Some of Mount Everest's mystery recedes every time a new route is forged to its summit, but the host of bodies buried beneath its snows preserve its menace.
Although the count is inexact, climber lore has it that twice as many people have died on Everest's slopes as have ever reached the summit. If that's true, more than 300 are entombed on the mountain - including more than 100 believed to have been killed by an avalanche during a massive joint Chinese and Russian ascent in the '60s.It's that terribleness that draws men to Everest: the thundering avalanches, the sudden winds that have swept its ridges clean of men asleep in anchored tents and, always, the deep cold.
No matter how many times it is successfully climbed, its caprice marks each ascent with uncertainty. Ironically, the rough translation of Everest is "Mother of the Earth" - a nurturing name falsely promising a gentleness no man will find on its slopes.
Fred Riedman has been fascinated by the mountain since he was 12. There are tougher climbs and more beautiful climbs, but none match the romance of a climb to the top of the world.
Riedman learned to climb during summer trips to the Wind Rivers, but it wasn't until he climbed McKinley that Everest seemed possible.
Few test their dreams so tangibly as those who set out to climb mountains. From August to November, Riedman and two other Utahns will see how far dreams carry them. Dr. Robert Ross Greenlee, medical director of Intermountain Health Care's Instacare in Rose Park, will be the team's physician. (See related story on this page.) Quintin Barney, an employee with Lithograph Print, will be one of the support climbers.
The three are part of the Wyoming Centennial Everest Expedition - dubbed "Cowboys on Everest." Of the three, only Riedman will try for the summit. The others stay with a support team slated to climb only part of the way.
The expedition will kick off Wyoming's centennial celebration, a 11/2-year retinue of events that climaxes with the state's 100th birthday in 1990.
The expedition of 34 people will leave Aug. 1 from Cheyenne, Wyo.
Theirs will be a treacherous climb. The team will try for the North Ridge - 7,000 feet of jagged rock with out-sloping slabs of shale and two vertical pitches. The climbing alone would be brutal.
"On the summit day, a climber will burn 20,000 calories," Riedman said.
But difficult becomes terrifying when one considers the wind.
"In the fall, it is perhaps the windiest mountain route in the world. It is the one spot on the mountain directly exposed to the winter jet stream. They have recorded winds of 180 mph there."
The climbers could be directly in the jet stream for the last 2,000 feet of the climb. They hope to beat the harshest winds.
"The winds have been recorded regularly at 100 miles an hour on the ridge," he said.
The winds have forced several expeditions to abandon the North Ridge in favor of the less windy North Face. Hence, only two teams have successfully climbed the ridge: a Chinese team in 1964 and a Basque team in 1985.
If the cowboys pull it off, they will be the first American team to conquer the North Ridge. They may also put the first American woman on Everest's summit. Sue Cobbs, 51, has received national attention for her intention to climb Everest. USA Today and People magazine each featured the indefatigable Miami lawyer this month. She is one of six women on the expedition, but the only one who will try for the top.
The North Ridge is a deadly route. Both the Chinese and Basque expeditions lost climbers during their ascents. On some routes, climbers move through treacherous ice fields and if someone dies, it is probably because of an avalanche. On the North Ridge, they fall.
The cold will be nearly as debilitating as the wind. "We've got sleeping bags ready to minus 50 degrees," Riedman said. "We will probably experience direct cold to minus 50 degrees. With wind chill, it will probably get down to minus 100."
But Riedman's known worse. He has climbed in direct cold of minus 75 degrees with a wind chill of minus 150.
"The direct cold is the worst. You can shelter yourself from the wind."
Since the ridge can only be climbed from China's side of the mountain, the climbers need the country's blessing to attempt it. The team began seeking permission in 1978, writing letter after letter to the Chinese Mountaineering Association.
It took six years for the association to get back to them. But when they did, they sent along a climbing permit for the fall of 1988, aptly settling the question of when the expedition would be.
The climbers will be on the mountain 75 days. Summit day is scheduled for Sept. 25. "That's the earliest we could be in position," Riedman said.
It's a pricey clamber, costing $920,000 - most of it donated. But it will accomplish more than planting a flag on the summit.
The climbers are bringing along an artist, a high school teacher, two high school students, a Chinese graduate student and a camera crew.
The artist plans to complete an oil painting at 26,000 feet.
"That will be the highest a complete work has ever been done," Riedman said. The artist may climb higher to take photographs and rough out sketches for later paintings.
The expedition is bringing the teacher and students to broaden the horizons of as many Wyoming youngsters as possible.
"A lot of people don't get to leave Wyoming and see what the rest of the world is like," Riedman said. "One of the students didn't know where Everest was when he applied."
The teacher, a Jackson Hole man with considerable climbing experience, will also be one of the back-up climbers for the summit.
The two high school students - selected through a statewide search - have no climbing experience. They will travel in China for two weeks with the expedition, then spend another two weeks on the flanks of Everest. The youngsters will only climb to 21,000 feet - still 8,000 feet short of the summit. They will return to the United States in September. During the year, they will speak at several Wyoming schools.
Extra climbers are going along to chip rock samples from the mountain 2,000 feet below the summit. The rocks will be studied by geologists to see if they substantiate the theory that the Himalayas were formed when the Indian and Asian continents collided.
Geologists think a yellow swath of rock on Everest - called the "yellow band" - might prove that theory. The study will be a joint venture between the United States and China.
A photographer, producer and support climber will also be along to film a documentary of the climb. The three will only climb to 25,000 feet. The climbers themselves will film the remaining 4,000 feet of the climb, using stripped-down mini-cams.
It's an expedition heavy with aspirations. Each goes with a dream - some dimly outlined, others rife with detail after years of imagining. Reach the summit. Finish the painting. Make the movie. Prove the theory.
If Goethe's words are true, their very determination puts their dreams within their grasp.
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it," he advised. "Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."