A Case Of Altitude Chicness?

BACK IN MARCH, SOCIALITE TURNED JOURNALIST SANDY Hill Pittman -- the soon-to-be ex-wife of MTV cofounder Bob Pittman -- began filing the first reports of her Mount Everest expedition to NBC's Web site from her apartment on Central Park West. "All my personal stuff is packed," she told her putatively breathless cyberpublic on March 21. "I wouldn't dream of leaving town without an ample supply of Dean & Deluca's Near East Blend and my espresso maker." (Other folks at base camp had to make do with Starbucks.) Two days later she checked in from L.A., where she'd dined at "the restaurant of the moment, the Bar Marmont." Pittman socializes with the likes of Martha Stewart, Blaine Trump (sister-in-law of the Donald) and Tom Brokaw, and she's taken some of them along on her less scary jaunts -- a trek in Sikkim, a hike up Kilimanjaro. In addition to her espresso maker, Pittman brought along some $50,000 worth of high-techery courtesy of NBC. Digital camera, laptops, satellite phone -- the works. This is the kind of person serious climbers could start to get a serious attitude about -- if she weren't, at heart, dead serious herself.

Mountaineering has always appealed to the sort of hard-chargers who'd make good CEOs -- and to folks with money in their pockets and time on their hands. And lately, with standard routes like Everest's Southeast Ridge well established, dilettantes with a climbing wall at the health club and $65,000 or so to spend on fun (not including the round-trip air fare to Katmandu) are lining up for a crack at the world's highest peaks on paid expeditions. Jim Clash, a staff writer for Forbes magazine and an amateur climber, attributes much of the current craze to the 1986 book "Seven Summits," in which the then fiftyish Frank Wells (president of Disney) and Dick Bass (oil, coal and resort tycoon) told of knocking off the highest peak on each continent, saving Everest for last. "It's chic now to say you're a mountain climber," says Clash. For the fitness-obsessed, it's a quantum leap beyond the New York Marathon; for corporate Napoleons in search of new worlds to conquer, the summit of Everest is the ultimate hostile takeover.

But Pittman, 41, was climbing back when Wells and Bass were still working on their first millions. She started at 10 in Yosemite and reached her first summit (Disappointment Peak, in the Tetons) at 13; her son Bo, now 13, went with her to Everest's 17,700-foot base camp when he was 9. ("He did better than I did getting there, too," she says.) When Pittman made it to the top of Everest on May 10, she became only the second American woman to complete the Seven Summits. (The first was alpinist Dolly Lefever.) This was Pittman's third attempt to climb Everest: in 1993 she was turned back by high winds and deep snow; in 1994 she was thwarted -- that is, nearly killed -- by avalanches. By this time, most of the socialites we know would have decided to spend that $65,000 on a top-of-the-line Range Rover and a full tank of gas.

Pittman's famous friends, healthy and venturesome as they are, recognize that she's in a whole different league. An "easy" route on Kilimanjaro, while Pittman took the hard way, proved demanding enough to do Stewart in. ("I would never suggest it to my worst friend," she reported- ly said afterward.) Brokaw, who's climbed Mount Rainier (though not with Pittman), says Everest is "enormously tempting -- but I'm a realist. I'm 56 years old. I have a job that requires me to be on the air Monday through Friday. I don't have time to devote a year to this sort of thing. Sandy's taken it many levels beyond what I've done." Before embarking on a trek with Pittman through the neighborhood of Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest peak after Everest and K2, Trump says she "did a lot of cross training, mountain biking and weight work. But I had no doubt that if we got in trouble Sandy could have carried me right off that mountain."

After this month's sudden storm, in which eight of her fellow climbers died, including her expedition lead- er, the experienced Everester Scott Fischer, Pittman took offense at allegations that they were mere amateurs who'd dragged down their guide. "We behaved like a team at all times," she told NEWSWEEK. Pittman herself got off relatively easily, with frostbitten middle fingers. But "out of respect for Scott and the deepest grief and sorrow I've ever felt in my life," she put an end to her chatty postings to NBC Interactive. She'll have enough to do in the weeks and months to come. She'd already begun writing a book, to be called "Summits of My Soul," about her Seven Summits exploits; clearly the section on Everest is going to be longer and more difficult than she'd imagined. And though she says she intends to keep climbing -- "Fortunately, there's no shortage of mountains in the world" -- she doubts she'll ever try Everest again.