open the eyes yet, pain was gone a lot.  However, to climb down blind from the camp seemed hopeless.

I hoped to climb down the next day and so I asked.  However, it was found again unworkable since the oxygen canisters left not enough and other members, Chang-ho in particular for his summit-without-oxygen, should have moved down as soon as possible.

Hours already passed managing the death.  Firstly Il-jin and Chi-young left; it was decided that next I would go down with Chang-ho.  Everything was decided and conducted in a very calm manner, from which nobody would be hinted a death of someone.  I was able to sense, however, that Seong-ho was died, or at least he was almost died.  I heard a rescue party being organized and climbing up to the last camp.  Chang-ho was indeed desperately exhausted: voiced completely hoarse without any bodily strength.  The Sherpas helped me walk short-roped.  Felt nervous, although Chang-ho would help me.  Fell down immediately after a few steps.  Could I climb down ... but I must.  Pasang held me in the front, and Chang-ho let me know where I should step next.  Between the two camps (Camp Four and Camp Three) were several points from which an incident of a fall would never stop until the 3000 ft below the Lhotse face.  I tried to make steps very carefully.  Then, for I could not see anything, strangely enough I became not scared.  As such was everything there then.  Calloused to someone's death as done to my own danger.  My own death might have been anything but sorrowful, as Seong-ho's death had never been sorrowful to us.  As taking a rest from tumbles, Chang-ho said, "Purna, you know Seong-ho hyung has been dead?  You should go back alive."

Now it was proved.  This was the first word that let me know his death.  Grimaced: my natural reaction, and silenced.  Next, one thought arrived: I should be more spirited to be a solace to him.  "Yes!"  Responded loudest as far as I could.

... Due to the unexpected situation [the broken bridge on the Icefall that halted their descending], staying at Camp One, talking to each other on everyday chores.  Laughed at things trivial and stupid jokes, as if nothing had happened.

... Nearing Base Camp, a few people walked out to us.  Almost tearing as I saw them; however, before them I did not want to weep.  Determined, I shared greetings.

"You made efforts," someone said.

This was enough to me.

Excerpt from Purna Jeon, "2013 Korean Everest-Lhotse Expedition", Excelsior 2013, vol.36, pp.89-96, translated by Young Hoon Oh



Purna walking toward the top of Mt. Everest (photo taken from the top)

Purna on the top

 Purna (the lower) climbing down from the summit ridge.

Purna climbing down from Balcony

Now snow-blinded Purna climbing down the Yellow Band

The South Col tents and Mt. Lhotse in the back (taken on c8300m of Everest) 

Now snow-blinded Purna ready to go down from Camp Four

The Camp Four of South Col, Mt. Everest.  May 21, 2013


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Death Incomprehensible

I should apologize to the readers and, if any, the followers of this blog for not writing up for a long time.  It is due, among many others, to a serious psychological attack that this fieldwork has delivered to me.  One event that I might choose from those in the fieldwork was a death incident occurred during my last Everest expedition.

It was 11:15 AM 20 May, 2013, that I got from my radio the deteriorated voice from my fellow climber, Seong-Ho Seo, as he had just got on the top of Mt. Everest.  I was relaxing in the fourth and last camp of Mt. Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world and the elevation of which is 27,940 ft, and preparing for the summit assault for the mountain planned to begin late in the evening.  The camp is not far from the last camp of Mt. Everest in the South Col, the elevation of which is 25,938 ft--although it may be reachable within one hour from either direction in good condition of everything, in Himalayan standard the one-hour gap can always be completely impossible to cross over.  His voice was so weird as you possibly imagine how his mouth and somehow his brain, too, were frozen.  And, it was no more three hours later when I got another message from his accompanied Sherpa guide Ngaa Tenji Sherpa, saying "We need rescue ... Seo dai (brother) has no energy ... so slow."

I briefly contacted with other Sherpas in each of Base Camp and South Col via different radio frequency.  As the Nepalese company has dispatched more than one hundred "members" (as they called the clients on Himalayan mountain ordinarily) and the more Nepalese staff members, it was the plan to set "extra Sherpa" on the last camp during the summit assault for any probable emergency.  "We're seeing climbers coming down from the Balcony ... we will send Sherpas."  After exchanging further conversation in Sherpa language via the radio, Karma Sherpa, the guide of a British woman Melissa for Lhotse and occupying the same tent here in the Camp Four, told me: "They sent Sherpas to rescue.  We don't need to worry, and you should go Lhotse with us."  I had planned to climb the peak without supplemental oxygen, and a plan was made two days ago with him and his client that we start climb to the top together that night.

However, I could not trust what the Sherpas said: They might not dispatch any further Sherpas to rescue the people struggling over the highest place, at least now.  This was only a moment's decision: I should go, not to Lhotse, but to Everest.  Climbing Lhotse did not anymore appeal to me; it was too easy, easier than to meet up Seo as soon as possible, to see if I can rescue him down, to prove if I can overcome what might be called death-doom.  Packing up everything again, I began to plunge the snow gully between the two camps.

Just as my presumption nobody was dispatched up, and even no such an idea for "rescue".  Rim, a cameraman who was waiting for the summit party at the martian place, looked surprised to my upcoming--he even did not know of Seo's struggle, for anyway he did not have a radio.  I was quick to prepare to start a rescue and ask for two sets of oxygen to Sherpa guide.  And I was told, "five hundred each," for the oxygen tank.  It was not why they did not send up any Sherpa to try rescue, why they made a lie to me, or to what extent the debilitated party may struggle now, that struck to me on the spot.  It was rather why the canister should be so expensive here than Base camp where one is only three hundred dollars.

It was 10:30 PM when I finally came back to the camp with Seo, after six hours I left up to the mountain.  He was alive, at least until that midnight.  I, too, was sure of my life, that even though it was too difficult to asleep and to breathe without oxygen gas in the camp during that night.  I had to wake up frequently suffering suffocation, and the day's summitter Seok-Ju Woo who was sharing the tent with me needed to take care of me.  And, it was early in the next morning that I awoke by a tearful scream Chiyoung An from the next tent.  We had tried belated effort to wake him up, give him a new life.  To me, however, Seo's death was not anymore shocking.  The next day, I just had packed him up within his sleeping back, roped him up, attached to a sled-like rescue tap, and brought him down with other 'rescuers' to the foot of the Lhotse Face.

Sadness?  Not clear.  Yes, I did cried a lot.  But I do not know the tears I made were to prove any sorrow of his death.  Almost a year passed from since.  And yet I do not know how I can register the meaning of his death into my life.  It pretty much looks like he may live somewhere else on this earth.  Or, I cannot see any difference of his absence from any other's absence: As he is not here right now, you, the admirable reader of this blog, and other beloved friends of mine who may be busy to make their own lives somewhere in the world are, too, not here in front of me right now.

Now I am back in Riverside, California, about to start to write my PhD dissertation based on the two years of fieldwork in Nepal, Korea, and the mountains incomprehensible.  Perhaps I would write a paper murmuring sort of philosophy.  I would pencil a sketch on the indescribable, as it is the task any writers supposed to do.  Or rather, I may forgive myself to escape from this befouling work.