Saturday, March 31, 2012


Arrived at Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal.  Pasang Sherpa, a younger brother of Mingma Sherpa, welcome us with Kata.

Coming into Nepal again.  It was fifth visit for me, so I have no many interest in tourism within the city.  I am rather busy in mind for being the leader as well as dealing with the unfinished workings at my graduate program.

No airplane to Lukla past three days, for the weather at the village was ineligible to have small aircrafts landing safely.  We have to have wait days in the dusty, crowdy, but live capital.

One Expedition, But Meanings Are...

Many media have focused on this expedition.  Media in the US focus generally on my own work, whereas those in South Korea show varied nuances.

The media in my university, University of California, Riverside, focus on my own job:

Outside Magazine, a popular magazine in the States, wrote an article based on the article of the UCRToday, but slightly in a different fashion--focus on the local culture:

Live Science, a sister magazine of Our Amazing Planet, writes an article about how and why I am trying to study about an extreme experience:

Flying out to South Korea, I discovered varied repercussions:

Only mentioning a few facts of expedition:

Focusing on the climbers (me and Mr. Yoo):

The Newspaper at Seoul National University dealt with this event three times already: Each are focusing on one member's intention and personal history (, on the professor's life history (, and on the Launching Ceremony (

There are a few more that deal with this expedition but not web-based: The Newsletter for the Alumni Club at the College of Agriculture and Life Science at Seoul National University (as focusing on the club's intention) and the Monthly Magazine Man and Mountain (two, each on one member's intention and on the process of launching the expedition).

As the expedition leader, I think the article appeared on the Newsletter for the Alumni Club of the university is the closest to the over-arching meaning of the expedition.  Ironically, it is because, the article was written by a significant member of the expedition, without receiving any editing from other people as other articles did.

Mountaineering: a Climber's Task?

If you want to define what it means to climb such a high mountain, you need to see the ways people deal with the climbing itself.  

Many people enjoyed their signing their names on the UCR flag which I told them I would bring to the top of Mt. Everest.  Most of them wrote about their wish of my luck.  What does it mean, at first, taking a picture of the flag and, secondly, their signing on the flag?

Preparing an expedition takes much longer time than anyone might guess

This expedition is, more than anything else, an expression of the "dream and hope of fifty years of the alpine club."  We, three young climbers, do not have such a long standing hope.

At the airport

This is, I guess, difficult to be understood for the people in the Western world, where such a sport has almost always been understood as an individual activity.  I mean by the term "individual" that focused are mountaineers themselves--their own choice, their own struggle to go over all the hardships.  

Can you imagine the situation in which an individual disappears?  

I believe now I am there.  No one can find the Western model of individual in this expedition.  Instead, there IS another model of individual, human being whose activities and even thoughts cannot be separated to other beings. 

They might feel 'lonely' but never in the same way the English 'lonely' means.  They might feel 'community', but, too, never in the same way the Western-defined.  Then, what are the contents of their feeling?  And, how are those processes possible?  These are my questions...  

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Farewell to Riverside

"Are you excited?" many people asked me.  I WAS excited, but not now, for the expedition.  When I was to decide to join the expedition far more than a year ago, I was excited, taking into consideration of every possible events that might occur to me by the climbing, being nervous of the situations in which life matters.  But not now.  I have made my body, my person, my life as of such a person who will climb the mountain, who will struggle not to suffer such severe hazards, who will take into consideration his life.  No excitation, no surprise to the future came to me.  All are expected, expected newness.  Already stepped in -- phrasing Deleuze, already climbed over to "plateau," living over, on which one never be able to feel how 'high' the place is.  

Running up the hill of Box Spring has been the best I found in Riverside in terms of not only for the purpose of training, but such a great view on top of it.  To look over the far sunset over the LA district was one of the best views among I've ever seen.  The view brings me to a larger, bigger world, by waking me up to the "spark" of the nature.  It is me who bring my body up on the hill; however, my agency can only work of leaving, entrusting my body to the forces of nature.  I realized the pleasure of "leaving off," without surveying its process.  The view has brought me to the larger world, the Himalayas, Mt. Everest.  The view was as such a bridge that connects me to a mountaineer.

