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  Blind American Scales Mount Everest

By Binaj Gurubacharya
Associated Press Writer
Friday, May 25, 2001; 2:53 p.m. EDT

KATMANDU, Nepal –– In a crowded week on the roof of the world, two Americans on Friday became the first blind climber and the oldest man to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

They were among 94 people who scaled the world's highest peak in four days from the Nepalese side of the mountain.

The triumphs were also marred by tragedy, with reports that a Russian climber may have died on the Tibetan side. The Tibetan Mountaineering Association, the Lhasa-based group that oversees expeditions on the north side of the mountain, said they had heard of an accident with a Russian team, but had no other information.

Erik Weihenmayer, 32, of Golden, Colo., became the first blind climber to conquer the peak, according to the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism. Sherman Bull, a 64-year-old physician from New Canaan, Conn., was the oldest climber.

Weihenmayer and Bull reached their camp at South Col, situated at 26,240 feet around 4 p.m. local time, on their way down the mountain.

"This is quite an amazing and extraordinary feat for a blind climber to reach the summit," said Ang Karma, a mountaineering expert. "A majority of the people have difficulty even getting to the base camp, let alone the summit."

Weihenmayer reached the summit along with Eric Alexander, 31, of Vail, Colo., Luis Benitez, 28, of Boulder, Colo., and Jeff Evans, 31, of Denver.

Minutes before, Chris Morris, 33, of Wasilla, Alaska, Bradford Bull, 33, of Denver, and his father Sherman Bull, reached the 29,035-foot peak with eight Nepalese Sherpa guides.

The last four days have seen a rush to reach the peak before the mountaineering season ends May 31. This year's season, which kicked off March 1, has been plagued by bad weather.

Not a single climber had scaled the mountain until this week, when the weather cleared.

Weihenmayer, 32, lost his sight at age 13 and took up rock climbing three years later. He was able to scale Everest by following the sound of bells tied to the jackets of his climbing mates and Sherpa guides.

He has already climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

The oldest-climber record was broken for the third straight year. At 61, Georgian climber Lev Sarkisov set the record in May 12, 1999. Then Japanese climber Toshio Yamamoto scaled the mountain last year at age 63.

A member of an Australian army expedition also reached the summit on Friday. The Australian Defense Department reported that Royal Australian Air Force Sgt. Brian Laursen, from Point Cook, Victoria, made it to the top with two Nepalese guides.

At least three climbers have died this season, two on the Nepalese side and one in the north in Tibetan territory.

Since the first recorded conquest of Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, more than 800 people have conquered the tallest peak. Some 180 people have died on its unpredictable slopes.

This season, Peter Gerfried Banner, 55, an Austrian broadcast engineer from Klusterneuburg, fell to his death just 165 feet below the summit. On the Tibetan side, Australia's Mark Auricht, 37, died from high-altitude exposure.

Babu Chhiri, a Sherpa who broke world records for making the fastest trip up Everest and staying at the top the longest without bottled oxygen, died earlier in the season from a fall.

On Tuesday, a 15-year-old Sherpa boy became the youngest climber to reach the summit. Eighth-grade student Temba Tsheri – who lost five fingers from frostbite during an attempt to climb Everest last year – succeeded in reaching the top.

On the Tibetan side of Everest, heavy snow and high winds have prevented an Indian expedition from attempting the only uncharted route.


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© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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