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Ernest Hofstetter, 95; nearly reached peak of Mt. Everest

GENEVA -- Ernest Hofstetter, part of the Swiss team that first traced the route to "The Roof of the World" used by Sir Edmund Hillary to conquer Mount Everest, died June 1 at his French chalet with a view of Mont Blanc, his son said Friday. He was 95.

Mr. Hofstetter was a member of the Swiss expedition that had to turn back just short of the peak in 1952 but is credited with forging the path that Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used in their successful assault a year later. The path is still used today in climbs to the 29,035-foot peak.

Acknowledging the Swiss contribution, Hillary's team sent them a telegram after peaking, "To you goes half the glory."

"He was kind, but he could also be hard. But it's not a softy who climbs Mount Everest," his son Michel Hofstetter told the Associated Press.

The Swiss expedition remains one of the most charming and astonishing feats in mountaineering history: During weekly get-togethers in a Geneva square, a bunch of climbing buddies hatched the plan to scale Everest.

Unexpectedly, the Swiss received from the Nepalese government a permit for 1952, taking it away from the British, who had monopolized it the previous 21 years.

Mr. Hofstetter and his friends surpassed all expectations, although they had a big asset: Like Hillary, they also had Norgay, the legendary Sherpa.

They conquered the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous stages of the expedition, where collapsing towers of ice and large crevasses opening without warning had claimed many lives . Reaching the broad glacial basin called the Western Cwm, they scaled the huge Lhotse face at 23,620 feet to reach the desolate, wind-swept South Col.

While Tenzing and Raymond Lambert forged on, Mr. Hofstetter remained with another group at 26,250 feet, ready to try if the pair failed.

The story of the climb is full of astounding details. Lambert and Tenzing, for instance, camped at 27,560 feet, despite having forgotten their sleeping bags.

The group was also essentially climbing without oxygen because their Swiss-designed sets failed. In the thin air at 26,250 feet, many climbers experience hallucinations and poor judgment.

Lambert and Tenzing reached 28,380 feet, but were forced back down because of fatigue and bad weather.

They came within 650 feet of the summit on May 26, 1952. Presuming George Mallory and Andrew Irvine failed to reach the summit in 1924, the Swiss had climbed higher than anyone before.

Mr. Hofstetter, who ran a sporting goods store in Geneva, had to persuade his wife to let him go.

"My mother had three children and a business to run," said Michel, who was 8 when his father made the climb. "Still, she let him go. It was a great act of love."

"Nowadays, they've got sophisticated instruments, and a meteorologist tells climbers whether it's safe to advance," Michel said. "In those days, you simply looked out the tent to see if there were clouds coming in.

Hillary's team was more organized than the Swiss. It also had working oxygen equipment, although it weighed significantly more.

Mr. Hofstetter's expedition was led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant. Others included Rene Dittert, head mountain guide; Gabriel Chevalley, the team's doctor; Rene Aubert; Leon Flory; Lambert; Andre Roch; and Jean-Jacques Asper, now the sole surviving member.

A geologist, a botanist, and an anthropologist from the Geneva University also participated. All were members of Geneva's "L'Androsace Alpine club.

"They were very lucky," Michel said. "They didn't have any accidents or frostbite. But it could have easily ended a lot differently."

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