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'High and Hallowed:' The Quest to Document the 1963 Everest West Ridge Expedition

Fifty years ago, James Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest via the South Col. A second party from the same team led by Tom Hornbein, a 32-year-old anesthesiologist, and Willi Unsoeld, a 36-year-old Kathmandu-based Peace Corps staffer, wasn't interested in repeating that route. They believed there was only one challenge worthy of the force they'd marshaled on the mountain: the previously unclimbed West Ridge. And on May 22, 1963, they accomplished just that.

Forty-nine years later, mountaineers David Morton and Jake Norton returned to Everest hoping to follow in Hornbein and Unsoeld's footsteps—and film it. The team was unable to summit due to icy conditions, but their film High and Hallowed: Everest 1963 premieres at Mountainfilm in Telluride on Friday. Five decades on, the film returns to the mountain to discover if the call of adventure, risk, and uncertainty that drew the first Americans to the summit exists today.

Between the two of you, you've summited Everest nine times. Given the absurdly long lines and commercialization of the mountain, what keeps drawing you back?
When you go to work on the mountain as a guide, you start to be identified with it. So I've had some assignments to go back and shoot or guide. Nowadays, I’m unlikely to go back, but like anyone who’s been to Everest, you never say never. I don’t go there for the aspects of climbing I love—the challenge and solitude of being in remote, beautiful places—but I do love the friendships I’ve made there.

Norton: Despite all the chaos and abuse Everest receives, it’s still a stunning mountain with an incredible history and, at the very least, an interesting future.

Outside of certain circles, not many people know about the American ascent of 1963, which was, in many ways, a very modern climbing project—laden with science experiments and focused on style and difficulty more than "conquering" virgin terrain. How significant was their expedition?
Norton: The ascent of the West Ridge in 1963 is one of the most amazing ascents of any mountain ever. Not only did they push the limits in all ways, they totally cut the cord. They were without support. They couldn’t turn back once they were a few hundred meters above their high camp. In an age when people were climbing the easiest routes, they deliberately took a very difficult one. It was an incredible break from the norm.

One of my first exposures to climbing was reading the West Ridge, and it has been burned into my mind ever since. It’s a combination of what they did then and the mythology that’s sort of sprung up around it. To a lot of people, and Americans especially, that climb represents the epitome of what going out on big mountains is all about.

Last year, in making the film, you tried to retrace their steps but were unable to summit due to ice and a lack of snow. What was it like to have to turn back?
Because we wanted to go in the same style and follow the same route as Tom and Willi, we had to bring supplies up to Camp IV and V. But with the ice, we needed a way to get down which meant rapelling or putting in fixed lines. It became too time-consuming because of the ice, which easily shattered apart. We didn’t have a chance. The writing was on the wall fairly early on, but we kept at it toward the end.

Norton: We went in optimistic. Sure, we thought the route was going to be tough, that it was going to kick our butts. But we didn’t think that ice would be the problem. Our concern was having too much snow. Instead, the slope was covered with blue bullet-proof ice that shattered apart when you placed a tool into it. We couldn’t move quickly or efficiently. And we were getting barraged by rocks, which added spice to it all.

To finally make that call is never an easy one. The mountain had subtly and less than subtly been telling us that for a long time. On that final day when were a 100 meters below the West Shoulder, it was painfully obvious it wasn’t going to happen. It was painful to have to turn around, but also very easy because there was no question we were going to summit.

Where did your obsession with the West Ridge begin?
About 20 years ago, I’d go rock climbing at a gym in Seattle and Hornbein would be there. I knew who he was, but a lot of the younger climbers had no idea. He was off with guys his own age doing climbs that weren’t the hardest in the gym. 

Fifty years after their ascent, there’s a lot of 20- and 30-something climbers who aren’t aware of the 1963 expedition. They’ve only heard about the modern Everest. I’ve always wondered how Hornbein could write a new edition of his book or how a film could appeal to younger people, to place it within the climbing cannon of the Americans.

Norton: I’ve been interested in the West Ridge for years. Hornbein and Unsoeld have always been heroes of mine. But their story, partly because of personality and also from the way we tell our histories, had been largely forgotten. I wanted to share that story with a greater audience. And becoming good friends with Tom over the last six or seven years has led me to want to tell it even more.

What was it like filming on Everest?
We tried to keep it light and simple with one crane—which we didn't use much—and handheld DSLRs. We figured we’d focus on telling the story more than using camera wizardry.

