In the world of mountaineering, first ascents are special. They represent a leap into the unknown, the challenge of going where no one has gone before and facing unpredictable dangers.

Andrew J. Kauffman, a retired Foreign Service officer who lives in Northwest Washington, took that leap in 1958 on Hidden Peak, one of only 14 mountains in the world that soar above 8,000 meters. When he and his partner, Peter Schoening, reached the summit of the massive 26,470-foot mountain in the Karakoram region of Pakistan, they became the only Americans to successfully make a first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak.

Moreover, Kauffman and Schoening were part of a "small, informally organized, almost entirely self-supported and comparatively unknown" expedition, as leader Nicholas Clinch described it. It was a far cry from the usual expedition of the day, such as the British one that put Sir Edmund Hillary on the top of Mount Everest in 1953 with the aid of hundreds of porters and Sherpas. The American expedition had only seven climbers and about 15 people total in its base camp.

"We were a very happy team," recalls Kauffman, a tall, rangy man who will be 80 next year and who suffers from Parkinson's disease. "Everybody worked hard. . . . We never sat in our tents when we could push higher."

When it came time to pick the first summit team, the six American climbers and their Pakistani liaison officer, who was also a climber, gathered in a tent. One tore a blank page from his journal and ripped it into seven pieces for a vote. Neither Kauffman nor Schoening voted for himself, Clinch relates in his book, "A Walk in the Clouds," but everyone else voted for them because they were the strongest climbers.

"Andrew's strength as an alpinist is, once you get him going, he is like the Energizer bunny--he goes on forever," says William Putnam, one of Kauffman's closest friends since they were at Harvard together in the early 1940s. "He could carry very heavy loads. Sometimes we would have to pick them up and put them on his back, but then he could just keep going. The joy for his companions was that he would take interminable abuse of this nature."

Some of that joy was obvious Saturday night as he sat, craggy-faced with a full cap of white hair, with his tiny wife, Daphne Burchell, at the edge of an American Alpine Club reception in Arlington while, one by one, some of the great figures of American mountaineering stopped by to say hello. Among them was Bradford Washburn, the 89-year-old cartographer and climber from New England who announced last week that precise new measurements made earlier this year show that Everest is 29,035 feet, seven feet higher than previously thought. Another was the towering Jim Whittaker, who in 1963 became the first American to climb Everest.

Kauffman, whose father was a journalist, was born in Philadelphia, but the family moved many times. In the early 1930s the family lived in Geneva, where Kauffman attended school and learned to speak perfect French. Later, during the Depression, the family lived in Washington, where Kauffman's father became an editorial writer for The Washington Post. He attended St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., before going to Harvard, from which he was graduated in 1943.

Kauffman became seriously interested in climbing as a member and president of the Harvard Mountaineering Club. He did early and dangerous ascents of ice routes, such as Pinnacle Gully, on Mount Washington in New Hampshire, climbs that involved chopping hundreds of steps in steep ice because neither the ice axes nor the crampons used under boots in those days allowed direct ascents of steeply angled ice.

"The protection was very poor. The ice pitons didn't work very well, and looking back, we did it in the most dangerous fashion," he says. "For the time, of course, it was a big deal."

With a degree in hand, Kauffman volunteered for service in the Army mountain troops but was rejected for medical reasons. So instead, he turned to the State Department, where he felt he could still serve the World War II effort. Just after the war, Kauffman, Putnam and others made the second ascent of Mount St. Elias, an 18,000-foot peak on Alaska's coast, following a new route suggested by Washburn. Other climbs followed, including at least one first ascent of a peak in Peru's Cordillera Blanca.

The idea for the Hidden Peak climb was hatched during a lengthy stay in 1954 in the vicinity of Mount Waddington in British Columbia's Coast Range. The weather was so bad that far more days were spent in the tents than climbing. Clinch, Kauffman and others decided that attacking one of the remaining seven unclimbed 8,000-meter peaks was a great idea. The next year, Clinch chose Hidden Peak. It took another three years to gather a team, get official backing from the American Alpine Club, get permission from the Pakistani government and raise $25,000 to cover the costs.

Even taking inflation into account, it seems like a pittance. Converted into today's dollars, that would just about cover the cost of two clients paying a commercial guide service $65,000 each for an Everest ascent.

Schoening wrote the chapter in Clinch's book about the push to the summit over snow, ice and rocks, in which he described it as, "One step; two, three, four gulps of air and oxygen; another step, more gulps of air."

Years later, at a premier of "K2," a movie about climbing the world's second-highest peak, which is just a few miles from Hidden Peak, Kauffman watched two actors supposedly laboring to that summit and remarked, "No one moves that fast at that altitude." The actors actually were on Mount Waddington, where the Hidden Peak expedition was launched.

Kauffman says Hidden Peak wasn't the hardest technical climb he ever did, but that it was one of two places where he was the most afraid of avalanches--along with Pinnacle Gully. Hidden Peak was a "big mountain . . . but no big deal," Kauffman says. "But if anything goes wrong, you can be in absolutely deadly trouble. A lower mountain does not involve the same risk."

He never had to be rescued, but since Kauffman stopped climbing, risk has been much on his mind. In 1981, with Putnam's help, Kauffman persuaded the AAC to give an occasional award that he helped fund. It is the David A. Sowles Memorial Award, named for a friend who died in an electrical storm in the Alps, and it is given to one or more people who go to the aid of someone in trouble.

On Saturday night, the award was presented to Rick Wilcox and his colleagues of the Mountain Rescue Service in North Conway, N.H., a group that has been helping those in trouble for more than a quarter-century. Kauffman beamed.

CAPTION: Andrew Kauffman, right, and Nicholas Clinch climbed Hidden Peak together in 1958.

CAPTION: Andrew Kauffman, shown in his climbing days: "We never sat in our tents when we could push higher."