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This has been an uneven year for adventurers seeking challenge in Asia. The major success belonged to Italy's Reinhold Messner, who at 42 stands at the pinnacle of mountaineering. Sixteen years ago Messner set out to become the first person to climb all 14 of the world's mountains higher than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet). "I am privileged because I can live out my dreams," he has said. "Most people cannot do that. They lose themselves in everyday affairs."
Messner's mission took on added significance for him when tragedy marred his very first ascent of an eight-thousander. After reaching the summit of Pakistan's Nanga Parbat in 1970, Messner and his brother G�nther were caught in an avalanche. G�nther was lost; Reinhold searched in vain for five days, suffering frostbite, which cost him six toes. Two years later, when Messner made a successful ascent of Nepal's holy mountain, 26,781-foot Manaslu, two other partners were killed.
His crusade became a race when in 1979 Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka began chasing Messner to the elusive goal of 14. By this past July, Kukuczka had reached 11 summits, Messner 12. In September Messner and fellow Italian Hans Kammerlander picked up the pace and scaled Makalu in Nepal and China, the world's fifth-highest peak at 27,824 feet. Only neighboring Lhotse, the fourth-highest at 27,923 feet in the Himalayas, remained.
During three days in October Messner, again climbing with Kammerlander, achieved his ultimate dream. "We were lucky," he said. "The wind blowing from down below and pushing us towards the summit was a decisive factor. The elements decided to be kind to me."
The elements were less kind to two groups of Americans who trekked to Asia this year. In June nine veteran mountain climbers left San Francisco for the People's Republic of China and a planned 40-day ascent of the highest peak in the northwestern Himalayas, 25,325-foot Mount Kongur. They hoped to be the first Americans to reach the summit—a British team did it in 1981—and they agreed to be subjects of social-psychological and neuropsychological testing. The expedition was historic for another reason: They were the first all-woman team ever to climb in mainland China.
The women returned home in August, having failed to reach the top of Kongur because of illness and heavy snows—but the adventure was not without its accomplishments. Three members, including team leader Kathleen Giel of Albany, Calif., who had obtained approval from the Chinese government for the climb and helped raise the $65,000 to fund it, made it almost 21,000 feet up Kongur. The climbers were able to take part in the planned scientific research and shot film footage of their trek. A few said the physical and emotional strain of the experience—the women knew that all three members of a Japanese team had died on a similar climb in 1981—had made them more philosophical about life. Giel said the expedition had also "opened up doors in exchanges with China and for women."
While the would-be Kongur conquerors fell short of their goal, they had more success than the other group of Americans. Eleven rafters led by Ken Warren of Portland, Ore., arrived in late July at the source of the Yangtze, hoping to be the first to navigate a vicious 1,973-mile stretch of the upper river. The trip was ill-starred from the outset: On Aug. 3 an expedition photographer, David Shippee of Boise, Idaho, died of acute mountain sickness complicated by pneumonia. He was buried at 14,000 feet on a serene promontory above the river. Twelve days later four rafters who had been feuding with Warren left the expedition. "It was like the Caine Mutiny," said William Atwood, one of those who departed.
The adventurers pressed on toward the city of Yibin, but on Aug. 28, after having traveled 1,000 miles, one raft was ripped apart in ferocious rapids, the three others were damaged, and the expedition was stranded. Paul Sharpe of Aspen, Colo., volunteered to get help. After two days he was discovered by Tibetans who helped him trek three more days over a 15,000-foot mountain pass to the town of Batang. Four days after Sharpe left, Warren set out alone on foot to seek help, according to Ancil Nance, one of the remaining crew members. Nance and the rest of the party continued downriver in the damaged boats but gave it up after about 20 miles. A rescue party of Chinese horsemen dispatched by Sharpe met the group on Sept. 11 and evacuated them overland to Batang, where they were reunited with Warren.
Warren wanted to go on, but the crew realized it was useless to continue. "We've run out of time," said Warren's wife, Jan, as the expedition was aborted. "We have no oarsmen.... We are extremely disappointed about the outcome of the entire trip."
Many people travel to remote Asia to live out their dreams each year. In the year now ending, Messner stands out as the one who succeeded.