On Top of the World

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

Young Hoon Oh holds UC Riverside pennant on top of Mount Everest

Young Hoon Oh carried a UC Riverside pennant to the top of Mount Everest.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Despite treacherous conditions on Mount Everest, UC Riverside anthropologist Young Hoon Oh and both teammates from Seoul National University successfully reached the summit of the world’s tallest peak, posing for photos with a UC Riverside pennant at sunrise on May 19.

Young Hoon Oh

Young Hoon Oh

Oh, a doctoral student in anthropology at UCR, and his team stood atop the 29,035-foot summit at 3 a.m., in the dark, and waited until about 4:30 a.m. to see the sun rise over the Himalayas. Four climbers died in conditions that many mountaineers said were the worst in 10 years — treacherous weather, too little snow and a traffic jam on the trek to the summit. More were injured.

“I began to climb from the final camp at 8,000 meters (26,246 feet) at 8 p.m. May 18,” Oh wrote in an email on June 12. “That was earlier than usual, and indeed I was the first person to start among around 200 people who began to climb at the camp. I wanted to avoid a traffic jam, and was afraid of not being able to get to the top if I were packed behind slower climbers.”

Waiting for sunrise, Oh and his teammates napped for an hour and a half about 50 feet below the summit. Few climbers he passed on the return to his base camp reached the summit, in part because of high winds and subfreezing temperatures.

One of those mountaineers, 44-year-old Song Won-bin from South Korea, was caught in the traffic jam of climbers waiting to summit and died later that day, apparently from exhaustion and altitude sickness. Oh said his countryman was fine when the two passed each other.

“I heard the news of his accident that evening. We tried to rescue him,” but it was too late, Oh said. “It was very sad for me and my teammates. The gap between life and death is indeed very thin. Everybody wants to come down without being killed. However, we do not know when we will die.”

In an email to UCR anthropology professor Sally Ann Ness on May 24, Oh said that he and his team arrived safely in Kathmandu — the capital of Nepal — a few days after completing their climb. They flew to Seoul, South Korea, where Oh will remain for about a month before returning to Nepal to conduct fieldwork for his dissertation.

Ness said she was relieved to hear that Oh’s expedition was safe and successful.

“Given the hazardous conditions that he and his team members faced, their achievement is truly outstanding,” she said. “I am very hopeful that the ethnographic work Young Hoon is undertaking in relation to this expedition will contribute significantly to improving the safety and sustainability of mountaineering, on Mount Everest and elsewhere in the world.  The tragedies occurring on the mountain … certainly evidence the pressing need for exactly this kind of research.”

This expedition to Mount Everest, Oh’s second, is 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.

He plans to 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.

Young Hoon Oh on Mount Everest

Young Hoon Oh and his teammates from Seoul National University were among the few mountaineers who safely summited Mount Everest in mid-May.

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