11 Historical Firsts on Mount Everest
By Lauren Hansen
In 1953, adventurist Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Ever since, the world's tallest mountain has been calling out to thrill-seekers of all shapes and sizes. More than 3,800 people have attempted to conquer its icy mountain face, and while at least 225 people have died trying, men and women, the blind and the handicapped, the old and the young have all reached it's 29,029-foot peak. But these intrepid folks don't just come for the climb — they also seek to make Mount Everest history. Check out these 11 Mount Everest firsts:
1. First teen with Down syndrome
Last month, 16-year-old Eli Reimer successfully climbed the 17,598 feet to Mt. Everest's Base Camp. This is impressive not only because he accomplished as a teenager what millions of adults would never even consider, but also because Reimer is the first teen with Down syndrome to achieve the feat. The Oregon teen made the 70-mile trek with his father and a team of seven to the Himalayan mountain's staging area to raise money and awareness for disabled children. "It's monumental," said the boy's father. "When everyone else was dragging, it was Eli who led the way to the base camp." While he comes close, Reimer is actually not the youngest to take on Everest. In 2010, then-13-year-old Jordan Romero became the youngest person to reach Everest's peak.
2. First 76-year-old
A 76-year-old Nepalese man named Min Bahadur Sherchan reached Everest's peak on May 25, 2008. It was Sherchan's first attempt, and he said he was determined to "climb the peak or die trying." Close behind him in both age and timing was Yuichiro Miura, a 75-year-old Japanese man who reached the summit the very next day to become the second-oldest Everest climber. In 2002, 73-year-old Tamae Watanabe — a retired office worker who lives at the foot of Japan's tallest mountain, Mount Fuji — became the oldest woman to reach the summit.
3. First under nine hours
Sometimes getting to the mountain's peak is less impressive than how quickly you do it. The harrowing climb from the foot of the base camp to the summit usually takes four days, if weather is on your side. But in 2004, stellar Sherpa guide Pem Dorjee covered the same trek in a record 8 hours and 10 minutes. This was actually the second time he earned the title for fastest ascent. In 2003, Dorjee held the record for his 12-hour-and-45-minute ascent for three days until another Sherpa beat his time by just under two hours.
4. First woman to summit
Junko Tabei may appear slight, almost fragile looking, but the Japanese mountaineer has a steely determination that helped her to become the first woman to reach Everest's apex. In 1975, Tabei was chosen as one of 15 in the first all-female team to take on the mountain. But only a few days into the journey, the expedition was hit by an avalanche. The team and its Sherpas were buried underneath, and Tabei was knocked unconscious for several minutes before a Sherpa dug her out. But the diminutive climber persevered, becoming the first of her group to reach the top on May 16, 1975. Just 11 days later, a 37-year-old Tibetan woman named Phantog became the second woman to make it to the top.
5. First-ever rock concert
In 2007, a cancer awareness group from Colorado reached the greatest of musical heights with a first-ever performance on Everest's rocky mountain face. The Love Hope Strength Foundation led a team of 40 musicians, cancer survivors, and mountaineers to the 18,600-foot peak of Kala Patthar, situated just above Everest Base Camp. After a fourteen-day trek, the "Everest Rocks" journey culminated in an acoustic concert that raised money for the Nepal Cancer Relief Society.
6. First amputees
In 1998, Tom Whittaker, a 49-year-old college instructor from Arizona, reached the world's tallest peak on his third try. Whittaker, who lost his leg in a car crash in 1979, managed the climb with a specially designed artificial leg that is lightweight and has its own crampons—claw-like boot attachments climbers use to stay secure on the icy mountain. Eight years later, Everest got its first double amputee. A New Zealand mountaineer named Mark Inglis — who lost both his legs beneath the knee from frostbite in 1982 during a climbing incident — reached the summit on May 16, 2006. "I'm not doing this to be the first double amputee," the 47-year-old said, "If I am, then it's the icing on the cake."
7. First swim across a glacial lake
For at least one brave soul, Everest's draw is its icy waters. In 2010, 40-year-old environmentalist Lewis Pugh became the first person to swim across Everest's Pumori Lake. Situated at about 17,000 feet, the lake waters are a balmy 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Lewis is an avid "polar bear" swimmer, meaning he braves waters that could put up a good fight in hell. But the Everest swim, for which Pugh wore only swim trunks, a cap, and goggles, required a delicate balance. If he swam too quickly he could lose energy and drown; but if he moved too slowly he could succumb to hypothermia. "Because of the altitude you need to swim very slowly and deliberately," he said. "I was gasping for air and if I had swum any faster I would have gone under." In the end, Pugh breast-stroked across the 0.62-mile lake in 22 minutes and 51 seconds, which was just right.
8. First blind person
Erik Weihenmayer lost his sight because of a rare disease at the age of 13. But that didn't stop him from exploring the world. The Colorado native took up climbing at 16, and by 32 he had already climbed some of the world's tallest peaks, including Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. And in 2001, he conquered Everest, by following the sound of bells tied to the jackets of his climbing mates and Sherpa guides. Weihenmayer went on to climb two more mountains.
9. First snowboarding descent
Everest isn't exactly a welcoming snowboarding trail. But despite the distinct lack of soft powder, two snowboarders attempted in 2001 to be the first to lay down tracks on that unforgiving mountain face. The two Europeans, Stephan Gatt and Marco Siffredi, snowboarded down Everest within two days of each other. However, it was Gatt who officially earned the title as the first to swowboard down Everest. If the feat itself weren't enough, the athlete carried all of his snowboarding equipment up the mountain, and did so without the aid of oxygen. Then, after locking in his bindings, Siffredi descended down the North Face of the mountain, about 600 feet below the summit. The extreme cold broke one of his bindings, temporarily halting him in his tracks, but he continued his approximately two-hour descent after a Sherpa came to his rescue. In 2000, a Slovenian ski teacher named Davo Karnicar was the first to ski from Everest's summit to its base. The attempt was actually his second — he was first thwarted by bad weather in 1996 — which he completed in five hours. Karnicar took only a few breaks and reportedly never removed his skis.
10. First cancer survivor
Sean Swarner has battled cancer not once, but twice. At 13 years old, Swarner was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin's disease, and was given only three months to live. Swarner overcame the odds and his Hodgkin's went into remission, but tests a year later revealed a golf-ball-sized tumor on his right lung. If you can imagine it, this second prognosis — for Askin's sarcoma — was worse than the first, and he was given only two weeks to live. Swarner went through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation over the years, and though he lost the use of one of his lungs, he came out on top. The same single-minded determination that pushed him through his illness propelled him toward Everest. On May 16, 2002, Swarner became the first cancer survivor to stand on the mountain's summit. Since that climb, Swarner has gone on to complete the "7-summits," the highest peaks in seven continents.
11. First back-to-back summits
I'm exhausted just thinking about this, but one young woman reached Everest's peak twice… in one week. Chhurim Sherpa dreamed of climbing Everest ever since she was in the fifth grade, when she saw tourists trekking their equipment through her village in northeastern Nepal. But the 29-year-old wanted to break records, and so she set out to complete back-to-back climbs. Her first ascent, made with a group of four other climbers, was on May 12, 2012. After standing on top of the world for 15 minutes, returning safely to base, and resting for two days, she made the journey again on May 17 with just her aide for company. On that second trip she climbed the steepest face while carrying more than 30 pounds of gear. Beyond her double climb, Chhurim remains in an elite group of only 21 Nepalese women who have reached Everest's peak. "I really want other Nepalese women to get involved in mountaineering," she said. "We should have a can-do attitude so that we can move forward and not be left behind simply because we're women."
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