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Reinhold Messner of Tyrol, Italy, then the world's most celebrated climber, stepped up to the challenge and began his assault on Nanga Parbat--his first 8,000-meter peak--in 1970. By the early 1980s Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka began gaining on Messner, who was forced to double his number of ascents each year to stay ahead. Messner finally summited Lhotse in 1986 to become the first to scale all of the tallest peaks.
"There's no shortage of attitude and testosterone in the ranks of hard-core climbers. It can be very competitive," says U.S. mountaineer Eric Simonson, who led a 1999 expedition on Everest to recover the body of famed climber George Mallory, lost on the mountain in 1924. "You have a bunch of alpha dogs trying to piss on the same fire hydrant."
Alpha mountaineers are broken into two camps: the Himalayan climbers, who seek the highest peaks on established routes, and the Alpinists, who focus on unexplored, technical routes on lower peaks. While Alpinists are generally unknown outside the climbing community, Himalayan climbers often receive international recognition for their achievements, which causes some resentment. Viesturs, for one, earned national acclaim after topping Annapurna. He appeared on major television programs and in photo spreads in national magazines, threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game and received a signed photograph of George W. Bush.
"The public sees Everest as the greatest challenge to mountain climbers," says Mark Richey, president of the American Alpine Club. "To the hard-core climbing sector [Viesturs's accomplishment] is not the pinnacle. The routes he's climbed on 8,000-meter peaks, they're high-altitude snow slogs. They're the easiest routes up gigantic mountains."
Yet even on the easiest routes Himalayan climbers face harsh conditions and risk of death. Before Viesturs, only 11 had summitted the 14 highest peaks and only four-- Messner, Erhard Loretan of Sweden and Spain's Juanito Oiarz�bal and Alberto I�urrategi--had done it without supplemental oxygen. Nearly all paid a tragic price for time spent in the death zone. Says Simonson, "If you put yourself in harm's way over and over, the numbers start to go against you."
On his 1970 descent of Nanga Parbat, Messner lost his brother G�nther in an avalanche. After searching all night for him, Messner suffered severe frostbite, and six of his toes and several fingertips had to be amputated.
In 1987 Kukuczka became a national hero in Poland for finishing the 14 peaks in a record time of seven years, 11 months and two weeks. He was awarded an honorary silver medal by the International Olympic Committee in Calgary in 1988. A year later Kukuczka returned to Lhotse, his first 8,000-meter peak, to set a new route up the south face. Near the summit his climbing rope snapped, and Kukuczka, 41, fell to his death.
In 1999 the brash Oiarz�bal summitted Annapurna to become the third man to do all 14 without oxygen. He returned to K2 in July 2004, at age 48, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of that peak. Lagging behind his partners during the descent, Oiarz�bal went temporarily blind and collapsed in the snow when his corneas froze and fluids began to fill his lungs. Oiarz�bal's team found him nearly unconscious three hours later. He suffered severe frostbite and had all 10 toes amputated. "All I think about is returning to the mountains. I can't live without them," he said last year.
I�urrategi was the fourth man to claim the 14 peaks without oxygen and--at 34 when he finished his list in 2002--the second youngest (behind Carlos Carsolio of Mexico, who completed the feat in 1996 at age 33). The shy Basque climber had set out to complete his quest with his brother Felix. Together the pair climbed 12 of the highest peaks before an ice screw came loose on a 2000 descent of Gasherbrum II, and Felix fell 300 feet to his death.
Finally, a week after Viesturs completed his 14-peak quest, Italian climber Christian Kuntner seemed on the verge of becoming the sixth man to claim all the peaks without oxygen. Following the same route Viesturs had taken on Annapurna, Kuntner, 43, was making his way through a section of unstable ice cliffs when a large chunk of a serac broke free and crushed him. Annapurna had claimed its 55th victim.