Memorial services were held in Annapurna this week for Park Young-seok and his two younger colleagues, who went missing in the Himalayas. Korea lost another public hero, but the tragedy will not stop the legion of Korean men and women from continuing to challenge extreme conditions in the world’s highest peaks, deserts and polar regions.
During the 1990s, Park and his rival climbers Um Hong-gil mounted a thrilling competition to scale all the highest mountains in the Himalayas. Park became the eighth and Um the ninth in the world to climb all 14 “Eight-thousanders” in 2001 and another Korean climber Han Wang-yong achieved the feat in 2003.
Later, two women, Koh Mi-young and Oh Eun-seon, competed with each other to catch up with their male counterparts. Koh died in 2009 while descending Nanga Parbat, her 12th target of the 14 peaks. Her mountaineering companion Kim Jae-su fulfilled her dream by climbing all the 14 Eight-thousanders by April this year. Oh became another member of the club by scaling Annapurna in May last year.
Park, who would have turned 48 today, first climbed Everest in 1993 and declared in 1996 that he would climb the 13 other 8,000-meter peaks in the shortest time ever. He kept his word by scaling Lhotse in April 2001. His challenges continued as he trod to the South and North Poles and clinched the mountaineer’s “grand slam” by climbing the highest mountains of the seven continents, including the Vinson Massif on Antarctica, in competition with Um.
He went to the threshold of death numerous times in snowstorms, avalanches and falls into crevasses and there were more failures than successes in his adventures. Yet, he always made new attempts at new targets, the latest one being establishing “Korean routes” on the south slopes of Everest, Annapurna and Lhotse. Annapurna, which he had first scaled in 1996, became the place of his last rest. He had told his friends that he would retire after the planned Lhotse expedition next year although they did not wholly believe him.
Korea was a latecomer mountaineering, and saw a series of fatal accidents in the early years. Koh Sang-don became Korea’s first and the world’s 58th man to reach the summit of Everest in 1977, but he perished two years later on his way down from the peak of McKinley, Alaska. Braving occasional mishaps, Korean mountaineering expeditions increased in scale and frequency as the economy grew strong enough to support them.
From the 1990s, mountain climbing became a popular sport at home and prospering alpine gear makers competitively sponsored overseas expeditions. When Um Hong-gil, Park Young-seok and others raised Taegeukki flags on Himalayan peaks, the nation cheered and many young people wanted to test their “can-do” spirit in the extremities of nature.
Those alpinists, unlike Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, were no heroes of materialism. They taught the admiring public about the greatness of taking on challenges and the beauty of concentrating on a chosen objective. In a sense, Park Young-seok was an artist. He did not create beauty by himself, but his image, etched against the majestic background of the white and blue of the Himalayas and the limitless expanse of the North Pole, represented a beautiful life itself.
He is not returning home this time to tell his stories. Somewhere in a windswept valley of Annapurna, he must be calling young men and women here to look for what is truly valuable and dauntlessly challenge for it.