A South Korean climber on Tuesday claimed the record as the first woman to scale the world’s 14 highest peaks after reaching the summit of Annapurna in Nepal, in a bid shrouded in controversy.
Television pictures broadcast live to South Korea showed Oh Eun-Sun planting her national flag on the top of the 8,091-metre (26,545-foot) peak — apparently beating other female competitors racing to collect the prized title.
“Hurrah!” Oh, 44, shouted as she waved and bowed towards a camera carried by a fellow mountaineer. “I am happy and thank you.”
However Oh’s claim to be the first female climber to have conquered all the world’s mountains over 8,000 metres is under close scrutiny.
Last week her 2009 ascent of Mount Kanchenjunga on the Nepal-Tibet border was thrown into doubt when a leading authority on Himalayan mountaineering said fellow climbers had expressed scepticism over the climb.
Elizabeth Hawley said Oh’s ascent would be considered “disputed” as fellow mountaineers, including her chief rival for the record, Edurne Pasaban, had questioned whether she made it to the top.
“I’ll be waiting to meet her when she gets back to hear her version of what she has to say about Kanchenjunga,” Hawley told AFP after hearing of Oh’s ascent on Tuesday.
Pasaban, 36, conquered Annapurna earlier this month, becoming the first Spanish woman ever to do so and leaving her with just one more mountain to scale.
Pasaban is on her way to Tibet, where she will attempt to climb her last “eight-thousander”, Shisha Pangma, the smallest of the 14 peaks at 8,027 metres.
Pasaban said she continued to doubt that Oh reached the top of Kanchenjunga.
“It is a doubt which we already had last year, because when she climbed Kanchenjunga we were already there and we climbed it after her. Our doubts emerged when she presented some photos, and other climbers shared them,” she told public radio from Shisha Pangma.
The picture provided by Oh shows her standing on a bare rock but those taken by Pasaban’s team shows them standing on snow.
“The confirmation came this year while at the base camp at Annapurna when I met with the Sherpas who climbed with her and they confirmed that they did not reach the peak of Annapurna,” said Pasaban.
“When she returns to Kathmandu she will have to prove it, she will be questioned and we will see what happens.”
Just 18 people had previously made it to the top of the 14 eight-thousanders, which are all in Asia’s Himalaya and Karakoram ranges, since Italian climber Reinhold Messner became the first person to do so in 1986.
Oh’s final summit came almost 13 years after climbing the 8,035-metre Gasherbrum II in July 1997.
Her record bid sparked a media frenzy in her home country.
South Korea’s KBS television showed hours of live coverage as she struggled slowly to the top of Annapurna, one of the world’s most dangerous mountains.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, described Annapurna and K2 as “killer mountains” and said conditions were tough during the climb.
“I have been following Miss Oh’s climb closely and I am very happy to hear that she has reached the summit,” she told AFP in Kathmandu. “It was windy at the top and despite the weather she has managed to achieve her goal.”
Pasaban’s expedition organiser, Anjan Rai of Thamserku Trekking, told AFP that she was pushing ahead with her schedule.
“She is already well acclimatised from Annapurna, so she might be able to do (Shisha Pangma) in three weeks,” he said.
Next in line for the record was Austria’s Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who has climbed all but the world’s two highest peaks, Everest and K2.
The 39-year-old, who climbs without oxygen, is currently acclimatising on Everest, preparing for her ascent of a little-used route up the north face.
“If I manage to do this, I will be incredibly proud, not just for myself but for my country and for Asia,” Oh had told AFP before leaving in Kathmandu for 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.”