Man could not run a mile in less than 4 minutes! And yet Bannister did exactly that, shortly followed by hundreds.
Tied with 11 mountains each, at the start of this year, Spanish Edurne Pasaban, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and Italian Nives Meroi were the three main women in place to become the first females to summit all 8000ers.
That all changed when two Korean ladies entered the scene.
Korean climbers live under different conditions than western mountaineers. South Korea faces constant threat from communist North Korea and most elders have fresh memories from the Korean War (1950-53) that killed 2.5 million people. It has provided Korea with mountaineers known for taking bigger risks but also achieving spectacular climbs.
Codenamed squirrel and iron woman, the oldest of three children Miss Oh worked several jobs and set up a noodle-shop to make money for her climbs. "Had I quit my job only to climb mountains, I wouldn't have lasted long. In my opinion, to realize one's true wishes it's important to stay independent not only financially, but also mentally," she wrote in an open letter to fellow Korean women admirers.
Oh Eun-Sun achieved her very first 8000er (G2) 12 years ago in company of Um Hong-Gil and Park Young-Seok. Following several setbacks her second 8000er came not until 2004 on Mount Everest. That's when everything changed for Miss Oh.
A charge of historical proportions over the highest mountains in the world followed; with Shisha Pangma in 2006, Cho Oyu and K2 in 2007, Makalu, Lhotse, Broad Peak and Manaslu in 2008, and Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum this year.
She broke records too numerous to count, male and female. Speeding up 8000er after 8000er, in Himalaya she was the female version of Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter now considered the greatest sportsman on the planet.
With the incredible successes came doubt. Some of Miss Oh's summits were questioned. Other South Koreans facing the same problem in the past returned with a vengeance to clear their records. They were in fact Miss Oh's partners from G2, her very first peak.
Um Hong-Gil repeated Lhotse and Shisha Pangma. Young-Seok Park repeated Lhotse, providing a super- photo gallery from all the sections, summit included. As for Miss Oh, ExplorersWeb have not seen any facts warranting doubts of her claims.
Criticized for heavy support, the woman climber said she climbs with a few regular Sherpa and used oxygen support only on Everest and K2. "And since an incident when we helped a climber with medical O2 (one of the Sherpas gave him a bottle of O2, I gave him my mask and there were comments afterwards) I dont even carry a mask during the climbs," she said.
Korean star climber Go Mi Sun, 41, was another story and western mountaineers often confused the two. Former Asian X Games champion - Go had doggedly entered the world top-league of Himalaya climbers.
The youngest of 6 siblings, except for her first 8000er (Cho Oyu), Go Mi Sun mostly climbed in big teams using oxygen and led by Kim Jae-Soo. The two survived K2 together last year, and Go said that she hoped to climb all 14, 8000ers by 2011.
But shortly after she sped up her ambition. Following her Makalu-Kangchenjunga-Dhaulagiri triple this spring, Miss Go was headed for the Gasherbrums and Nanga Parbat this summer, hoping to crown her list with Annapurna in fall.
Miss Go's records set a number of milestones for the world mountaineering community, in the end underlining the seriousness of Himalayan 8000+ meter exposure. She fell to her death on descent after summit at around 6200 meters on Nanga Parbat in a section where the previously fixed rope had been removed.
Back home in Korea, some local climbers said that media, sponsors and the "first-ism" of society had fueled a competition between Miss Go and Miss Oh - forcing the climbers to take undue risks.
Gos older brother however replied that his sister and Miss Oh were friends, and never competed with each other. As for the sponsors, "My sister didn't have enough money to climb, so they helped her," the brother said.
Asked to rate the biggest difficulties, Miss Oh in turn told ExWebs correspondent in Korea Kyu Dam Lee, "It was hard to wait for a chance to summit Broad Peak on our third attempt. But the toughest was to recover from the shock after Go Mi-sun died on Nanga Parbat; I had to struggle to get my mind back in control."
Cards still open
Currently preparing for Annapurna, her last 8,000er, nobody doubts anymore how serious Miss Oh is about her goal to grab the first female 14, 8000ers position (Messner holds the male spot).
Seasoned enough to evaluate the risk, "fear is only in our mind," she said, "even though, every time I start an expedition, I cant help thinking whether the mountain will accept me on her summit or not. I am also aware that death is very close to me all the time while I climb."
"I am preparing to do my best," she told ExplorersWeb. "In the end though, Annapurna will decide."
With Edurne, Nives and Gerlinde so far ahead only some years ago, what then seemed impossible is now totally achievable for the South Korean woman.
The cards are still open though. All we know for certain is that Miss Oh and Miss Go have done something many mountaineers didn't think was possible until a year ago. Miss Go died precisely because the quest is difficult and dangerous, showcasing the very heart - and risk - of pioneering.
As for the race, Miss Oh had the following advice to fellow Korean women: Identify your dreams and follow them: Happiness lays right there. You will lose if you compare yourself to others. You will lose if you begin to worry about money, honor or whatever others may think. Remember that dreams and happiness come out of what you like to do for yourself.
Roger Bannister put it this way:
We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves. The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom. No one can say, 'You must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that.' The human spirit is indomitable.
Related story: StatCrunch, take 3: ladies of thin air - beyond Wanda's footprints.
Related story: StatCrunch, take 3, final: ladies of thin air - XXIst Century women.
Related story: ExWeb interview with Oh Eun-sun: "Annapurna will decide".
Previous in the countdown:
5. Sarah Outen, Indian Ocean crossing
6. New route on Nanga Parbat
7. 14x8000ers summiteers.
8. AJ & FTA, corporate compassion
- Good guys leaving too early: Tomaz, Piotr, Serguey, Martin, Oscar, Roby...
- GIII/GIV attempt and rescue.
- Nives Meroi, fame for love.
- North Pole-Greenland crossing and polar records.
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