On May 22, 1963, two men stood atop Mt. Everest. As part of an American expedition, Dr. Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld had just made the first ascent of the difficult West Ridge. They were about to descend the Southeast Ridge, completing the first traverse of our world’s highest peak.
Through the lens of today’s emphasis on individual achievement, it’s easy to see this climb as an amazing feat by two special men. Masters of their craft and strong, they experienced that rare, magical confluence of mountain conditions, personal readiness and deep mutual trust that breeds extraordinary confidence.
Yet as I talk with Hornbein today, he refuses to let their ascent be seen in a vacuum. Hornbein reminds me that it was the work of many, not merely of two, that placed them on the top by a new route and that got them safely down the other side. He points to the leader Norman Dyhrenfurth’s “dream and tenacity to make it all happen” as “perhaps the greatest achievement.” He also feels that the West Ridge story must be told within the context of the larger expedition. The team’s primary goal had been to make the first American ascent of the mountain. If Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu hadn’t successfully summited via the established Southeast Ridge on May 1, the other members might not have been able to shift their focus to the more-uncertain West Ridge.
Hornbein also highlights the positive energy of Barry Corbet, Al Auten and Dick Emerson, who exerted tremendous effort in helping him and Unsoeld position themselves for the summit bid. On the same day that Hornbein and Unsoeld reached the top by the West Ridge, Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad had already summited by the Southeast Ridge. Thus, when night fell soon after Hornbein and Unsoeld began the descent, they could follow Bishop and Jerstad’s shouts, joining them at their bivouac. The next day, Girmi Dorje and Dave Dingman met the group above Camp VI and escorted them down the mountain. In the climbers’ then-vulnerable state, teammates’ presence and emotional support may well have meant the difference between survival and tragedy.
Composed of guides and teachers, doctors and cameramen, the entire 1963 Everest expedition inspired a generation of American youth to get outside. The members were regular people who told their adventure to millions with Bishop’s photos, Dyhrenfurth’s film and Hornbein’s words. Many great climbers remember the 1963 National Geographic cover and story or, later, Hornbein’s The West Ridge, as the start of their own lifetime of adventure.
Thousands have climbed Everest since 1963. Until the early 1990s, alpinists attempted a wide diversity of routes, looking for harder lines or simpler styles. Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler reached the summit without supplemental oxygen in 1978. But in 1985–the year that David Breashears guided Dick Bass to the top–there began an inexorable march away from new or difficult routes and from “fair means” ascents without bottled oxygen. Since 2000, the vast majority of expeditions have concentrated on getting paying clients up the easier North or Southeast Ridges.
Each year, the Everest situation comes under greater scrutiny, with new stories of crowds and deaths and with new allegations of climbers lacking compassion for each other. View Ralf Dujmovits’ photo of the line of people moving up the Lhotse Face or dig into David Breashears’ amazing, 3.8 billion-pixel image that exposes the hundreds of tents in Base Camp if you want a glimpse of what the mountain has become.
This infrastructure is moving to other 8000-meter peaks. Cho Oyu, Manaslu and now even K2 are guided by teams reliant on supplemental oxygen, fixed lines and high altitude porters. Each person’s choice of style is his or her own, a decision that has to do with highly personal variables. Regardless of how we feel about the use of various aids, the people who stand atop these peaks still take each step themselves. We must be clear, however, that individual style choices should not lead to damage to the mountain or to harm to others–including to potential rescuers.
Despite what we see in the mainstream media, talented climbers continue to break extraordinary ground each year, soloing hard routes in Yosemite, free climbing new lines in Patagonia and forging bold new creations on 6000- and 7000-meter peaks in the Himalaya. That groundbreaking attitude will be back on the world’s highest mountains one day soon. Some choose to climb, as Messner says, “on piste.” Others will pioneer harder, faster and freer ascents. There is room for both.
Whether we hope to repeat easy routes or to dream bigger, it’s worth recalling the special combination of ability, drive, innovation and teamwork that allowed Hornbein and Unsoeld to push their individual limits on Everest. They inspired greater aspirations in all of us.
This month, four of the seven remaining men from the 1963 team will gather in San Francisco to remember their achievement. Click here for more information about the event.