SEOUL, South Korea – Climbing on all fours after 13 grueling hours, a diminutive South Korean woman, Oh Eun-sun, reached the summit of one of the Himalayan giants on Tuesday to lay claim to being the first woman to scale the world’s 14 highest mountains.
In keeping with her country’s intense pride in its athletes, she pulled out a South Korean flag, raised her arms and shouted: “Hurray! Hurray!”
“I would like to share this joy with the South Korean people,” Oh, who is 5 feet 1 inch, said after reaching the summit of Annapurna in central Nepal.
South Koreans – who watched her climb because it was broadcast live by an accompanying camera team – hailed her as a national hero.
A message left on the Web site of the broadcaster KBS said: “All our people watched each step of your climb. You have demonstrated our country’s greatness all over the world.”
Annapurna was the last of the 14 peaks taller than 26,247 feet (8,000 meters) that Oh needed to climb to make history. She reached the summit – 26,545 feet above sea level – 13 years after she scaled her first Himalayan mountain, Gasherbrum II, in 1997.
“We recognize her achievement as the first woman climber to scale all the highest mountains in the world,” said Ang Tshering, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, according to The Associated Press.
Oh’s closest rival, Edurne Pasaban of Spain, scaled Annapurna this month but has yet to reach the 26,330-foot-high Mount Shisha Pangma to match Oh’s feat.
Pasaban has raised questions about whether Oh actually reached the summit of Mount Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak, last year.
“Her Sherpas told me that she didn’t reach the summit because of bad weather,” Pasaban told The Times of London recently.
In the absence of an international mountaineering body, Elizabeth Hawley, an 86-year-old American mountaineering journalist, is considered the final arbiter on such disputes. She agreed last week to record Oh’s ascent of Kangchenjunga as “disputed,” pending an investigation.
Oh, 34, scaled 4 of the 14 peaks last year but retreated several hundred feet from Annapurna’s summit because of bad weather.
On her historic climb, she was carrying a photograph of Ko Mi-young, her rival and fellow South Korean, who plummeted to her death last year while descending from Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest peak. Ko had climbed 11 of the 14 peaks.
“She showed us what challenge means,” Lee Myung-bak, the president of South Korea, said of Oh in his congratulatory message. “I am proud of her.”
Oh was bound to receive a hero’s welcome home in South Korea. Mountain-trekking is a national hobby in the country, where 70 percent of the land is mountainous.
Fewer than 20 people have made it to the top of the 14 peaks that are at least 26,247 feet high, including three South Korean men.
In recent weeks, the South Korean news media gave almost daily updates on Oh’s condition. On Tuesday, KBS showed hours of live coverage as she inched toward the top.
Nationalism looms large in sports in South Korea, a country obsessed with making a mark on the international scene. Kim Yu-na, the figure skater who won this year’s Olympic gold, is a national star.
News reports about sports stars winning world championships brim with patriotism. Reporters often ask the athletes to “say something to the people back home,” and they always thank “the people and the fatherland” before mentioning their family and loved ones.
“When life was hard and we were tired, sports have encouraged us with good news,” said Ko Dong-guk, one of hundreds of TV viewers who left congratulatory messages on the KBS Web site.