Norton: When we looked back while putting together the final film, we hadn’t shot enough in the worst conditions. You never want to take your camera out then. But it made it hard to tell the story of what turned us back—the conditions—visually.

Was it tough trying balance telling the story of the 1963 summit with your own expedition?
That was our big challenge.  We always had a vision for how to tell the 1963 story. It was harder to figure out how to add in our story without people walking away and wondering why it was in there. The 2012 stuff ended up serving as a window into how much different it was probably like when Jim and Tom and Unsoeld summited than it is today.

Norton: We decided the real story was 1963, and 2012 becomes relevant only when it underscores how badass those guys were back in 1963.

Do you think their sense of adventure and uncertainty has been lost on Everest with the $100,000 private expedition as the norm?
I hope this reignites the spark within the climbing community: the reward of commitment—even though it’s dangerous—to the route, or putting yourself in a situation where the outcome is uncertain. We also wanted to show that the Everest of today isn’t what it once was. We don’t have a disparaging attitude, but the mountain has become such a different thing. There's no uncertainty anymore on the standard routes. That sense of adventure is missing. And we wanted to show that without name-calling or finger-pointing.

Norton: We hope to educate people about what happened in 1963. Not so much of what they did, but some of the more metaphysical and metaphorical aspects of why they did it. It’s about Tom’s belief that climbing is about uncertainty, which people don’t embrace on the standard routes of Everest these days. The mountain’s still there physically, but it has been brought down to a commercial level. Conversely, on the West Ridge, it’s just like 1963. We have some more tools at our disposal, but it’s a full-on adventure to this day.

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Pro Tips: Climber Melissa Arnot on Pushing Herself (and Treating Herself)

She’s not even 30 years old, and Melissa Arnot is already one of the most recognizable names in climbing. As a guide for Rainier Mountaineering since 2004, Arnot has notched 94 ascents of that peak and summited Everest four times—the current record for a non-Sherpa woman. If all goes as planned, she’ll climb Everest again this spring, without supplemental oxygen. How does she prepare for laps at 29,035 feet? Acupuncture, gold stars, and the occasional beer.

PINS AND NEEDLES: “Six weeks before a trip, I do weekly massage and acupuncture. It prevents sprains, strains, and tendinitis.”

DOWNHILL BATTLE: “Downhill hikes are one of the most important things I do. Three days a week I hike in my crampons and climbing boots, with 50 pounds of weight in my bag, 3,000 feet up at Sun Valley. Then I hike right back down. A lot of people think it’s bad for their knees, so they ski down or take the lift. But you’re working totally different muscles.”

SHUT-EYE: “Sleeping at elevation is difficult, so sometimes I use Ambien. It’s one of only two sleep drugs approved for use at altitude.” 

STICKING TO IT: “I write my training program a few weeks before I do it. If I complete everything, I give myself a gold star. If I miss one thing, I get a silver star. Two things, a green star. The worst is a red star. I’ve had one red star in my life, and it still haunts me.”

STAY FRESH: “I’ve started to become hyperaware of how much processed food we eat on expeditions. So I avoid those foods at home. No grains or potatoes, just fresh whole foods—and tons of fruits and vegetables.”

MIND OVER MATTER: “To switch my pain brain off, I’ll count to 100, then count to 100 again. Then I’ll try to remember how many times I’ve counted to 100.”

TREAT YO’SELF: “I’m a total beer girl. I push myself hard, but I enjoy a cold hefeweizen at the end of the day.”

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Alpine Project Hybrid Hoodie

BEST FOR: Variable conditions.

THE TEST: A single multipitch climb in Squamish, British Columbia, was all it took for one tester to endorse this vertically inspired jacket. The pockets sit above the harness. The Gore Windstopper membrane in the torso and at the tops of the arms rebuffed cold gusts, while the more breathable stretch-woven panels under the arms kept the Velcro-free wrists in place when reaching overhead. But the most noteworthy feature was the stretchy hood, which fits neatly under a helmet and affords great peripheral vision.

THE VERDICT: Send it. 1 lb


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Firetail GTX

BEST FOR: Alpine climbing.

THE TEST: Vibram outsole with a dedicated climbing zone? Check. Rough-and-tumble nylon-mesh upper? You bet. Climbing-shoe lacing and narrow toe box? Done and done. Our tester took the waterproof-breathable Firetail GTX up to the Grand Teton’s high camp in Wyoming without feeling so much as a hot spot on the way. He expected a comfortable hike, but what he didn’t expect was to leave his climbing shoes behind for a summit push that involved 5.8-rated pitches.

