Next Stop, Mount Everest

UC Riverside graduate student will make second attempt to summit the world’s tallest mountain as part of his dissertation research.

Young Hoon Oh near summit of Mt. Everest, wearing oxygen mask

Young Hoon Oh nearly reached the summit of Mount Everest during a 2006 expedition. He was successful on May 19, 2012.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. —Young Hoon Oh staggered down the treacherous slopes of Mount Everest toward base camp at 28,000 feet, his body starving for oxygen after an equipment failure near the summit.

Recalling that 2006 expedition, the UC Riverside Ph.D. candidate said he felt no pain or fear. “I was really dying at the time, but it didn’t register that I was dying,” he said.

Young Hoon Oh

Oh will attempt to summit the 29,035-foot peak, the tallest in the world, again in May as part of the fieldwork for his anthropology dissertation, “Forces of the Unknown: Subjective, Intersubjective, and Presubjective Community in Himalayan Mountaineering.” His research will focus on the types of communities mountaineers create — both philosophically and experientially — and the transformation of Sherpa society after nearly a century of aiding hundreds of international climbers.

The seasoned climber will lead a team of three South Korean mountaineers whose $150,000 expedition will be funded by the Alpine Club at Seoul National University in South Korea. Oh began climbing mountains as an 18-year-old undergraduate student at Seoul National University. “I need to get to the top,” he said. “I’m sort of climbing for all 200 people” in the club.

Oh will leave Riverside in late March for Seoul, where he will meet his two climbing companions. From there, the trio will fly to Kathmandu, Nepal, and continue to the Lukla airstrip built by Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who in 1953 was the first to reach the top of Mount Everest, accompanied by his Sherpa porter, Tenzing Norgay.

From Lukla the climbers will hike for 10 days to the base camp at the bottom of Mount Everest, where they will spend about a month setting up four camps between the base camp and summit, laying ropes and ladders across crevasses, and getting used to the altitude and thin air. Oh said he plans to attempt the summit between May 15 and May 30, and will carry a UC Riverside pennant to the peak.

He will write about his experiences in a blog, Anthropologist in Himalaya, at

When the Mount Everest expedition is finished, Oh will spend more than a year living with Sherpa families to document the impact of mountaineering on their culture, and to observe the relationships between Sherpas and mountaineers.

“While Sherpas have participated in the sport of mountaineering since the early 20th century, their tasks have changed from low-altitude portering to working as specialized high-altitude porters, to guiding foreign mountaineers, to organizing international mountaineering expeditions,” Oh explained.

Economic activities revolving around mountaineering —managing lodges, working as trekking guides and managing tour companies —have resulted in radical transformations in Sherpa society, he said. For example, while Sherpas have traditionally regarded mountains as places where the gods reside, “some Sherpas in recent years have come to regard Mount Everest as an important economic asset for themselves. Others, however, still regard it as the place of the goddess Miyolangsangma,” the Tibetan Buddhist goddess who lives at the top of Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Mount Everest.

“Most Sherpas have generally considered the mountaineering job to be one of the higher-income businesses. However, recently there also have been a few Sherpas who climb for themselves, without economic motivation, and who want to be called mountaineers, not guides. “

Oh said he also wants to explore the discovery, resulting from his near-death experience six years ago, “that extreme physical conditions provide a good space in which to observe that gap between experience and understanding of that experience.”

“I’ve studied the biographies of mountaineers who wrote about this as a religious or spiritual experience,” he said. “I’m trying to talk about that kind of experience from a social science perspective and how it influences mountaineering community relations.”

Oh said he chose UCR for his Ph.D. program because of the research Sally Ann Ness, professor of anthropology, is doing in Yosemite National Park to document visitor experience and because of her interest in rock-climbing.

Alluding to British mountaineer George Mallory’s explanation of why he wanted to climb Mount Everest — “Because it’s there” — Oh said many mountain climbers find it difficult to explain their passion.

“They don’t know themselves why they like climbing,” he said. “For me, it makes me feel alive. It’s the source of my happiness.”

Young Hoon Oh began mountaineering while an undergraduate at Seoul National University


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