Tech Advances Help Mountain Climbers

ByABC News
May 27, 2003, 10:41 AM

May 28 -- Put on a heavy wool sweater, a down-filled coat, plain leather boots and a cap. Strap a 20-pound oxygen tank to your back. Grab a heavy ice pick. Then traverse life-threatening crevasses and vast sheets of ice to climb five miles above the Earth's surface.

That may be simplifying things, but it gives a small sense of what Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay went through to reach the summit of Mount Everest for the first time ever in 1953.

Thanks to technological advances, climbing the peak today is, if not easier, at least less cumbersome.

"I know a lot of people wouldn't be able to climb the mountain in the 1953 equipment, with all this lightweight equipment that we have around," says Norgay's son, Jamling. "They had the very best of their time. Today we have the very best of our times."

Everest doesn't take a great deal of technical expertise to climb, experts say, and modern gear gives the less-experienced a shot at making it to the top while giving more skilled adventurers the chance to scale once-insurmountable peaks.

Speed = Safety

Everything from clothes, to food to communication gear, ropes and ice axes have vastly improved, letting people pack more in lighter, smaller packs, getting farther, faster, with less exertion.

"In the mountains, speed adds to safety," says Joe Lentini, director of the New Hampshire-based EMS Climbing School, which teaches both novice and professional climbers. "It's not safe, but it's safer."

Advances, most in the past 20 years, include:

Clothing: Step into any mountaineering store, and you'll see pants, jackets, socks and gloves made from porous, lightweight materials like Gore-Tex that are also waterproof and can protect against cold and wind. Polypropylene underwear today's sophisticated long-johns stretch and breathe while keeping climbers warm.

Tents: These are lighter and less susceptible to conditions because of new synthetics in the cloth, and metal alloys in the poles.