THE VERDICT: It’s probably too overbuilt—and too stiff—to serve as most people’s everyday hiking shoe, but it blows away the competition on technical terrain. 14.4 oz.


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New Park Service Policy Authorizes Fixed Anchors in Wilderness

With his signature, National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis on Monday answered a question that has plagued climbing access advocates as well as wilderness advocates for decades: can climbers place permanent anchors within wilderness areas inside National Parks? The answer is yes—with conditions. 

Well before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964, rock climbers were screwing anchors into rock faces in an attempt to set safe, repeatable routes. In the intervening half-century, tensions grew over the definition of a wilderness boundary. Many climbers argue that the occasional use of fixed anchors is needed for safe climbing. Wilderness advocates say fixed anchors conflict with both the intent and the letter of the Wilderness Act.

Each agency within the Department of the Interior manages its own wilderness areas, and climbers have long petitioned the National Park Service, which contains a number of climbing Mecca's, such as Yosemite and Zion, to clarify its position on the use of fixed anchors, such as bolts. The Director's Order #41, which Jarvis signed on Monday and which represents more than 6 years of policy development, evolving from the last sweeping NPS policy changes made in 2006, says: "The occasional placement of a fixed anchor for belay, rappel, or protection purposes does not necessarily impair the future enjoyment of wilderness or violate the Wilderness Act."

"We've been working on this issue for 20 years," says Jason Keith, senior policy advisor for the climbing advocacy group Access Fund. "We're very pleased this is finally out; it's a big deal for us."

But the final version of the Director's Order didn't give the Access Fund everything it wanted. The group petitioned the NPS to not require climbers to obtain authorization before placing new fixed anchors in wilderness areas, but that didn’t fly.

Garry Oye, chief of the Wilderness Stewardship Division at NPS, says he is aware that the Access Fund feels climbers should be able to decide whether an anchor should be placed, but that "we want the Superintendent of each park to be the one deciding whether a fixed anchor is done."

Keith argues that authorization is onerous, and that climbers would not set out to place more anchors than are called for to ensure safe climbing. As for negative impacts on natural or cultural resources, he argues that climbing is already prohibited in wilderness areas where these impacts are possible.

He says the authorization requirement is a significant concession, but that the final Director's Order also contains important assurances for climbing access. "We were willing to accept new restrictions so long as there was certainty that anchors would not be banned in various areas," he says. The new policy makes anchors allowable across the park system, which will overrule efforts by managers at specific parks from banning anchoring—something Keith claims has been done in the past at Canyonland, Arches, and Joshua Tree national parks.

The allowance of fixed anchors for climbing is just one of many management subjects covered in the Director's Order, and public lands advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has taken issue with many of them. PEER's executive director Jeff Ruch says the final version of the Director's Order is dangerously opaque. "While we're still reviewing the document, it's not clear how the line is drawn. It says 'fixed anchors should be rare.' That is a management term that does not have much rigor. Is it 'rare' in a particular park? Is it 'rare' park system-wide? This is vague guidance."

Oye counters that using the word rare is more fitting than setting numerical limits. "We are clearly communicating to the climbing community that we want you to be conservative [when it comes to placing anchors]."

But George Nickas, executive director of wilderness advocacy Wilderness Watch, says even rare anchors are too many. "The NPS has a policy that says wilderness visitors must accept wilderness on its own terms and I think that reflects the appropriate approach to wilderness stewardship," he says. "Humans want to change everything to benefit our particular interests at a given time. The Wilderness Act was a statement that we weren't going to do that. If you can't climb a mountain without fixed anchors, then you shouldn't climb that mountain."

Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk, who were widely praised for chopping bolts on Patagonia's iconic Cerro Torre, proved that there is a segment of the climbing community that also believes bolts can desecrate a mountain.

As for what comes next, Keith says many questions still remain, but they should be addressed quickly when the NPS releases its reference manual in the coming days. The biggest questions to be addressed, he says, are how the permit process is going to work, to what degree Access Fund and other climbing groups will be able to participate in the permitting process and how or whether they can influence the establishment of best practices the park system will use.

"We’re relieved they finally got it done," Keith says of the Director's Order. "All the hard questions will be raised at the park level. In the past, we felt there were land managers who acted on their own. We think this [policy] makes that less likely. We are encouraged. This is a huge milestone."

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