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Korean Climber Facing a Mountain of Controversy

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Forty-four year old South Korean mountaineer Oh Eun-sun reached the top of the world's tenth highest mountain, Annapurna, on Tuesday, becoming the first woman to claim the summits of the 14 highest mountains in the world. The final ascent was live broadcast in Ms. Oh's home country to considerable fanfare, as millions celebrated in a moment of nationalistic fervor. Beyond the headlines, Oh Eun-sun now faces two immediate problems that threaten to overshadow her achievement.

In recent years, the so-called "eight-thousanders" have become a universal yardstick for success among high-altitude mountaineers: by statistical coincidence, there are only fourteen peaks standing higher than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) above sea level. All of them are located in the greater Himalayan region. Famed Tyrolean mountaineer Reinhold Messner was the first to climb them all, completing his quest in 1986. Twenty-four years later, eighteen more men have followed in his foot steps - but the tiny, five-foot-one Ms. Oh is the first woman to join this rarified club. That's if, in fact, she did climb all the way to the top of each mountain.

Oh Eun-sun's problems started last week when Edurne Pasaban, a Basque climber who is her primary rival, expressed doubt as to whether the South Korean woman had in fact reached the highest point of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, which she claimed to have summited last year. The issue had already prompted a defensive press conference in Seoul last year, but Pasaban cited a number of still unexplained factors surrounding Ms. Oh's climb, including a suspicious summit photograph and alleged insider gossip from one of the climbing-Sherpas who had accompanied her.

On the other hand, Pasaban herself is far from an impartial commentator: She made her accusatory remarks to a Spanish newspaper while racing from Annapurna, which she had summited only two weeks before Oh Eun-sun, to Shisha Pangma in Tibet, the last summit she needed to complete her own eight thousand meter ticklist. Given the inevitable media scrutiny following the still-unfolding story, many observers are wondering aloud if Pasaban's accusations are a case of well-informed skepticism, or simply sour grapes.

Elizabeth Hawley, an American journalist based in Kathmandu who is widely acknowledged as the sport's de-facto record keeper, has officially declared Oh Eun-sun's ascent of Kanchenjunga "disputed" and is planning to interview Oh Eun-sun and her professional Nepalese climbing-Sherpas as soon as they return from base camp. Which brings up Oh Eun-sun's second problem: surviving the descent off Annapurna.

According to reports from Annapurna basecamp, many of the nineteen climbers who summited on Tuesday did not return to their high camp until well after dark, and at least one Spanish climber lay stricken with cerebral edema and waiting for rescue from below - circumstances bearing an unsettling similarity to what happened on K2 in 2008. Oh Eun-sun and her team of climbing-Sherpas have been confirmed as having returned to camp, though they still face a difficult descent ahead. The real celebration - live broadcast or not - will have to wait.

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