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Mount Everest

05/29/03 12:00AM By Mary McKhann
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(Host) Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful climb to the top of Mount Everest, and commentator Mary McKhann says that it is still one of the toughest challenges on earth.

(McKhann) The lexicon of sports is full of "ests" - biggest, longest, greatest, highest, gnarliest. And then there is the overworked word "extreme," used to describe everything from badminton to bungee jumping. But there is one "est" that is the real deal: Everest. And it's about as extreme as it gets.

Fifty years ago, it was even more extreme, if that's possible. It was terra incognita - no one had ever reached the summit at 29,000 feet and change, the highest point on planet Earth. But on May 29, 1953, a 33-year-old New Zealand beekeeper named Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, became the first to stand on the roof of the world. And hundreds of climbers want to mark the anniversary with their own moment on top of the world. The perils of climbing Everest, especially into the Death Zone above 25,000 feet, are well documented. In 1996, the mountain claimed 15 lives, including famed guide Rob Hall. As veteran climber Pete Athans put it, "There are a hundred ways to get killed on Everest."

If anything, that just makes the mountain more alluring. This month during the Jubilee, more than 32 teams, 700 tents and 2,000 people pack the Base Camp near Khumbu Icefall. Many hoped to attain their own version of "est." Sherpas, the indigenous people of the region and probably the best climbers in the world, took the fastest and youngest records - just under 11 hours and a 15-year-old girl, respectively. And a Japanese man who gained fame by skiing down Everest more than 30 years ago, last week became the oldest to summit at age 70.

During a brief break in the hurricane force winds that wreaked havoc on teams making the attempt this spring, many climbers made it to the top starting on May 21st. But so many people were trying to summit last Thursday that some teams decided to wait. A number of teams are still hoping for their chance. Some have decided that this is not their year, including the 2003 American Ski Everest Expedition, which includes Ludlow native Kevin Dunnett. Their ambitious plan was to summit without support or supplemental oxygen, and then ski down. Most team members did do some skiing, some as high as 25,000 feet, but the summit proved out of reach.

Man against nature makes for a good story. But Everest is proof that man can never conquer nature. Humility, according to those who should know, is key to attempting such feats. Tenzing Norgay's son Jamling, who followed in his father's footsteps reaching the top of Everest in 1996, wrote: "Humans are granted no more than an audience with Everest's summit, and then only rarely and for brief moments."

This is Mary McKhann from the Mad River Valley.
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