From inaccessible peak to popular goal

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The Independent Online
'ALL mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages,' the Victorian climber, Albert Mummery, said. 'An inaccessible peak; the most difficult climb in the Alps; an easy day for a lady.'

Climbing Everest is not an easy day for anyone - 117 are thought to have died on the mountain - but it is an increasingly popular activity. The number who have stood on the top of the world could reach 600 this year. Thirty-eight people did it last week.

For mountaineers, a real Everest achievement is to take one of the more dangerous routes, or to climb without extra oxygen, as Harry Taylor, Stephens's colleague, did last week. But this should not detract from her achievement.

Junko Tabei, the Japanese woman who first climbed the mountain in May 1975 (five months before the first ascent by any Briton, male or female), said of the gender gap: 'It's more than I want to believe, but it's there: the speed of walking, running, placing pitons with a hammer, all show the difference.'

And mountain climbing is a traditionally male activity. Sir David, now Lord Hunt, told Rebecca Stephens before her climb that it would have been 'inconceivable' that a woman would have been invited to join his 1953 expedition. 'There were very few male climbers then.'

Women climbers are still little known outside the business: Junko Tabei, who is still climbing, does not get a mention in the International Who's Who. But the balance is being redressed: three all-women expeditions are planned for Everest this year.

And next year Alison Jane Hargreaves hopes to be the first British woman to do a climb without extra oxygen. 'Rivalry in mountaineering,' another climber once said, 'involves finding the quickest way up and the second quickest way down.'