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Nam Nan-hee

Posted July. 02, 2004 22:16,   


Legendary mountain-climber Nam Nan-hee (47, photo): she traversed the Baekdu Mountain Range alone over 76 days, and was the first woman in history to scale the heights of Ganga Purna in the Himalayas.

These days, she takes a wholly different approach to mountains. She no longer spurs herself on, anxious about the remaining distance to the summit. Instead, she slows her pace to match that of her young son, Gi-beom (11), as he laughs and chatters loudly enough to rattle the whole mountain. And if she fails to reach the summit… well, she just comes back down.

“If I climbed mountains before, I just ‘enter’ them (ipsan, 入山) now. I can see the mountain far better than I could while I was climbing them.”

Her recent collection of essays, “Lower Mountains are Better” (Hakgojae Publishers), unassumingly records the trajectory of her life as she moved from mountain-climbing to “mountain-entering.” The frustration of her plans to ascend Mount Everest with a group of female climbers, her reclusion, marriage, the birth of her son, her move from Seoul into Mount Jiri, divorce, her time as the principal of Jeongseon Nature School in the Gangwon province, settling down in Hwagae-gol in Mount Jiri… Breathlessly rounding the bends of life, Nam has realized the depths of the lessons it teaches: “The fierce breath of typhoon Rusa, that lifted off the roof of a home in Jeongseon, can be more terrifying,” she ponders, “than the gusts of Ganga Purna, which can put out a life in a single second.”

“In my twenties, I climbed mountains as an ‘alternative to death.’ There was a hunger and a thirst that could not be quenched, and I was pursued by the craving to become better than others--and I ended up wounding both myself and the people around me.”

Nowadays, Nam doesn’t climb mountains; instead, she lives among the foothills, roasting tea leaves and fermenting soybeans. Last year, she made “meju” (cakes of fermented soybeans) out of ten large sackfuls of beans. As a climber, she still remembers the unfinished work of “traversing the remaining northern stretch of the Baekdu Range,” but for now, her most precious moments are spent gazing into the ample bosom of Mount Jiri from her seat on the wooden floor of her home.

The change was wrought by nature and her child. Although all she did was sow the seeds and weed a couple of times, the soybeans grew in abundance. Her son, “both lover, husband, and father” to her, grew into a child who knows how to converse with nature; one who worries about the safety of magpie nests and dragonfly beds in the rain. On the first day of the new year and their respective birthdays, Nam and her son bow to each other. Each time she performs this ritual, she reminds herself, “My child allows me to examine who I am, and teaches me to shed my egoism and lower myself to stand with others.”

“I feel like my life thus far has been a process leading me to the mountain. My life nowadays is a comfortable one, free from particular wants and desires… and I love this peace and tranquility.”

Eun-Ryung Chong ryung@donga.com