Setting the Stage: Everest’s Spring Climbing Season Begins

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest, multiple teams are planning commemorative climbs. We'll be there reporting on them as they happen.

Barry Bishop Everest 1963 American Expeditio Jim Whittaker Tom Hornbein Willi Unsoeld

Tom Hornbein and team climbing Everest in 1963    

If you follow mountaineering, you know that each year on the slopes of Mount Everest rolls out a drama of climbing, marketing, stunts, science experiments, and sheer spectacle. This year, the show is shaping up to be particularly memorable: in addition to the normal extravaganza, at least two teams are hoping to summit via the treacherous West Ridge. That’s the route first climbed by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in 1963, just three weeks after their teammate Jim Whittaker—along with Sherpa Nawang Gombu—claimed the first American ascent via the South Col route.

Back then, the West Ridge was the hardest route up the mountain, and Hornbein and Unsoeld's climb, in alpine style, remains one of the greatest feats in American mountaineering. According to the Himalayan Database, only 27 people from 44 expeditions have summited via that original West Ridge/Hornbein Couloir route or the more difficult West Ridge Direct. Meanwhile, it has killed 20 climbers—a summit-to-fatality ratio that makes Everest’s West Ridge comparably dangerous to the notorious K2.

The 1963 expedition was sponsored by Eddie Bauer and National Geographic. This year, Eddie Bauer and National Geographic are sponsoring separate expeditions up the West Ridge. The Eddie Bauer team includes four veteran 8,000-meter climbers: Jake Norton, David Morton, Charley Mace, and Brent Bishop (whose father, Barry, summited via the South Col on the same day as Hornbein and Unsoeld). If successful, Norton will be the first person to summit Everest by all three original routes, the South Col, North Col, and West Ridge. Meanwhile, National Geographic has partnered with The North Face to send veteran alpinist Conrad Anker and climber/photographer Cory Richards up the route.

Beginning April 13, I’ll be embedding with the team from Eddie Bauer and sending back daily dispatches, including stories, photos, and videos of everything that goes on at Everest this spring. Those stories, as well as our huge Everest archive, will go live at Outside Online in mid-April. You can also follow my journey by subscribing to my Facebook feed.

In addition to the two expeditions that have announced their intent to climb the West Ridge, there’s one more whose members have been tight-lipped about their plans. Newly minted Piolet d'or (golden ice ax) winner Freddie Wilkinson and Swiss Ueli Steck, both sponsored by Mountain Hardwear, have been mum about their Everest plans for spring, though they say will be somewhere on the mountain, weather permitting.

Besides sending climbers up the West Ridge, both Eddie Bauer and The North Face are sponsoring separate expeditions up the South Col, with at least some hope of meeting up with their teammates on the summit. (In 1963, Hornbein and Unsoeld caught up with teammates Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad just past the summit.) For Eddie Bauer, the South Col team will include guide and 13-time summiter Dave Hahn, guide Melissa Arnot, and Leif Whittaker, son of Jim Whittaker. (Jim will also be making the trek to Base Camp.) The North Face Team will include notable rock climbers Sam Elias, Emily Harrington, and ski mountaineer Hilaree O'Neill.

And, of course, there are still the normal throngs of guided expeditions, helicopter sightseers, record-setters, and Everything Else. It should be a memorable season. Stay tuned.

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