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To Everest and Back--Only Faster

May 10, 1990|JOHN M. BERRY | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Marc Batard is quiet, slight and driven. He could easily slip through a crowd unnoticed unless one happened to meet his eyes and catch a glimpse of the controlled intensity within.

In fall, 1988, Batard, a French climbing guide, did something a few hundred other human beings have ever done--climbed to the summit of the world's highest peak, Mt. Everest.

Only he did it in 22 hours 29 minutes--instead of the usual several days or weeks--and he did it without the mainstay of most expeditions, the use of supplemental oxygen.

During his visit here, he repeatedly displayed another key attribute of mountaineering: patience. With unfailing politeness he answered questions from local climbers seeking to understand how he could have accomplished such a feat and why he should have tried in the first place.

On the first point, Batard said simply, "I am very lucky. I adapt easily to high altitude."

Everest is so high, 29,029 feet, that no human being could live on its summit for long breathing its rarefied air. Only a handful of people have ever gotten there without oxygen masks and tanks.

Even with oxygen, many Everest climbers have suffered at least temporary brain damage from oxygen deprivation, severe frostbite related to a lack of oxygen and more than a few have died.

By moving so fast, Batard was in the so-called death zone above 26,000 feet for only a matter of hours. In that sense, his speed increased his safety.

Even though hikers and climbers of lesser peaks are always cautioned not to go alone, those who ascend the highest mountains understand that they are essentially on their own.

In a film shown at the festival, Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks, said that if he and his partner did not return to their camp on time, no one was to come looking for them. It was understood they would be in an avalanche or a crevasse.

Such are the risks of high-altitude climbing, and they seem acceptable to Batard, who is 37 and the father of three children.

While Batard climbed Everest solo, he was hardly alone on the mountain. Several other expeditions were also sharing the base camp below the Khumbu Icefall, the traditional starting point for climbs from the south side.

The other expeditions had already fixed a route through the treacherous icefall.

Other members of his party also were higher on the mountain to provide him with liquids so he did not have to carry them or lose time melting snow.

Batard's first attempt was turned back above 26,000 feet. On his second he had less than 100 feet of altitude to go when he turned back. "That is what takes real courage," he said. "To know when you must go down."

A few days later he tried again, successfully. That September day was remarkable not just for Batard's feat but also for the fact that a dozen climbers from other groups reached the summit.

"I was glad there were 12 others," he said. "That way no one could doubt that I had done it."

As to the second question, why does he do it, the answer was never really clear. Part of it was, he said, "that I can."

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