Saturday, February 28, 2004
Ask Pete Athans why he has climbed Mount Everest more times than any other Westerner and he just might turn to the late George Leigh Mallory. But the answer is different from what you recall.
Mallory, who disappeared on the world's tallest mountain in 1924, was famous for the brevity of one of the answers to the question, "Why climb Mount Everest?"
"Because it's there," was his terse replay.
Athans, who has reached the 29,035-foot summit of Everest seven times, told an overflow audience in Olympian Hall this week that Mallory was far more thoughtful about the reasons for climbing.
Reciting Mallory's words from memory, he said: "What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for."
Athan's Wednesday visit to Steamboat was sponsored by Ski Haus and The North Face. He packed Olympian Hall for a slide show that also included snippets of film.
There were times in his career, Athans said, when he felt a strong pull from 8,000-meter peaks other than Everest, but the world's tallest mountain had a special effect on him. As a child growing up in the Bronx, he had a poster of Everest on the wall of his windowless bedroom.
"Everest has served as my backdrop, certainly emotionally," Athans said. "Everest has always kept drawing me back. The people of Nepal kept me going back time after time."
Athans was in the Peace Corps in Nepal from 1984 to 1986 and formed a deep connection with the people of the region. He made it clear to his Steamboat audience that the connection he feels to the region is definitely about the mountain, but also much more than that.
"Very few people ever understand what an 8,000-meter peak is," Athans said. "I think Everest represents a very fragile environment despite its overpowering size. ... In recent years, it's turned into a global symbol of what I hope will be environmental protection."
Athans also is an admirer of the Sherpa people and in particular, Tenzing Norgay, who with Sir Edmund Hillary was one of the first two climbers to summit Everest in 1953. Norgay approached Everest not as a peak to be conquered, Athans said, but as a spirit to be revered. He climbed the mountain as if he were climbing into the lap of his mother, Athans said.
Mallory conceded more than 80 years ago that there is no practical "use" for going to Everest.
"If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go," Mallory wrote.
Restoring sight to Nepalese
When Pete Athans spoke in Steamboat Springs last week, he intended to do more than entertain. The $5 admission fee for his slide show generated $700. That money will go to the Himalayan Cataract Project, which underwrites the cost of surgery to restore the sight of many hundreds of people in countries in the Himalayan region.
"That may not sound like a ton of money, but it does equate to a lot of blind, impoverished people having their sight returned," Athans said. "The people of Steamboat who came will be rewarded for the generosity."
Athans said that because of a lifetime spent at extremely high altitude, and deficiencies in their diet, the people of the Himalayan region are especially susceptible to cataracts resulting in blindness.
Athans said teams of ophthalmologists working with the Himalayan Cataract Project are able to perform surgery on hundreds of patients in a short period of time at a rate of $12 per patient.
People leave the camps with their sight restored.
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