"Climbing high mountains is a very finite way to achieve a most tangible sense of accomplishment in a relatively short time frame. Since Everest is the highest on earth, the 'superlative,' it naturally provides an allure and challenge for more people to summit than other very high, even more difficult mountains."— Dick Bass

I start this piece off with a quote from Snowbird owner Dick Bass because he is one of only two people I've ever known, if only remotely, who have stood on top of the world. The other was a man named Larry Nielson, a schoolteacher from Olympia, Wash., who in 1983 held me spellbound with his account of becoming the first American to climb Mount Everest without aided oxygen. He said he cracked several ribs as his lungs sucked for air at the summit, where oxygen is available at only a third the rate at sea level. When you reach the top of the world, the view truly is breathtaking.

Mount Everest is very much in the news this week because tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the day the world's tallest mountain was first summited. On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal reached the top, in that order, and since Hillary had the camera, Norgay is the first person to have his picture taken on top of the world.

Despite the fact the event took place in one of the planet's most remote places, people the world over quickly plugged into the news. Queen Elizabeth — who was inaugurated, as it turned out, on Summit Day — knighted Hillary (a British subject), and people near and far were inspired to name their quests and challenges after the mountain that produced the momentous accomplishment.

Everest itself is named after George Everest, the British-appointed surveyor general of India, who in 1865 sighted in on the Himalayas (a Sanskrit word for "Abode of Snow') and determined that a tip in the mountain range known as "Peak 15" was in fact the tallest of the tall.

For 88 years, men tried to stand on the scientifically defined summit of the world before Hillary and Norgay finally did it.

Everest is no walk in the park and has claimed its share of climbers over the years — more than 1,200 have summited in a half-century and about 200 have died. But true mountaineers (see Bass above) have long maintained that it is hardly the most difficult mountain in the world to climb, particularly with the fixed ropes and ladders now in place along the most popular routes.

But barring some sort of meteor shower or other cataclysmic event, it will always be the tallest (and it keeps growing a few inches each year — George Everest's original measurement of 29,028 feet has since been raised to 29,035 feet) and, therefore, the most alluring. For this year's golden anniversary climbing season, a record 65 expeditions received permits to try for the top, numbering over 400 climbers.

Already, a one-armed man has made the top (Texan Gary Guller), an Olympic cross-country skier (Italy's Manuela Di Centa), a 70-year-old Japanese man (Yuichiro Miura, becoming the oldest ever to summit), a 20-year-old American (Jess Roskelley, the youngest American ever) and just yesterday a Sherpa named Lhakpa Gyeula established a new speed record by making it from base camp to the top in 10 hours, 56 minutes. All were inspired by the footsteps of others who prepared the way.

Anyway, happy birthday, Mount Everest — thanks for giving us humans something to be inspired by and talk about and for sharing your summit with us. It's always good to aim for the top.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.