MOUNT EVEREST, 8,848 metres of tragedy and triumph. The outer limit of inner space, where success comes one cramponed step at a time. The Everest 'Death Zone', 8,224 metres and higher, warns humankind against trespassing on a molecular level, shutting down biological functions, such as digestion, from lack of oxygen. The Death Zone, where Ame-rican climber Lily Leonard paused, at the South Summit, a mere 99 metres from the summit. After two years of waiting and planning, the highest point on Earth was only two hours away. In 1995, chest-high snow forced a retreat; in 1998 at this same spot, instinct told her 'it's not my day' and she turned back; but on May 24 she persevered. Unable to see her feet for the oxygen mask, she slogged on, feeling the fangs of each crampon gain purchase. Step, breathe. Step, breathe. Plant ice axe. Breathe. Then she radioed her base camp. 'Lily?' 'Yeah.' 'Where are you?' 'Well, from where I'm standing, there's nowhere to go but down.' Leonard was the first of three members in her team of 10 to reach the summit. She's one of only 40 other women ever to make it, but sshhhhh, don't spread it around because she didn't tell anybody, not her husband, not her stepchildren, not her mum. Somebody pass the oxygen. 'So they wouldn't have to worry,' the 44-year-old says. Besides, 'it's a very personal, quiet thing'. A Hong Kong resident since 1981, Leonard's lack of interest in self-aggrandisement puts a mark on the global mountaineering scene as refreshing as a consolidated snowpack. Consider the history. In a race that reeked of colonialism, Sir Edmund Hillary's team succeeded where 10 prior expeditions couldn't: staking the summit with a British flag in 1953. In 1985, a wealthy Texan, Dick Bass, was hauled to the top and culminated his quest to bag the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent, and, in the process, opened the floodgates of criticism that average citizens, better equipped with cash than technical expertise, could become mountaineers. Bass, and his subsequent book trumpeting his conquests, reduced the spiritual transcendence of climbing to a trophy, heads of African big game hanging in the dark wood panelled study. As the world's highest point, Everest naturally became the ultimate souvenir. But it is no foregone conclusion, as exemplified in 1996 when eight people died in the greatest single disaster there, partly from professional guides' skewed values - taking up people who had US$70,000 (HK$544,600) at their disposal instead of proven ability. A survivor of the tragedy, Sandy Hill Pittman, a millionaire Manhattan socialite, who was considered the embodiment of someone looking for cocktail party bragging rights, was shunned to the point where even her own kind snubbed her at Upper East Side soirees. OK, Leonard did seek sponsorship in her bid and history certainly reveals scores of humble climbers: American Scott Fisher, who died trying to save his clients in 1996 ; Italian Reinhold Meissner, the first to reach the summit of Everest without oxygen in 1978; and Briton Sir Chris Bonington who, in his mid-60s, can't stop seeking higher ground, to name but a few. But poke around Leonard's psyche and she intimates, 'I didn't tell anyone for a reason: I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not - I'm an amateur climber, physically fit, who does it for myself.' Having returned to Hong Kong last week, what evidence is there to indicate that the earthy woman who grew up in a Boston suburb and didn't start climbing until 10 years ago has shared a perspective with only 900 or so other people? There's the freckle-sized scrape on her nose from the oxygen mask (the realist says she didn't consider a non oxygen assisted bid). Careful scrutiny of her feet in her sandals reveals three purple toenails, which, victims of snug plastic climbing boots, are destined to fall off ('That's nothing, I lose all 10 on the MacLehose,' she says, having done it twice, in less than 20 hours each time). But the telltale sign must be the ebullience. 'I'll never have to climb the Geneva Spur again!' she cheers, referring to the steep pitch below the South Col. It turns out that Leonard's husband, currently working in Cape Town, South Africa, did learn of her endeavour recently after someone e-mailed him a press clipping. 'Look what my irresponsible wife went off and did,' Richard Leonard jested. 'But he did say he was thankful [for my silent approach], because he worries a lot,' Lily Leonard says. She has yet to tell her 82-year-old-mother (her father passed away last year). 