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April 23, 2014
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Tall tales of a local mountaineer

Humans have been climbing mountains almost since we developed the ability to look up, and we’ve been telling stories about every one.

Fred Wolfe has collected hundreds of these stories, along with data in an encyclopedic guide to mountaineering’s rich history. He covers them all in his book “High Summit: 370 Famous Peak First Ascents and Other Significant Events in Mountaineering History.”

“There are as many important dates in mountaineering history as there are important peaks and mountaineers who ventured forth to reach their lofty summits,” Wolfe said.

Movin’ on up

Climbers, by their very nature, are an upwardly mobile lot. And they’re as rare as are the mountains they climb.

“Geographers have determined that 29.3 percent of the earth’s surface is land. Three percent of this land it located above 6,000 feet,” Wolfe said.

Man originally viewed mountains as barriers to invasion or commerce. Their summits were thought to be home to local deities and to climb them was to tempt instant death.

They’re also closer to the heavens, and that made them ideal locations for shrines and monasteries. The people who climbed mountains often hunted chamois, a goat-like antelope, or brought back crystals used in medicines. They soon became mountain guides and were paid for their knowledge. Pick up Wolfe’s book and you’ll learn all this and much more.

First ascents

The first successful, documented summit of any mountain is called a first ascent.

“High Summits” describes 370 first ascents, along with 2,800 mountaineering events, 519 references to the evolution of mountaineering equipment and clothing and the development of a wide range of climbing techniques. Then there are the climbing records, the rescues and the names of more than 3,000 mountaineers from 48 countries.

The book is arranged in seven chapters, one each for the world’s seven continents. Wolfe says he wrote it for climbers and hikers, as well as people with a passing interest in mountaineering, a certain mountain or mountaineer’s particular personality.

“Mountains have been part of my life since I was 10 years old,” Wolfe said.

His father handed him a first edition copy of Maurice Herzog’s best-selling book, “Annapurna,” a remarkable account of the 1950 French expedition to be the first to climb the 8,000 meter peak in the Nepal Himalayas.

Years later, Wolfe met Herzog — then 84 years old — at a mountaineering celebration in San Francisco.

“Herzog’s Annapurna climb will forever represent one of the most important events in the history of mountaineering,” Wolfe said.

Speaking of Nepal, more than six decades ago mountaineering reached its peak when New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa summited Mount Everest.

Theirs was the 11th attempt to summit the world’s tallest mountain (29,028 feet), and they were members of the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition.

Collectively, the climbing events outlined in “High Summits” tell the story of how mountaineering was born, evolved and matured into an activity that millions of people now enjoy.

It’s exhaustive, but not exhausting. Wolfe doesn’t attempt to compile a complete list of all first ascents on all the world’s mountain ranges. Still, at 716 pages, he spins fascinating tales of important first ascents in each of the world’s seven continents.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Apr 23, 2014 06:48PM Published Apr 24, 2014 02:15PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.