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History of Mountain Climbing

Updated on May 26, 2010

Through most of history, people climbed mountains only when they had to. They climbed to hunt game, to rescue a lost or strayed animal, or to gain a military advantage over an enemy. But in general, mountains were avoided, not only because they were dangerous, but because men often considered them to be the home of demons and fearsome beasts.

In western Europe, however, at about the beginning of the 19th century, climbing began to be regarded as a sport. In 1786, and again a year later, Mont Blanc was ascended. The conquest of this peak, the highest in western Europe (15,771 feet; 4,807 meters), undoubtedly gave great impetus to mountain climbing as a sport.

By the middle of the 19th century, large numbers of English climbers were taking their holidays in the Swiss Alps, and the great tradition of the Swiss mountain-climbing guide was established. By 1900 every important peak in Europe had been climbed, and expeditions were already reaching out to other great mountain systems of the world, including the Rockies, the Andes, and the Himalayas.

The highest peak in eastern Europe, Mount Elbrus (18,481 feet; 5,633 meters), was climbed in 1868. Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet; 5,895 meters), the highest in Africa, was surmounted in 1889, and Aconcagua (22,831 feet; 6,959 meters), the highest in South America, in 1897. Mount McKinley (20,320 feet; 6,194 meters), the highest in North America, was climbed in 1913. Despite all these successes, Mount Everest (29,028 feet; 8,848 meters), Asia's highest peak and the highest in the world, remained unconquered. From the time of its first exploration in 1921, it took 32 years and numerous attempts to finally reach its top. Many lives were lost, including that of the famous British climber George Leigh Mallory, who disappeared into the summit mists with his companion, Andrew Irvine, during the 1924 expedition. At least 11 organized attempts were made on the mountain. Then, finally, a British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt was successful. On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, reached Everest's summit.

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