My advisor, Sally Ness, prepared for me a "farewell party."  Which I was really surprised, when I saw my name on the huge cake!  My surprise was doubled-sensed: not only it (the party) was hidden to me, but also
their particular expectation or imagination to my journey.  The question, "are you excited," was one that I'd heard so many times there.  Climbing such a highest mountain was something of individual, for whom the expectation was focused.  However, the countries where I will conduct my research developed very different ways of expecting futures.  Climbing is not something of individual as I've been experienced in America.  It may be something of more a group of humans, or more a "nature," or more a divine practice.  This constitutes my second surprise.  Only I am expecting my trip to Nepal as to be a series of such double-sensed surprises, which may be the maxim of ethnographic fieldwork.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

7mm Rope

For safety, all sorts of climbers consent various standardized forms of climbing.  Standards for equipment is probably the most objectified standard.  Whether you climb rock or ice, you need to use ropes, helmets, harness and so on in each of their appropriate sizes and dimensions -- This is arguably one basic ethics in their community.  

If you climb rock, you can use a rope in a diameter of 9mm - 11mm nowadays.  In an alpine terrain -- that may take more than one day on ice and rocks -- the choice of rope is significant, due to an ambivalent choice involving both the weight of the rope that should take much labor and the potential cut off of it due to rock or ice fall or climber's falling.  Put simply, if the rope is too thin, it may be easily cut off, whereas, if it is quite thick, it is too heavy to carry on with all other equipment in their back.  

Some mountaineers (particularly who climb in the Alps) prefer to use double-roped or twin-roped system.  It is good for avoiding cutting off the rope (for using two at once) and for rappelling down.  Although in the system the diameter of the rope can be reduced to 7.5 mm and the weight of one rope would be around 2.5kg, the paired ropes in total weigh still up to 5kg, which is heavier than 4kg in 9mm-single-roped system.

Then, I ask: what is safety? when can a climber be safe in climbing?

It is believed that climbing is dangerous.  But, it seems to me there is NO universal agreement what is danger.  Kazakhstan mountaineer Denis Urubko says: "Climbing may be dangerous, but life itself is dangerous. What different between the two is, the former only make it observable, while the latter it is hidden."

It may be hasty if you say "climbing without rope is too dangerous," for there are not a few people who climb without rope and who feel completely comfortable.  If they felt it was too dangerous, they won't do that.  Likewise, although using rope thicker than 9mm is now an almost universally-accepted standard for safety in mountaineering, climbing with a rope in 7mm is not necessarily more dangerous.

7mm-diameter rope is therefore an ideal.  It is just one step over to those objectified standards, community agreements, habitual assumptions.  Yet, it does not have gone too far from any consentable boundary of their community for safety.  It is not too bizarre as handful ropeless climbers almost always deemed.  Instead, it is a realization of the passionate progression over one's capacity -- the maxim of climbing.  Most important, it forces the climbers tied into it to ask the standard of safety, of danger-life relationship, and of the meaning of climbing, while their flowing into series of climbing activities.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hillary and Norgay

In May 1953, two of the British expedition finally reached to the highest place in the world firstly ever.  The New Zealander Edmund Hillary took pictures of the magnificent views from the lofty spot, including the posture of his partner, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, with an ice ax replaced for a flagstaff to which four flags -- The United Nations, England, Nepal, and India -- attached.  

Tenzing on the top of Mt. Everest in 1953.  

It was really a grandeur achievement for him, and for the public of British and New Zealand.  However, to the person masked on the mountain and to the public of his nation(s) it did not register the same.  To reach such an extreme place like the highest place, the South and North Poles was a "victory of mankind," as dubbed by Francis Younghusband, the president of the Everest Committee, yet only to the Western "adventure" minded people's mind.  Not universal idea.

Hillary and Norgay

In any case, it is true that the Sherpa porters and mountaineers began to be noticed as a "useful" group of people with whom Western mountaineers may climb more efficiently in the Himalayan mountains.  They have been known as not only strong but sociable, devoted, cheerful.  Hillary, in this regard, once said about Sherpa who are the people most frequently "blood-taken."  Their tasks have been changed from low-altitude porters to guiding foreign mountaineers, managing trekking agencies as well as hotels in the mountainous region.

