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Korea: The climbing dragon
image story



Mar 10, 2005 12: 58 EST
Korean expeditions, though commonly not well known, are frequent in the Himalayas. Some Korean climbers have achieved remarkable feats, such as first climbs. Three, in fact, have summited the 14 8000ers: Young-Seok Park, Um Hong-Gil, and Han Wang-Yong.

Korean teams are usually huge, climbing ‘heavy expedition’ style, with the use of supplementary O2 and strong Sherpa support. They are also notoriously famous for their fighting spirit, sometimes taking it to the extremes in a do-or-die attitude. However, Korean climbing does not just refer to a few teams with big sponsorship.

Asia dragon bound for climbing

On the contrary, most organizations, high schools, and universities across the country have mountaineering or hiking clubs whose members habitually engage in trips to the mountains during the holidays, according to the Korean Alpine Club. Hikers and climbers of both sexes, young and old, estimated between three million and four million, enjoy mountaineering on a regular basis.

Since the ‘60s the country’s economic growth has contributed to the increasing interest in climbing in Korea. However, we cannot forget that it is a land of hills and cliffs; its inhabitants have been hiking and climbing since the dawn of time.

The climbing founder

A local legend tells that Tangun, who founded Korea 4317 years ago (or in 2333 BC), descended down Mt. Paekdu, the highest point on the peninsula.

As well, brave youths called Hwarang, who provided the main source of strength to the Silla Dynasty that unified Korea in 676 AD, were trained mainly in the mountains.

The Koreans thus have a historical tradition of appreciation for the mountains. Its younger population, in particular, is growing increasingly keen on mountain climbing.

Among that group, some are outstanding sport-climbers, but others strive for high-mountain challenges. It’s only a matter of time until we see Korean alpine style climbers too.

House arrest

Himalayan climbing has a rather short history. Korea was colonized in 1910 by Japan, who defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. The colonial rule lasted for 35 years, until 1945, when World War II came to an end.

Under Japanese rule, Koreans were restricted from traveling abroad. Therefore, there was no way they could climb the Himalayan peaks. Instead they trained at home by rock climbing the low, local mountains and traversing the length of mountain ridges, sometimes using combined methods.

Korea gained its independence from Japan in 1945 but soon fought in the Korean War of 1950-53 and later, the 1960 student uprising and 1961 military revolution.

Himalaya’s high toll

It was not until the 1970’s that Koreans began to tackle high mountains abroad. Their first experiences were painful, though.

In 1971, Kim Chong-sop and his party attempted to climb Manaslu (8156m). One team member fell to his death. An expedition to Lhotse Shar (8252m) by a party from the Korean Alpine Federation (KAF) failed in that same year due to snowstorms. In Kim Chong-sop’s second attempt on Manaslu in 1972, five members and nine Sherpas died.

The Korean Alpine Club then suspended Himalayan expeditions and, instead, dispatched a total of 13 climbers to French National Climbing and Skiing School (ENSA) in Chamonix for training.

As years passed, the Koreans returned to the Himalayan giants and never left. Check Adventure Stats for an account of their achievements.

Source: Kim Jeong-tai and Korean Alpine Club. Image of the views from Mount Sorak, on the East coast of the Korean Peninsula, courtesy of Korean Alpine Club.
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