"Mr. Everest" on 50th Anniversary of First Ascent

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
May 28, 2003

As monikers go, it'd be hard to find a better fit for climber Peter Athans than "Mr. Everest." Over the course of 15 expeditions to the mountain, Athans has spent more than three years of his life on its slopes. He's stood atop Everest an astonishing seven times, a feat unsurpassed by any Western climber.

Athan's last trip to the summit took place in May 2002 when he served as a filmmaker and expedition leader of the National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition. The expedition joined the sons of Everest pioneers Hillary, Norgay, and Bishop—Peter Hillary, Jamling Norgay, and Brent Bishop—for the first time and sent Hillary and Bishop to the summit. (For more on the expedition and the mountain, watch Surviving Everest Thursday, May 29 at 8:00 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel.)

Athans recently spoke to National Geographic News about Everest's allure and the legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the eve of the 50th anniversary of their historic first climb.

What is it about Mount Everest that has drawn you back time and again?

Being on the summit is really an ethereal moment. It's a time when essentially I can just feel like I'm becoming the action that I'm performing. There's really no particular identity that I hold. The person who's Pete Athans just kind of sloughs away. I've really just become the activity that I'm doing. It's a time when I'm feeling I'm as close to the eternal and infinite and the beautiful as I can possibly be for that very brief moment in time. It's also a place where I feel incredibly free and very liberated from the sometimes quotidian nature of life in the Western world.

What do you think about the record number of expeditions attempting the mountain this season?

Obviously, [in] 2003 there are so many teams over there. I think on the south side there are close to 20. So this may be a record year. There definitely have been more and more people who are interested in Everest history. More and more people who see Everest as a red badge of courage or some nice addition to have on their curriculum vitae. I don't have any real qualms about that. Everest has magnetized my interest for so many years.

Does Everest change people's lives?

People who go into the experience thinking that they're going to get to the top of Everest and somehow they're going to be magically transformed into something else, or it's going to bequeath to them anything like intelligence to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz… Obviously anything you have, you already have it before you get there. It's kind of crazy to think that the light's going to go on when you get to the summit of Everest.

Are you saying Everest has not changed your life?

Oh, it has definitely changed my life. It's changed dramatically and in surprising ways. I've spent virtually 15 expeditions on the mountain, more than three years of my life on the mountain. Having spent so much time with the people who live in that area on the southern foothills of Everest, really transformed my life from being a little impetuous…a little impatient and demanding mountaineer and person from the West to someone who's quite a bit more thoughtful, quite a bit more introspective, and is certainly a lot more compassionate about the world, both around and within.

In the past, you've earned your living as a guide. What obligation did you feel for your clients' safety? What risks were you willing to take?

Continued on Next Page >>


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