The Call of the Mountain
At 10 a.m. on 3 November, there took place a particular funeral service at Seoul National University Hospital for Mr. Park Young-seok (48), one of the world's best and greatest mountaineers Korea has produced, and for his two fellow veteran mountain climbers. It was observed without their bodies. Park and his two companions went missing from October 18 on their way to the peak of the 8,091 meter-high Annapurna in the Himalayas. The rescue teams conducted a search operation for ten days, but failed to find them. They are believed to have fallen into a crevasse or be buried under the avalanche snow. Bereaved families and almost all the people and organizations related with the mountain-climbing activities in the country participated in the largest-scale memorial service ever held.
I watched the progress of Mr. Park's expedition from his triumphant start to the tragic end on TV with particular emotion and sentiment. I felt a mixed feeling of sympathy, pity, regret and envy. First of all, I thought, there was no positive reason for him to brave and weather this expedition. He had already been at the peak of Annapurna once in 1996. He was reported to try a new route on the south face of Annapurna this time. What a vain and poor excuse it was for that perilous enterprise! Mr. Park himself must have known better than anybody else of the hardship, danger and even the possible death he would be exposed to in the attempt.
And, Mr. Park couldn't be more successful as a mountain climber already. No other mountaineers in the country, nay in the whole world, could beat his records: scaling all the fourteen mountains above 8,000 meter-high in the Himalayas, all the seven highest summits on each of the seven continents, and reaching South and North Poles on foot - all done within the shortest span of time in the world. For these unparallelled as well as superhuman achievements Mr. Park was earlier awarded the Order of Blue Dragon, the highest recognition in the field of sports in Korea by the government. But he was not satisfied.
Some words of his uttered before this tragedy were revealing as well as ominous enough. It was reported that he used to say, "I thank much for being alive. I have lost many companions while climbing together, but I survived. I was just lucky. But I think mountaineers are mountaineers so long as they go to the mountains and explorers are explorers only when they continue to explore. A mountaineer at home is, like a tiger in the zoo, a mountaineer no longer. I will keep exploring until I die." Apparently it seems that not only he was not satisfied with what he had achieved, but also he could not feel comfortable with the ordinary and everyday life.
In fact, his ordinary life had ended when he stood at the top of Mount Everest in 1993, the highest mountain on the earth and under the sky, when he was thirty years old as the first in Korea and in Asia. From the moment on, his life was not an ordinary one. He became an extraordinary man. He has become a name, a myth and a legend. He became another man with fame, money and, more than anything else, with the experience he had made at the altitude of 8,848 m. The air he had breathed into his lungs, the snow he had tasted and touched, and the wind and the sky he heard and seen with his ears and eyes up there were not the same ones that ordinary man like you and me down here could understand and imagine. He became a different man.
Then and there he got infected with the mountain-fever. He heard constantly the call of the mountain which was so clear and wild that he could not deny or resist it. His mind and thinking always wandered far to the Himalayas, or somewhere else, where he could test his body and courage, where he could exhaust his whole breath and energy, where the unimaginably harsh and cold weather, danger, and imminent death dwelled. He could not be comfortable with the comforts at home. The call was powerful, seducing and intoxicating enough for him to leave everything behind - the warm embrace of his beloved wife, the sweet smiles of his dear sons, the convivialities of his friends. He became deaf to the pleas of his family and friends not to do it again.
He refused to grow old as an idle man by the warm stove in winter or in the cool breeze of the air-conditioner in summer at his cozy apartment. He refused to rest from adventure. He wanted to drink the cup of life to the lees. He wanted to enjoy greatly and suffer greatly with those who followed him and alone. How dull was it for him to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use! He refused to become a name only.
Mourning his untimely death I would like to take a special note of his age, forty-eight, and I pause a moment to reflect on it. If he had just passed fifty by now, I would presume, he might have not attempted this adventure, or he could possibly have been persuaded from doing it. Forty-eight was a very difficult age for a man of great ego still physically strong and mentally acute to stop. As a mountain climber Mr. Park passed his prime, but most probably he would not admit or accept it. He was at the critical moment of his life. This expedition could be his last adventure, and if had succeeded, he might have grown to an ordinary old man as I am with joys, sorrows and miseries. I envy him.
(November 21, 2011)
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