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How to Collect a Mountain, According to World-Class Athletes

In a world with no more “firsts” left, do incredible athletic acheivements in the mountains lose their luster?

Getty / Royal Geographical Society

There are few stories that most everyone knows, but this is one: On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay climbed 29,029 feet above sea level to become the first humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The feat was soon beamed across the planet to every room with a radio, and the accomplishment remains lauded as one of the most important moments in the history of exploration.

Hillary treated the matter more stoically. On returning to base camp he reportedly turned to New Zealander George Lowe, a member of his team’s advance guard, and said, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!” In celebration, Lowe offered Hillary a cup of soup.

To accomplish something first is to assert your claim over it forever. In a 1999 interview with Outside magazine, Hillary said that “doing something for the first time, something that nobody has done before, is perhaps one of the most exciting things that can happen to anyone.” But what happens when there aren’t any firsts left? Without the allure of novelty, do unthinkable athletic achievements lose their shine?

Kílian Jornet, one of the world’s great ultrarunners, doesn’t think so. “Even if you climb the same mountain every day, conditions are different,” he said. “Different routes, styles. It can be as different as you want.” Born in 1987, Jornet came into the world after its most famous mountains had been summited, so he tasked himself with getting there fastest. During his multiyear Summits of My Life project, Jornet set speed records on many of the world’s most iconic peaks: Mont Blanc (4:57), Matterhorn (2:52), Denali (11:48), Aconcagua (12:49) and Everest (26:00, without ropes or supplemental oxygen).

Many of Jornet’s FKTs — fastest known times — have since been bested, but he’s not trying to leapfrog back in front. He describes his method as “a progression to be able to climb at high altitude in a minimalistic way … a way to learn and test.” You get the feeling that Jornet’s sense of accomplishment comes from having done it, having ticked something off the list. That it’s enough to have once claimed a record, even if it no longer stands.

But “first” can hold more nuance than the word’s flat finality suggests. Twin sisters Nungshi and Tashi Malik, from Haryana, India, became the first siblings to conquer the Seven Summits, the tallest mountain on each continent, and the Explorer’s Grand Slam (which adds the North and South Poles to the endeavor). Their reason for braving the famous expeditions go beyond personal achievements.

“While we climbed Everest in 2013 purely for fulfilling a personal mountaineering dream, our quest for the Seven Summits was inspired by the cause of the Indian girl,” Nungshi says. She describes Haryana as “one of India’s most conservative” states, and says a cultural desire for sons over daughters has produced widespread female feticide. The pair raised awareness for the mission through sponsors and on social media with the hashtag #mission2for7.

“We firmly believe that achieving world-level milestones by girls in a dangerous sport such as mountaineering will help shatter many stereotypes of girls in India,” Nungshi said. Climbing high-profile peaks allowed the Maliks to rise above the social constraints in which they were raised; the pair have leveraged their celebrity to establish the NungshiTashi Foundation, dedicated to both growing the sport of mountaineering in India and empowering girls through outdoor recreation.

The Maliks know firsthand that groundbreaking endeavors come with barriers — and that money is often among the most significant.

Tashi says the Seven Summits is “an attractive achievement” because “it symbolizes conquering the highest land features on each continent.” Nungshi notes it’s “quite likely that sponsorships will come only through such accomplishments.”

In pitching potential sponsors on his idea to climb and ski each of the mountains in 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, the famous book by Chris Davenport, Penn Newhard and Art Burrows, professional skier Cody Townsend made an explicit connection to the romance of the world’s highest peaks. “This is no Seven Summits or Explorers Grand Slam,” Townsend says, “but it’s in that vein.” Sometimes, to be first is a matter of curation.

Not every descent in 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America is “the most gnarly or most extreme,” Townsend says, and all have been tackled previously, but before the book’s publication in 2010 those descents had never been positioned as a cohesive group. It presented Townsend with a pre-organized conceit around which to build a quest.

“It had nothing to do with being the first to tick this off,” he said. “It was more about climbing and skiing, doing it in North America.” For Townsend, holding too tight to the idea of first descents can demean the broader thrill of the sport: “When you’re dropping in, it’s a first descent for you.”

That sense of evolution clearly resonates; each athlete, in discussing their achievements, recalled an experience that transcended the physical: Jornet mentions “self-exploration,” the Maliks “a spiritual journey.” Townsend calls his “a deeply personal” challenge.

All conquests, from history’s firsts to the seemingly quotidian, force the body and mind not to avoid pain but to embrace it — and further, to seek out the profound pleasure of defying it. To savor the extraordinary feeling of confronting a seemingly impossible task, and knocking the bastard off.

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