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?
Morton: 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.
Morton: 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?
Morton: 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?
Morton: 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?
Morton: 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?
Morton: 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?
Morton: 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.