Um Hong-gil is the first Korean mountaineer to climb the 14 highest peaks in the Himalayas, and the first in the world to climb all of the 16 highest Himalayan peaks. For 22 years, his life has been nothing but "challenge."
[Interview : ] "I decided to devote my life to doing work that repays, at least in part, the immense benefit that the Himalayan mountains have given me."
Um Hong-gil is now beginning a new phase in his life. We meet the mountaineer, who never gives up in the face of failure or disappointment.
We went to meet Um Hong-gil On Wondobong Mountain in the middle of winter. Every weekend, he takes a hike without fail with his fellow mountaineers. Piercing winter winds, temperatures of ten degrees below zero and ankle-deep snow are no obstacles. This was the place where he first discovered the beauty of mountains.
[Interview : Um Hong-gil, Mountaineer] "I've lived here in Wondobong Mountain since I was 3. This is my hometown."
Um Hong-gil's parents operated a small store for hikers. When he was three, the family moved to the heart of Wondobong Mountain. His first baby steps were taken atop the mountain.
He has lived over 40 years in the mountains, and says that the mountain air feels like a mother's breath for him. Perhaps that is why whenever he is going through troubles or is deep in thought, he comes to the mountain.
[Interview : Um Hong-gil, Mountaineer] "When I come to the mountains, I can see the inner world. It makes my soul more beautiful than any artwork can."
Um Hong-gil has established himself as one of Korea's best mountaineers, but the road to success was not easy. His first Himalayan hike ended in failure, and his second attempt lost him a friend. But he never stopped.
[Interview : Um Hong-gil, Mountaineer] "Everyone knows what it's like to fail. In a difficult situation, we always think about the times when we overcame things that had been even worse."
He says that mountaineering is life itself. Even when he lost his toe to frostbite or when he broke his ankle to save his colleague, his passion for the mountains never died down.
With that determination, he was able to become the first man to climb the 16 highest peaks of the Himalayas.
[Interview : Lee Yeong-hui, Mountain climber] "I also like mountains very much. And I am more than glad to have met him, for he has been to mountains that we could never go, and meeting him is like sharing, even a bit, the feeling of being on top of such mountains."
Um Hong-gil says that he is always grateful for mountains, which embrace him and help him to stand at their summits. Whenever he sees a temple during a hike, he stops and prays. And people dear to him are always included in his prayers.
[Interview : Um Hong-gil, Mountaineer] "I think about my colleagues who have left the world before me, and I ask that they rest in peace. There were many times that were painful. When I lost my fellow hikers during a hike, the mere fact that I was alive was painful and tormenting, and it made me really sorry and guilty."
The Um Hong-gil Human Foundation is a charitable organization that he created to repay the kindness that he felt in the Himalayas. The team is busier than ever, preparing for the opening of his second school in Tharpu.
Um Hong-gil's lifelong dream has been to create schools in the remote villages of Nepal.
The first school was established in May of 2010 in Pangboche Village. There was a story behind his dream.
[Interview : Um Hong-gil, Mountaineer] "One of the sherpas fell in an accident while hiking. It was so shocking for me, and I couldn't believe my eyes. I didn't know if it was a dream or not. That was the first time I had actually seen a person die, and they couldn't even find the body."
In 1986, a sherpa that had been carrying equipment and supplies on a hike up Mt. Everest with Um fell 1000 meters to his death. Shocked and wracked with guilt, Um looked for ways to console the sherpa's family. He decided to provide an education for the sherpa's children.
[Interview : Um Hong-gil, Mountaineer] "There is no way to change the environment or the lives of the sherpas themselves. The most important thing is education. Kids who are born and raised in the mountains are destined to inherit poverty from through the generations."
Children in the Himalayas, who could not even dream of an education, are now able to play and study in a school of their own. Um will continue to establish his schools, with the second one coming in two weeks and the third coming within the year.
[Interview : Um Hong-gil, Mountaineer] " The 17 highest peaks of my life are the new challenges that I will face. The first is building 16 "human schools." This is my life's goal, my life itself."
Becoming the first man in the world to climb the sixteen highest Himalayan peaks was not enough for Um.
He will continue to build schools until the day when the Himalayas are filled with children's hopes for the future.
We salute Um Hong-gil, the mountaineer of Korea.