Before Swiss guide Mattias Zurbriggen reached the summit Jan. 14, 1897, some people didn't believe human beings could survive at the highest altitudes of Argentina's Mount Aconcagua.
Actually, many climbers don't survive at 22,834 feet above sea level. But four Utah businessmen did during an ascent of the Western Hemisphere's tallest peak last month.
Provo residents Joe Ollivier, 55, Mark Hall, 52, and Jeff Harmer, 26, and Layton resident Stan Jenkins, 47, reached the top of the Andes' "Sentinel of Stone" on Feb. 16. For the four men, plus two companions who had to turn back because of altitude sickness, it's easy to comprehend why mountaineer T.W. Hinchliff felt the way he did in 1876.
"Lover of mountains as I am," Hinchliff wrote, "I could not repress a strange feeling as I looked at Tupungato and Aconcagua, and reflected that endless successions of men must in all probability be forever debarred from their lofty crests.
"Aconcagua and Tupungato may probably defy intrusion unless through the medium of a balloon."
Ollivier, Hall, Harmer and Jenkins did not use a balloon to top Aconcagua, although they probably wished for rescue from one many times during their difficult 12 days on the mountain. At one point, they passed the body of a hiker who had died just hours earlier.
Despite the hardships and potential for death, the quartet believed reaching the world's highest point outside the Himalayas was an experience they just couldn't miss.
"We got to the summit and it was probably one of the most emotional times in my life," Ollivier said. "I just burst into tears."
When Zurbriggen made his historic ascent 101 years ago, he suffered from severe frostbite and a badly injured shoulder sustained while attempting to cross a river on the way to Aconcagua. Nevertheless, Zurbriggen was the only one of his party of climbers to make it. Several others were forced to give up within sight of the summit because of altitude sickness.
Technology has improved mountaineering gear considerably during the past 100 years, and the river now has a bridge. But climbers today face the same battles with altitude and terrain that stopped several of Zurbriggen's companions and - during the ensuing century - killed more climbers than Mount Everest.
"We felt like if we made a small mistake, the mountain would be happy to put its icy arms around us forever," Ollivier said.
Paradoxically, Aconcagua takes so many lives because it's so easy. The ascent typically does not require technical climbing during the summer months of December through February.
The mountain is very accessible and inexpensive when compared to Everest, meaning some climbers who aren't prepared or properly equipped try to climb Aconcagua.
In Zurbriggen's day, only professional mountaineers dared attempt the feat. But today, as the Utahns proved, mortgage bankers, part-time professors, small-business owners and title company executives can tame Aconcagua with excellent health, a little luck and a lot of courage.
Although extreme cold, high winds and blinding snow combined with the stupefying effect of lack of oxygen to take several climbers' lives this year, the Utah group was fortunate to have good guides and relatively cooperative weather.
"Personally, I never felt I was in a life-threatening situation," Jenkins said.
The worst part of the climb, he said, was the apprehension of waiting at base camp for six days for the weather to break. Nearly every day, climbers returned to camp at Plaza de Mulas to relate tales of death and terror on Aconcagua's upper reaches.
The Utahns themselves encountered a disoriented Polish climber who said he had lost his companion. Later, they passed within 20 feet of the dead man's body, lying alongside the trail toward the summit.
As the group prepared to leave base camp and make a run at the summit, their Argentine guide - recalling that his charges were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - advised them to pray for weather and safety.
They did, although Ollivier remarked, "I don't know if God cares whether we make it to the top or not." There may have been divine indifference about the group's reaching the summit, but the Utah climbers agreed that divine intervention returned them to base camp safely.
For Jenkins, Ollivier and Hall, part of the motivation to conquer Aconcagua was a failed attempt in 1989. That year, an inexperienced guide and horrible storms conspired to keep the men from their goal.
This time, fear of failure and exhilaration of achievement were equally effective motivators to succeed.
"It's interesting to see what you can actually accomplish," Harmer said. "After doing something like that you definitely change your views on life."
With seven months of training and under $5,000 each, the men got their shot at the mountain that draws hikers from around the globe. They made the most of it by reaching the summit, something only a small percentage of climbers were able to do this season.
Perhaps Guatemalan Carlos Prahl, who reached the top of Aconcagua in 1965, best put the feat in perspective.
"Is Aconcagua easy? Is it difficult? No one knows nor can they say," Prahl wrote.