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Claiming the Summit Without Reaching the Top

Only 44 people have reached the summit of all 14 of the world’s 26,000-foot peaks, according to the record books. Or, maybe no one has. The difference rides on a timeless question getting a fresh look--what is a summit?

Ed Viesturs believes he knows. He is one of the 44, the only American on the list. In 1993, climbing alone and without supplemental oxygen or ropes, he reached the “central summit” of Shishapangma, the world’s 14th-highest mountain. Most climbers turn around there, calling it good enough.

Before him was a narrow spine of about 300 feet, a knife-edge of snow with drops to oblivion on both sides. At its end was the mountain’s true summit, a few feet higher in elevation than where he stood. “Too dangerous,” Ed told himself. He retreated but then he said, “I was one of those guys where if the last nail in the deck hasn’t been hammered in, it’s not done.” Eight years later, Ed climbed within reach of Shishapangma’s summit again. With a leg on each side of the narrow mountain spine, he shimmied across it. He touched the highest point and scooted back to relative safety.

There is a summit, and then there is everything below it. Can close ever be good enough? By asking a simple-sounding question—What is the summit?—the researchers are raising doubts about past accomplishments and raising standards for future ones.

Eberhard Jurgalski has spent 40 years chronicling the ascents of the 26,000-foot peaks. And now he has some jarring news: It is possible that no one has ever been on the true summit of all 14 of those peaks. Some stopped on the central summit, not daring to straddle the ridge the way Viesturs did. Some turned around at a popular selfie-taking spot without scaling the precarious ridge hidden just beyond it.

Climber and author David Roberts says, “The summit does matter. Why does it matter? Because it’s the whole point of mountaineering. It’s the goal that defines an ascent.”

Australian explorer Damien Gildea said, “People are stopping short because it’s too hard. And I say, that’s not really a good excuse for a climber.”

Possible Preaching Angle:

Let’s also beware the danger of giving up before reaching the finish line of the Christian life. Thinking that “close enough” is “good enough” leaves us short of the prize (Phil. 3:14).

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