Moreover, as the trend of world-mountaineering is changing throughout the 20th century, the composition of foreign people who visit the region has shown a significant transformation.  This has paralleled with an unseen variety of change in the Sherpa's societies.  What unseen is, most of all, is its speed.

The tales and pictures like Hillary-Norgay last long.  They would involve particular images and meanings.  But they pivot upon the turmoil of the society.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Someone, not Me

The American mountaineer, Barry Blanchard, said to his partner during the summit bid of Mt. Nanga Parbat (26,660ft., Pakistan): "I've been out of my body for the last half-hour, just watching myself climb and not really paying attention."  Apparently, he was hallucinated due to the extreme fatigue and the reduced partial pressure of oxygen in the air.  One of my key foci throughout my research is precisely the condition Barry narrated.  It might be observable the "gap" between what they experience and what they understand the experience.  The extreme condition of the sport would likely permit me to document the dramatic series of events.

"Above the Clouds"

What is the "gap"?  At least, it may be thinkable that there is such an un-reflexive experiential phase during climbing, as the exhausted mountaineer recollects.  His recollection, however, is not a description of the un-reflexive experience.  It is not a description, but a 'translation,' translated into his own language, according to his habitual form of thought.  Also, such an act of recollecting itself can be very culturally specific: while he and probably many other 'Western' mountaineers like to note the weird disunited conscious state during their climbing, others--including Sherpa mountaineers--tend not to do so.

Therefore, it is a legitimate hypothesis: whereas mountaineers participate in the pre-conscious, pre-symbolic, or pre-thought experience, they would understand, recollect, and symbolize the very experience in a variety of ways, differing from each persons.  

The German term Dasein captures this ontological question.  Heidegger once said: "It is not "I" or "you".  It is someone who feel uncanny" if he/she recognizes him/herself is grounded on nothingness.  If one sees outside of her symbolic, conceptual, or rather cultural thinking--if possible--what can be said the nature of such a world?  What does it mean that to be "someone", not "I" or "you"?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Everest as Consumable

The Italian Reinhold Messner, one of the most famous mountaineers in the history of mountaineering as firstly getting to the tops of the fourteen above-eight-thousand-meters mountains among other invaluable achievements, once said: "Mount Everest has degenerated into a 'fashionable' mountain."   It is widely known that nowadays the peak may be conquerable relatively safely if one has enough time and money with suitable physical strength.  Well-fixed rope, enough help from Sherpa guides, comfortably installed camp equipment, and so forth.  International managers even train 'novices' at the foot of the glaciers of the mountain.  In 2011, for instance, more than five hundreds of people, through the 'easiest' normal route (i.e. Southeast ridge), reached to the top--half of them were Sherpas.  To the eyes of such essentialist like Messner--who has written more than thirty books on mountaineering with his particular philosophical approach to the topic--the mountain is becoming a spot of "mass tourism."

'Village' on the North Col (23,000ft, 7,000m) of Mt. Everest

I do agree with him that the mountain now can be climbable much easier than appear to be and, therefore, it may not be what the authentic adventurer would be aiming.  I do not agree with him, however, of implying that the experience of the mass tourists--the "novices"--must be less valuable, or a sort of insignificant job that might be consumable and therefore no important meaning in whatever senses be embedded in.  

People say: "McDonaldization" of climbing.  They criticize such a capitalist tendency, denigrate manufactured experiences.  Mountaineering, not only to the authentic explorers but also to all of the "experience seekers" of this modern world, is, as a "really" dangerous sport, to be a sacred activity being left on the level of highest plane that might be closer to the cleanest god's realm.

I am not arguing for such an experience of tourists that should also be treated equally as valuable.

I am arguing that, in the sense of the climbing itself, whether it is really dangerous or not, always involve a certain degree of personal as well as communal commitment, incomparable significance should arise from all of the phases of various styles of the physical activity.  The significance is of course various to each practitioner.  An authentic mountaineer would claim "alpine-style" climbing may better produce meaningful achievement.  On the other hand, however, such a legitimacy of the style is not inherent to the experience but a production of the experience, conceivable as a result of it.  Therefore, we are not able to be assured of what signification will follow from the experience in question.  We only imagine, based on our habitual knowledge, the meanings which will generate from us, from within.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What makes Climber

Someone asks: "How do you prepare, or fit your body for climbing such a mountain?"  This is also, I'm sorry but, a meaningless question.  

