By Stephen Mulvey
A Korean climber may this weekend become the first woman to scale the world's 14 highest peaks. It's one of the most formidable feats in mountaineering - but doubts have been creeping in about her right to claim the glory.
A year ago three European women were leading the race to conquer all 14 mountains in the world above 8,000m high - Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner of Austria, Nives Meroi of Italy and Edurne Pasaban of Spain.
But over four months in 2009 two rival South Korean climbers scaled an astonishing four peaks each, catapulting one of them, Oh Eun-Sun, to the top of the league table.
She is now on the slopes of her final mountain of the 14, Annapurna, with a Korean TV crew, which is planning a two-hour live broadcast on Sunday, when it estimates she will reach the summit.
THE WORLD'S HIGHEST PEAKS
There are 14 independent mountains on Earth that are more than 8,000 metres (26,247 ft) high
All are in the Himalayan and Karakorum mountain ranges
The first to climb all 14 was the legendary Italian climber Reinhold Messner, who completed it in 1986
A total of 19 men have done it
The latest was Portuguese Joao Garcia, who scaled Annapurna on 17 April 2010 (the same day as Edurne Pasaban)
Nothing can be taken for granted. But if she succeeds it will be a bitter blow to Edurne Pasaban, her nearest rival in the race, who ascended Annapurna herself on Saturday and is about to leave for Tibet to tackle the last peak on her list, Shisha Pangma.
The two rivals met at Annapurna base camp on 7 April over a cup of tea. "It was a very pleasant chat
we laughed a little. It was good," Pasaban wrote in her blog.
But this week, after Pasaban's descent from Annapurna to Kathmandu, the gloves came off.
She began to voice doubts that Oh had reached the top of the world's third-highest mountain, Kangchenjunga, which both of them tackled in May last year.
Claims and counter-claims
Crucially, she sowed seeds of doubt in the mind of the world's most respected keeper of Himalayan mountain climbing records, Elizabeth Hawley.
Miss Hawley, an 86-year-old American, told the BBC that following her conversation with Pasaban on Thursday, she was altering her unofficial but authoritative Himalayan Database to mark Oh's ascent of Kangchenjunga as "disputed".
"Miss Oh and her Sherpa told my assistant that they both summited Kangchenjunga and we had no reason to doubt them," she said.
"This same Sherpa is now with Miss Oh on Annapurna 1. My assistant will re-interview this Sherpa when he returns to Kathmandu."
Doubts about Oh's ascent of Kangchenjunga were first raised in Korea itself, prompting her sponsors to fly one of the three Sherpas who accompanied her on the climb to Seoul for a press conference in December.
Critics argued that a photograph said to have been taken at the summit could have been taken anywhere, the background was so blurry and indistinct.
Pausing to wipe away tears, according to a report in the Korea Times, Oh said this was unavoidable due to fog and a violent snowstorm.
The Sherpa, meanwhile, said he knew the layout of the top of the mountain from previous ascents, and gave assurances that Oh had spent one minute there before descending.
A spokesman for Oh's sponsor, Blackyak, an outdoor clothing company, said the doubts were being stirred up by "people with malicious intent to tarnish her reputation".
The press conference appeared to silence Oh's Korean critics, but a Spanish climber in Pasaban's team, Ferran Latorre, continued to harbour doubts.
He noted that Oh and her helpers had fixed green rope on the mountain up to an altitude of about 8350m - some 200m below the summit - and could not understand why the rope stopped there, if they had gone all the way to the top.
On Wednesday, shortly after Oh left base camp on her ascent of Annapurna, he finally spelled out his concerns in detail in his blog.
"It is true that this is only doubt and you cannot prove anything definitive," he wrote. But with Oh a serious candidate to become the first woman to complete the 14, "is it not right to ask for explanations?" he asked.
If Oh makes it to the summit of Annapurna this weekend, the fact that her ascent of Kangchenjunga is in the process of being marked "disputed" in the Himalayan Database will make no difference - the ascent is still recognised by Elizabeth Hawley, for the time being, and she is the ultimate arbiter.
Oh Eun-Sun will be a national hero in Korea, and will be hailed worldwide as a record-breaker.
"If she climbs Annapurna she is officially the first woman to summit all the 14," said another keeper of mountaineering records, Eberhard Jurgalski, of 8000ers.com.
"But then comes the investigation, and maybe later Kangchenjunga will be deleted - I don't know."
There were a number conflicting reports about what various members of the Sherpa community were saying about Oh's success or failure on Kangchenjunga, he said.
"It's all mixed up, you cannot say what is true and what's invented - and believe me, I don't like this," he said.
If Kangchenjunga is ultimately changed in the Himalayan Database, from "disputed" to "unrecognised" it is hard to say what the league table will look like by then.
Pasaban could complete the 14 within weeks, though Shisha Pangma has eluded her on four previous attempts.
Oh Eun-Sun's Korean friend and rival Go Mi-Sun died on the descent from Nanga Parbat last year (Oh is carrying a photograph of her with her on her ascent of Annapurna).
Nives Meroi is not climbing any 8,000ers this year.
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is currently attempting Everest by the north face - without oxygen as always. If she succeeds she will only have K2, the most treacherous of the 14, to complete.
Additional reporting by Joanna Jolly in Kathmandu