Tough as rocks, these women are ready for the Alps
She froze. Even a slight movement in the wrong direction would cause her belay device to start swinging her like a pendulum. Climbers following her behind yelled at her: “Are you riding your bike up there or something?”
Hearing the shouts, the 40-year-old climber slowly continued up the wall. Ms. Kim was one of four Korean ajumma (a middle-aged, usually married, woman) climbers that would soon challenge themselves to a long, lonely hike up the Grand Joras of the French Alps in June. If successful, it will be the first all-female group of Korean climbers to go on a climbing expedition abroad.
The people shouting were teasing her for being afraid of the rocks, but even experienced climbers like Ms. Kim feel their heart go into their mouth when they’re high up a wall. Even the best climbers say they feel their legs turn to jelly and wiggle when they are suspended on the harness ― sometimes so badly they can almost hear a sound like the rattle and rumble of a motorcycle engine. That’s why they call it a “bike.”
In the Alps, there will be no local guides to lead the climb, nor a porter to carry her heavy backpack up 4,210 meters (13,812 feet) of rock. With just a map and a pile of climbing devices on their backs, they will be climbing one of the most difficult rockwalls in the world. The Mount Bukhan climb is a cinch in comparison.
It was 16 years ago when Ms. Kim, now the owner of an indoor rockwall gym, first became a lead climber. Only the best can take the lead, because it is up to them to choose which cracks, crevices and routes the team will take. Climbers say they essentially entrust their lives to the lead.
Back then, Ms. Kim was climbing in front for her group on Mount Dobong’s Seonin peak. From behind, two men huffed and puffed as they followed her. Not far away, however, other climbers stared in wonder at the team.
“Is that a woman in front?” one asked, pointing at her.
“Nah, it can’t be. It’s the lead climber.” Yet they still stared at the long, straight hair peeping out from under her helmet.
It was dark when Ms. Kim’s team finally arrived at the top of Seonin peak. She had chosen the haneul gil, the “sky route,” the hardest course known on the peak. She removed her helmet, letting the rest of her hair fall over her shoulders. People stared in amazement again.
“Are you crazy? I heard that you took the lead on the Sky Route!” an older man she knew from an alpine club said as he came over to her. He couldn’t seem to believe she had actually climbed those rocks.
That night, the camp buzzed over the news of a “female lead climber” who conquered the Sky Route. Not long afterwards, climbers around the country would know her name. She was one of the first woman climbers in the country who knew how to tackle Seonin peak.
Lee Myeong-hui, 33, a member of the North Face climbing team, was one of the female pioneers who took the lead to climb up Seonin peak.
“When I came down from the mountain, people swarmed all over me,” Ms. Lee said. People asked her what her name was and what alpine club she belonged to.
Ms. Kim and Ms. Lee soon became friends, moving on to conquer almost all the routes up the peak.
In 1995, Ms. Kim, then 30 years old, became the first woman to go ice climbing up Mount Seorak with no tools other than an ice axe. The ice wall was studded with hobnails for climbers, but there was no safety net, no harness. A younger male friend, Choi Seung-cheol, followed behind her ― he did not have any climbing equipment with him, either. It was dangerous, but Ms. Kim said knowing that someone was right behind her was greatly assuring.
It was then that the man suddenly made a marriage proposal. She ignored him, saying she didn’t wanted to risk their lives and wanted to concentrate on the climbing. Moreover, she thought it wasn’t the right time― much less the right place ― to accept a proposal. They eventually arrived at the top. The next year, they were married.
In 1998, however, her husband died falling 1,300 meters down the Talaysagar peak in the Himalayas.
Ms. Lee also met her husband while climbing, on an ice wall in December 2001. She was climbing down a 4,500-meter-high crevass when she slipped on the ice.
“I couldn’t stop sliding. I tried to strike the ground with my axe, but it didn’t work,” she said. She felt herself sinking between the cracks in a glacier and thought, “I’m really going to die.”
But as she was sliding down, she bumped into something hard: one of her male colleagues, who had been climbing down ahead of her. He tried to catch her, but both ended up sliding down the wall together. Somehow, they managed to halt their descent.
“This man risked his life to save me,” Ms. Lee thought. When she rolled over and looked at him, however, his face was a bloody mess. She had accidentally swung her axe toward his face when she was supposed to thrust the device into the wall to slow down the fall.
“I think I’ll be need major plastic surgery at this point. What am I supposed to do?” the man said between groans as he held his bleeding forehead.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “I’lltake care of you from now on.” It was both an answer and a proposal. When they returned to Korea, the two got married.
“Of course, we were attracted to each other before,” she said. “But it was then that I was certain he was the one.”
Kim Dong-ae, 35, used to be a nurse. She worked a three-shift system, which made it impossible for her to go climbing on weekends, so she changed jobs. She now works on an inspection team for the Kyobo insurance company.
The next problem was the number of days she could spend on vacation. To go on the upcoming expedition to the French Alps, she will need at least one month.
She added up her regular vacation time, her annual and monthly off-days and holidays. Finageling them into one 30-day whole, she took her plan to her new employer and asked him to accept it. Stunned by her brazenness, he did.
The final member of the ajumma expedition is Chae Mi-seon, 34, a member of the Forest System, an alpine club. Despite being the only climber there never to have married, but she wants to be called “ajumma” like the others.
“It’s because I’m more ajumma-like than they are,” she joked. “I have to steal seats on the subway and haggle over the prices in the market.”
Ms. Chae has 10 years of experience hiking, and says she prefers doing it with other women because it is much more “convenient.”
“When you go hiking with men, they say they want to eat warm rice and soup, even in the mountains,” she said. “That’s a lot of stuff to carry.” The pots, the water and the gas range are not something she says she wants to haul up a cliff.
“Women are happy with just bread,” she said. “We use the time we would otherwise spend washing dishes resting.”
But the women admitted that men were much faster on the ropes and that female climbers often have a hard time catching up with them.
“I always feel bad if I fall behind and slow down the team,” Kim Jeom-suk said. “So when I’m climbing with men, I try to reach the top a little bit faster and prepare the food before the men arrive.”
Lee Myeong-hui said being the only woman climber on the rockwall for three months was “hell.” In 2001, she went climbing in Pakistan. Sometimes her team had to dangle on ropes for three or four days. One problem was the different ways men and women defecate and urinate.
“You have to pee while hanging on to the rope. You can’t hide your butt anywhere,” she said.
When she felt she had to urinate, she would yell, “I’m going to pee!” and wait for all the men to turn their heads before she pulled down her pants. It was uncomfortable for everybody, she said.
Ms. Chae said another difference between men and women was their perspectives on climbing. According to her, men tend to celebrate “conquering” the mounting, while women tend to relax and enjoy the climb.
“Its all about the rhythmic climbing pattern for women,” she said.
by Baik Sung-ho