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Conquest of Everest: A Look at the Past - 2003-05-27

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest - the highest point on Earth. Many climbers had attempted and failed to reach the summit before them, and the lure of the mountain remains as strong as ever today.

From the moment it was identified as the world's highest peak in 1852, Mount Everest has proved irresistible to mountain climbers. More than 10,000 people have tried to reach the summit - about 1,200 have succeeded. Stephen Venables is a veteran of Everest, and the author of two books on the mountain. He says one of the most remarkable early attempts on Everest is almost forgotten today. "I think one of the most inspiring was in 1924 when a man called Edward Norton got to within about 800 feet (240 meters) of the summit. He got very close without using artificial oxygen," says Mr. Venables

Days later, two members of Edward Norton's team, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, disappeared into the clouds that surround the summit. In 1999, Mallory's body was found and recovered. Subsequent climbers have reported seeing what they believe to be Andrew Irvine's body. Since both men were using bottled oxygen, some have suggested they might have reached the summit and died on the way down, but no proof of that has ever been found.

Elizabeth Hawley is the mountaineering correspondent for the Reuters news agency, based in Kathmandu. She says George Mallory was the first of the great climbers to attempt Everest. She also says he gave perhaps the best explanation of why men and women test themselves on the mountain. "As George Leigh Mallory himself said, "why do people climb Everest? Because it is there." His answer I think is correct. That is why people climb Everest. It is there," says Ms. Hawley. "It is the highest point on Earth."

Over the next 29 years, several more attempts were made on the summit, nearly all from the Tibetan side of the mountain. But after the communist takeover of China, Tibetan routes were off limits.

Nepal opened its borders to mountaineers in the early 1950's. That allowed a series of new expeditions, culminating in the successful 1953 ascent by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.

Mr. Tenzing died of natural causes in 1986. Now 83 years old, Mr. Hillary says he remembers the moment he and his climbing partner reached the summit as if it were yesterday. "On the summit I put out my hand to shake Tenzing's hand in a rather old-fashioned way. But that was not enough for Tenzing. He threw his arms around my shoulder and hugged me, and I threw my arms around his shoulder, too," says Mr. Hillary. "And so we celebrated with each other our ascent of this mighty mountain."

Ten years later, a U.S. team sponsored by the National Geographic Society traversed the summit. Reuters mountaineering correspondent Elizabeth Hawley calls it a remarkable expedition. "That was considered a very important ascent of Everest because it did the first traverse of the mountain, which means going up one side and down the other," she says. "That was really remarkable because the people who did the traversing had very little support in terms of manpower or even equipment to some extent."

In 1978, Reinhold Messner of Italy and Peter Habeler of Austria were the first to reach the summit without using bottled oxygen - previously thought to be impossible. Two years later, Mr. Messner made the first successful solo ascent - again without oxygen. Many mountaineers regard the feat as the greatest ascent ever.

In 1975, Japanese climber Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit. Since then, many women have followed. Indian climber Santosh Yadav, the first woman to reach the summit twice, says the key, for men and women, is proper acclimatization to Everest's height. "If you are a woman, if have a good acclimatization you can go ahead, I never felt for a single moment that I am a woman," she says. "I was there as a climber."

Hundreds of climbers have paid a terrible price for their pursuit of the summit, losing fingers, toes and limbs to frostbite. About 175 people have died in the attempt. Climbers say one of the most disturbing things about the trek up Everest is the trail of bodies littering the slopes - many of them well preserved by the cold.

In 1996, 15 people died on the mountain, the most in a single year. Five died on one day that year, when a sudden storm trapped them. Among the dead was New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall, considered to be one of the finest climbers of his generation.

Still, Mount Everest draws climbers. In the days leading up to the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, records continued to fall. A 70-year-old Japanese man became the oldest person to reach the top, while a 15-year-old Nepali Sherpa girl became the youngest. Several male Sherpa climbers broke records for the fastest ascent within days of each other, and other vowed to best them.

With a record number of climbers on the mountain this year to commemorate the first ascent, mountaineering experts say the mystique of Mount Everest draws more climbers than ever to its slopes.