'I sent her a postcard, does that count?' Hazel-eyed, her logic as sound as a well-placed ice screw, Leonard says keeping a secret is simple: 'Don't tell anyone.' All things athletic always came easily to Leonard, having played tennis and lacrosse in college, and then taking up squash here in 1983; in one year she won the Island Club Championship tournament, the first of many local tournaments, and soon after she represented the SAR in three Asian Championships. She picked up mountaineering only in 1990, when on her first trek in Nepal, aside from the 5,920-metre realisation of her genetic predisposition towards acclimatisation, the owner of the travel company said, 'If you like trekking, maybe you'd like climbing.' 'You mean like those asses in lycra,' she responded. That summer, Jim Williams, who has since become her instructor and climbing partner, led her up the Grand Teton in Wyoming in the US, and she 'got hooked'. She went on to climb 6,000-metre peaks in South America and the Himalayas, including a winter ascent of Ama Dablam, all the while 'tripping my way up the learning curve'. Of Ama Dablam, 'yes, we didn't make camp one night. Yes, we slept in a harness', clipped to an anchored rope on an arete. Combined with arduous hiking up Table Mountain in South Africa this spring, it all proved successful training grounds. Reaching the summit of Everest, Leonard says, is such an anomalous physical endeavour that not even marathon-conditioned runners would be guaranteed success. From Camp 2 at 6,900 metres (see diagram), the summit assault and hasty retreat is a 72- to 96-hour period of extreme exertion, punctuated by 'rest periods [at Camps 3 and 4] in which one can't eat or sleep', Leonard says. With half the oxygen of sea level, hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain), and exhaustion, daylight storms and ceaseless, tempestuous winds all crumble climbers' confidence. Just melting snow for water requires intense concentration. Most ascents of Everest occur in May during a short period that offers a respite from Asian monsoons that otherwise devour the mountain. But this year's climbing season was largely characterised by storms, one of which would test Leonard. She arrived at Base Camp in early April, and along with 14 other international parties, faced the mountain's imposing nature before they even began climbing: the shifting seracs of the nearby Khumba Icefalls (see diagram on page 2) moaned, creaked and crashed in the night like a haunted house, playing a game of psyche-out, the falling blocks of ice as large as trains having killed more climbers than any other part of the mountain. Initial climbing was highlighted by Leonard's birthday, when Sherpas cooked up a cake complete with chocolate icing at Camp 2 which, in the rarefied air, makes creating an oven with hot rocks nearly as challenging as portaging the 5,000 kilograms of gear to base camp. Three days on, up the South Col, Everest's most popularly climbed route, Leonard was about six hours away from the top when she said 'experience started talking'. 'That's when I knew I would [reach the] summit.' But fear struck her, when, just below the Hillary Step, a steep, short rock climb rigged with fixed rope just below the summit, she came across a member of her party curled up on the snow, having run out of bottled oxygen. 'Just let me die,' he said, fading in and out of consciousness, teetering on the edge of becoming the one in six climbers who perish on the hill. H Regarding the economics of her climb, Leonard won't disclose exactly how much she paid, though it could have exceeded US$20,000. The Nepalase Government permit alone costs US$10,000 per climber and then there's all the base camp expenses, including paying for Russian MI-17 helicopters to ferry goods multiple times. Inventa, a United States e-commerce concern, was the primary sponsor of the private Everest 2000 Environmental Expedition which saw more than 600 kg of rubbish, mostly empty oxygen bottles, cleaned from the hill - Everest having, in recent years, earned the title of as the world's highest rubbish dump for all the climbing paraphernalia littered about. For Leonard, her accomplishment didn't hit home until after she reached base camp, when two Sherpas she knew from her first attempt, five years prior, came over to congratulate her. 'They didn't have to do that,' she says. 'It was really sweet.' The oldest woman to summit was 47, but she didn't return to base camp, her body is still up on Sagarmatha (Everest's Nepalese name meaning 'Goddess of Sky'). Further illustrating Leonard's modesty, she could be the oldest woman to summit and live but she has little desire to find out: it's immaterial. So what's next for someone who has nowhere to go but down? Leonard wants to climb the world's second-highest peak, K2, which, in the nearby Karakoram Range is considered a much greater technical accomplishment than the South Col 'Yak route'. Further, she wants to ascend the ominous North Face. She says she wouldn't do it if she had young children and talks of the beauty of mountaineering in Nepal, because of its selfless people. 'It's not just about the summit,' she says, then trails off, interrupted. She is, after all, fighting a case of the sniffles.