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Mountaineers Take On Top Peaks--the Hard Way


Forty years ago next month, as his British team struggled toward the 29,028-foot summit of the world, expedition leader John Hunt walked to the edge of Mt. Everest's south shoulder to peer down the precipitous eastern face plunging to the jumbled Kangshung Glacier.

It was a thrilling and appalling site for a mountaineer: 7,000 vertical feet of rock, snow and ice--a Himalayan house of cards the height of seven Eiffel Towers.

"This will never be climbed," Hunt concluded.

It has been, of course. Everest's Kangshung Face was first ascended by an American expedition in 1983 and by a small lightweight British-American team following a different route in 1988.

Almost every year, some great "last problem" of Himalayan mountaineering is solved, only to have an even more audacious one emerge. An elite corps of climbers has emerged to attempt the most improbable, and riskiest, climbing routes on the world's highest peaks.

"These climbers are exploring the limits of the humanly possible," observed Walter Bonatti, the Italian whose five-day solo ascent of the Dru in the French Alps in 1955 remains a mountaineering legend.

Just what is humanly possible?

Running had the four-minute mile. Baseball has the perfect game. But there is no objective measure of high-altitude climbing achievements.

At the moment, however, few dispute that the first ascent of the 11,000-foot south face of Lhotse by Slovenian Tomo Cesen is unsurpassed in daring and achievement.

Thirteen expeditions, large and small, had failed on this forbidding wall of Lhotse, the 27,923-foot southern neighbor of Everest on the Nepal-Tibet border. Four died trying, including Jerzy Kukuczka, 41, of Poland, considered by many to be the finest high-altitude climber at the time of his death in 1989.

Cesen, 33, climbed the Lhotse face alone and descended in three days in 1990. The year before, he had made a one-day solo ascent of the 9,200-foot north face of 25,294-foot Jannu in Nepal. With those climbs, writer-climber David Roberts reported in Outside magazine, Cesen "had pulled off two of the most astounding feats in mountaineering history.

"Only a handful of climbers, through unprecedented lightning strikes, has altered the notion of what is possible in mountaineering."

Others cited by Roberts included American Fritz Wiessner's near-ascent in 1939 of K2, the world's second-highest peak; Hermann Buhl's solo success on 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat in 1953, and Reinhold Messner's climb of Mt. Everest, alone and without bottled oxygen, in 1980.


Mountaineers have surmounted successive barriers since the first peaks were climbed. The prize always was the first ascent of a peak, usually by the easiest path to the summit. Succeeding waves of climbers pursued ever-more-difficult ridges and faces.

Early expeditions sought strength and safety in numbers. Modern climbers find security in the ability to go fast and light during brief windows of good weather and stable snow and ice conditions.

On Lhotse, Cesen climbed the most difficult sections at night when freezing temperatures minimized his exposure to rockfall and avalanches.

On Jannu, Cesen wrote: "The face above 7,000 meters called for all my technique, but even more for psychological strength. I stared upward at an unbelievable scene . . . Due to the thin air, I couldn't climb these (icy, near-vertical slabs) without resting. But resting, hanging on a perilously inserted ice ax, was anything but pleasant."

The risk is life itself.

In a Summit magazine essay, Steve Howe writes: "Such super-alpine accomplishments are magnificent, astonishing, admirable and nearly unbelievable, but they are certainly not recommendable behavior.

Most practitioners of this art die young. . . . Alpinists view these ascents in overtones of heroic myth, like ice axes driven Excalibur fashion into solid Himalayan ice, to be pulled out only by the next king."

The undisputed King Arthur is Reinhold Messner, now nearing age 50, from the Italian Tyrol.

Messner and former partner Peter Habeler became the first, in 1978, to climb Mt. Everest without supplementary oxygen. Messner's solo, oxygen-less ascent of Everest followed two years later. He subsequently became the first to climb all 14 of the world's peaks of 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) or higher.

"The solo ascent of Everest was probably the single most outstanding event in the career of a man who revolutionized Himalayan climbing," British climber Stephen Veneables writes.

Most superclimbers are professional guides or full-time alpinists from Europe, where they are popular heroes and media stars. In the 1970s and 1980s, gritty Czechs, Poles and Slovenians overcame special handicaps such as underfunded expeditions to ascend mountaineering's stratosphere.

Lacking fame and easy commercial sponsorship, most Americans have been unable to pursue full-time climbing careers, and none has achieved the acclaim of a Messner or Cesen.

The top rank of U.S. climbers has included the four who reached the K2 summit in 1978--Jim Wickwire of Seattle; John Roskelley of Spokane, Wash.; Lou Reichardt of San Francisco, and Rick Ridgeway of Ventura.

Other Americans on the leading edge have included cousins George and Jeff Lowe of Colorado and Utah, Alex Lowe (no relation) of Montana, and Carlos Buhler and Ed Viesturs, both of Seattle.

Viesturs is regarded as the first American to climb the three highest mountains: Everest, K2 and Kangchenjunga.

The leading woman alpinist of recent years was Wanda Rutkiewicz of Poland, who died in 1992 at age 49 while climbing above 27,000 feet on Kangchenjunga.

Rutkiewicz had bagged eight of the 8,000-meter peaks and was described by Buhler as "probably the most broadly accomplished female alpinist ever."

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