(Photograph) - In the frozen wastes of the Tibetan Himalayas, a climber edges towards the summit of Shisha Pangma, the 14th-highest mountain in the world. High above its satellite peaks, Shisha Pangma's 8,013 metres tower into the blinding blue sky. Scoured out by ancient glaciers, thrust up by massive forces that have crushed huge slabs of rock between the land plates of the south Asian sub-continent and the Chinese uplands, it is rated one of the most difficult climbs in the Himalayas.
Top climbers devote their lives to a struggle against the forces of nature, often returning obsessively to unconquered peaks. Why do they do it? Winds on Everest regularly exceed 100mph; frostbite can maim; blizzards blow up with no warning, leaving climbers lost minutes from their camps; and climbers with no ropes - such as this one in the early 1990s - risk a potentially fatal fall with one misplaced toehold. Is it all worth it to glimpse the infinite, as many of them declare on their internet sites?
Modern climbing for sport began when two Frenchmen ascended Mont Blanc in 1748. In 1854, the "Golden Age" of mountaineering kicked off with the ascent of the Wetterhorn in Switzerland. Rich, middle-class Europeans and Americans set out to "bag peaks" with long trains of porters carrying provisions and tents. By the end of the 19th century, Europe had no unclimbed summits left and a "Silver Age", focusing on new, more difficult routes ensued.
Increased technical expertise after the First World War raised the game further, with vast expeditions kitted out to brave winter ascents and, above all, take on the Himalayas. Such achievements as the conquering of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953 caught the popular imagination.
Shisha Pangma, with its sheer ice ridges, wa the last Himalayan peak to be conquered - in 1964, by China's Hsu Ching. Since then climbing has moved on. There are now several individuals who have conquered all 14 Himalayan peaks above 8,000 metres (one, Reinhold Messner, did it solo and without oxygen) as well as the so-called "seven summits" comprising the highest peaks on each continent.
Conversely, once unattainable goals are now available to anyone with enough money to hire an expedition. You can go up Everest for $100,000.
But, as Jon Krakauer's scathing account of the May 1996 Everest expeditions tells, the risks remain extreme. To reach the summit of Everest, you have to start in the middle of the night. If the descent is delayed past noon, the chances of getting back to camp are slim. Dusk is the most dangerous time. If your tent blows away with the evening gales and you spend the night in the open you are unlikely to survive. At high altitudes, once you lose your oxygen tank, you quickly become disoriented. Without water, which is heavy to carry, dehydration sets in fast.
As Krakauer recounts, in the baleful blizzards of the high Himalayas, satellite phones and high-tech gear are puny aids. Sure, you can call home, but, as in two well-publicised cases on Everest, it may only be to say your last goodbye. So, why do they do it? No one has yet beaten the answer of George Mallory, killed on Everest in 1924: "Because it's there." Photograph by Didier Givois.
LINKS: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (Anchor). A history of the Everest expedition of May 1996 in which eight climbers died.
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