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Getting There First

Courtesy of Mountain Travel Sobek The first descent down the Awash River in Ethiopia.

Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Travel Sobek

Unclimbed mountains are an endangered species. Before 1950, none of the world’s 15 highest mountains had been climbed. That year, French alpinists Louis Lachenal and Maurice Herzog scaled the 10th highest, Nepal’s Annapurna I, and within the next 10 years most of the remaining 14 highest had been checked off the list. Today, the highest peak left is No. 36, the 24,836foot Gangkhar Puensum—which has yet to be climbed only because it’s in Bhutan, a country that has banned climbing of mountains higher than 19,685 feet.

Another vanishing breed: unrun rivers. In the past four decades, many of the world’s great rivers have been rafted or kayaked in their entirety for the first time, including the Ganges, the Zambezi, the Amazon, the Mekong, and the Nile.

Accomplished climbers say that their Firsts represent a high point in their lives. Legendary climber and adventure writer David Roberts, who has logged an estimated 40 first ascents, was only 20 years old when he pioneered a challenging new route up Denali. "I said, ’My God, nobody’s ever been here before," Roberts writes. "I’m the first person ever to put a crampon on that snowfield.’ You can’t sell that kind of excitement." Which is to say, of course you can. In an age when exotic travel is increasingly commodified, when remote adventure has become a brand of luxury experience, it’s only natural that the prospect of achieving a First be marketed as a way for the wellheeled to set themselves apart. The result: commercial first ascents of mountains and descents of rivers—trips on which a professional guide can help a customer be part of the first group up or down an asyetunconquered piece of geography. And with an everexpanding market for a fixed number of untrodden areas, anyone hoping to lay claim to a First had better move fast.

People have been taking note of first ascents for centuries. When Jacques Balmat and MichelGabriel Paccard climbed Mont Blanc, which straddles France, Italy, and Switzerland, in 1786, it caused a sensation throughout Europe; it is widely regarded as the founding moment of modern alpinism.

First river descents, on the other hand, are a more recent spinoff. Only after World War II, with the widespread availability of reliable rubber boats, was the sport of whitewater rafting able to develop as an adventurous pastime. Though the first big rivers were conquered in the 70’s, the sport’s heyday of conquests continues. Tibet’s Upper Tsangpo Gorge, a churning cauldron of white water dubbed "the Everest of Rivers," was only checked off the list in 2002.

It wasn’t until 1996 that Alpine Ascents International, the Seattlebased climbing company that has maneuvered more clients to the top of Everest than anyone else, began helping clients up unconquered peaks. (Though people can submit their first ascents to the American Alpine Journal, there is no formal accounting of such climbs.) The company performs most of its first ascents in eastern Greenland, where countless unnamed peaks loom over glaciers. Crucially, the peaks are not all that difficult to climb, just hard to get to. In fact, the company has mastered the art of turning typeA corporate characters into semicompetent mountaineers at its crashcourse school in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. For around $1,000, a moderately fit client can "do a sixday school and fly out the next week," says Gordon Janow, Alpine Ascents’ Director of Programs.


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