Conquering Everest

A history of climbing the world's tallest mountain

New Zealander Rob Hall, at the 28,000-foot mark of Everest's Southeast Ridge in 1994, led Jon Krakauer's team up in 1996. A storm claimed the lives of eight climbers, including Hall's, on that widely publicized expedition (David Keaton/CORBIS)

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Other climbers sought challenge in climbing techniques. On May 8, 1978, Italian Reinhold Messner and his Austrian climbing partner Peter Habeler scaled Everest without supplemental oxygen. They trudged at a pace of 325 feet per hour in the final stretch to break a 54-year, sans-oxygen record of 28,126 feet. Messner went on to complete the first solo climb of the mountain in 1980, an endeavor that left him, as he described, "physically at the end of my tether."

Messner's successors used Everest as a testing ground for their limits as well. A Polish team completed the first winter ascent in 1980, and two Swiss climbers—Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan—broke record times in 1986, climbing the North Face in 41.5 hours and descending in 4.5 hours. Two years later, French climber Jean-Marc Boivin paraglided from the summit. American Erik Weihenmayer, who is blind, defied his own physiological challenge to summit in 2001.

Commercialization of Everest
The number of Everest ascents ballooned from 200 in 1988 to 1,200 by 2003. Multiple ascents per day became common, and it was reported that nearly 90 people were successful on a single day in May 2001. The growing numbers irk traditionalists. Even Hillary scorned the apparent trivialization of the pursuit during the 50th anniversary celebration of his climb in 2003, when he witnessed hundreds of so-called mountaineers drinking at base camp.

A high-profile disaster in 1996 in which several teams descended in a harrowing storm roused the commercialism debate. Eight men died, and climber Jon Krakauer survived to write his 1997 bestseller Into Thin Air, which publicized that some wealthy amateur climbers paid as much as $65,000 to participate, putting themselves and their guides in serious jeopardy.

Hillary once remarked: "I feel sorry for today's climbers trying to find something new and interesting to do on the mountain, something that will get both the public attention and the respect of their peers. Up and down the mountain in 24 hours, a race to the top—what will they think of next?"

A Test for the Ages
Everest's history seems to prove that as long as there's an edge, there are people who want to live on it, both in the manner that others have laid out before them and in ways that redefine the experience.

There's Hahn, a purist who sometimes feels like a one-trick pony for going back to climb Everest again and again. "You'd think that I might have gotten enough from Everest, but I haven't," says Hahn. "I'm not done getting whatever it has to teach me." Then there's DesLauriers. What may seem stunt-like to others is natural for her: "I never thought about 'doing something new.' It's just that I like to ski down mountains that I climb up." Either way, their attempts and their stories are testaments to Everest's staying power as a worthy adversary.

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