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May 01, 2012
Geography was not furthered by the achievement.
Scientific progress didn’t take a giant leap forward.
It was virtually useless, really, in the scheme of things.
Yet the feat knocked the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II off the front pages of British newspapers and made headlines everywhere.
True, it was ridiculously dangerous.
The climbing party, 59 years ago last month, didn't have the benefit that a National Geographic photographer just did, when he was airlifted off the mountain after suffering a possible pulmonary embolism.
In 1953, Edmund Percival Hillary of New Zealand and his companion, Tensing Norgay of Nepal, only lifted each other, becoming the first to reach the top of Mount Everest — at 29,028 feet then, the highest point on earth.
(In case any Everest buffs are ready to pounce, it’s the highest by another foot now due to something called plate tectonics.)
Speaking of feet, there was a question about whose foot got to the summit first and what country should claim credit.
To prevent war from being declared, expedition leader Col. John Hunt officially announced that the two men had reached the summit "almost together."
Since then, thanks to supplemental oxygen, stronger ropes, tighter-knit teams, close to 2,000 people have reached the Everest summit.
And if you have a lot of cash handy, you might get there also.
But don’t count on it.
The ascension is marked with an icy graveyard littered with remnants of old tents and frozen corpses.
If you don’t slip up on the lower extremes, you’ll still have to contend with a variety of deadly threats, like cerebral edema and a combination of horrific ailments they call “mountain sickness” you don't want to know about.
Which brings us to the age-old question:
Scientists have identified a previously unknown gene variant that doubles an individual’s risk for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It even has a name: OCD.
At the risk of appearing a simpleton on the subject, I still prefer George Mallory's answer in 1924 when asked shortly before Everest did him in.
“Because it is there.”