Mountaineers do not climb only or mainly because they finally want to go up to such a high mountain.  They like climb, to the contrary, so they would finally climb such a high mountain someday.  They have not been climbing for so many hours and days with such a specific reason to climb a certain summit.  This is why such a tourism called "7 summits" is censured by many mountaineers as "peak baggers".

Of course, they usually spend an unbelievable amount of hours to prepare a trip to a mountain: planning, conditioning, equipment, food, partners, clubs, family, money, books, and so on.  But it is not the point that they 'make' their body fit to climb a prominent mountain.  I would rather say, their body is already being made before they choose whatever mountains.  Not the mountain that calls him, but the body, or the soul does.  

They wouldn't be sure even to the final hours whether they really want to go.  There is no assurance.  No clearance.  Philosopher Martin Heidegger once said: "Things open up their own world."  Only their is a calling, calling from, people say, the nature, the mountain, or the spirit.  Mountaineers named it differently, but Koreans have a beautiful one: mountaineer's sympathy.  

Climbing itself is fitting.  Cathedral Peak, Yosemite, Jul 2011

John Muir's beautiful route.  Mt. Whitney, Sierra, Jul 2011

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Double Sided, But

The highest mountain in the world is, as you know, Mt. Everest (29,029ft, 8,848m).  It is on the border between Nepal (South) and China (North).  This spring, between March and June 2012, I will climb the mountain through south side, as a leader of a Korean expedition.

South side of the mountain

But, it is, for me, not just a climbing to the top: as an anthropology PhD candidate at University of California, Riverside, it is a part of my dissertation research titled as "Forces of the Unknown: Presubjective, Intersubjective, and Subjective Community in Himalayan Mountaineering."  I will conduct a research in Nepal and South Korea for two years including this expedition.

In fact, I climbed the tallest mountain from the opposite side in 2006.  The climbing, too, was a part of my master thesis's research titled "Symbolic Politics of Himalayan Mountaineering: An Anthropological Approach," as a graduate student at the Department of Anthropology at Seoul National University.

North Side of the Mountain

To your eyes as well as mine, it looks ironical: Which is first, as a climber or as an anthropologist?  Am I climbing as a climber or as an anthropological researcher?  

Please don't raise such a question.  It is useless.  All responses would be meaningless.  No relation to the reality.  

Moreover, it is harmful.  This kind of dissecting, anatomizing tendency alienates us from the reality.  People ask: 'Why do Sherpas climb?'  'Why mountaineers dare to risk their life?'  'What do they want from the mountain?'  It is a reductionism, reducing human into machine, economic machine, symbolic machine, greedy or altruistic machine. 

But, it is true that people, and mountaineers themselves, are urged to ask.  I, too, climb and conduct research in order to make an answer to that question.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Two live Four

It was 2006 when I was climbing Mt. Everest, tallest mountain in the world.  As a young mountaineer, it was really an awesome chance to climb such a prominent mountain.   

But I couldn't make it to the top, for a number of reasons.  The mechanical problem occurred to my oxygen regulator (i.e. frozen) as I have thought from since was not entirely responsible for my climbing back from about 1,000 ft. below the top.  The reasons are themselves a story: not just physical and material problems, but also conflicts, subtle relations among climbers as well as such a long dream of a Everest climber would tell more than the oxygen equipment.

More than anything else, if you succeed, you don't think many.  If you fail, you'd be forced to think, including what you've never asked before: Why you climb, or, why you live?

The four climbers at that time, now became two: Two have been killed on other mountains.  One in 2007, and the other in 2011.  Mr. Lee, next to me, does not climb any more.  I climb again.  Whether you actually climb or not and whether you are on mountain or not do not matter.  What matters is the fact that we are always forced to choose whether we climb or not.  Now I am not climbing, but I might climb tomorrow.  Someone says, "I'll never climb again."  But who knows.   See, his hands were already sweaty.