Americans on Everest

Just three weeks after Jim Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest in 1963, the same expedition made an even more stunning assault on the mountain's unclimbed West Ridge, a daring move pushed by Tom Hornbein (pictured) and Willi Unsoeld.

For the full story behind the push up the West Ridge, read Lost On Everest.

The expedition required an army of men, including 900 lowland porters who carried 27 tons of equipment into Base Camp.

Beyond Base Camp, the West Ridge and South Col routes diverge above the Khumbu Icefall at Camp II.

Unsoeld and Hornbein were the first to summit the West Ridge.

The American Tobacco Company, along with the National Geographic Society, Life, and Rainier Beer were the expedition's biggest sponsors. In a team dispatch, Ullman wrote: "The smokers were horrified to discover that, instead of the expected 60,000 cigarettes, there were only 6,000; and everyone knows you can't climb a mountain on that little nicotine."

Whittaker wore a custom-built Eddie Bauer Mt. Everest parka for the expedition featuring velcro closures, wolverine-fur hood ruff, and European goose down.

Along with the parka, Eddie Bauer crafted Expedition mittens with goatskin palm and sheared lamb's wool on back.

After losing all his toes on Everest, Barry Bishop became a National Geographic vice president and gatekeeper for the society's expedition funding. In the 1970s, the CIA recruited him to lead a program that used climbers to place nuclear-powered devices on mountains that overlooked China. He died in a car accident, at 62, in 1994.

Jim Whittaker's name is one of the most famous in American mountaineering, partly because his twin brother, Lou, runs Rainier Mountaineering, a prominent guiding company. After Everest, Whittaker went on to become the CEO of REI. He led the American expedition to summit K2 in 1978, and in 1999 published his autobiography, A Life on the Edge . Now 83, he lives in Port Townsend, Washington, with his wife, Dianne Roberts.

As a professor of philosophy at Washington's Evergreen State College, Willi Unsoeld was renowned for his lectures on life in the mountains. He was killed in a 1979 avalanche on Mount Rainier along with a student. His wife, Jolene, later served three terms in the House of Representatives.

Unlike many of his teammates, Tom Hornbein never returned to Nepal. He spent 43 years as an anesthesiologist in Seattle before retiring to Estes Park, Colorado. He's 82.

In 1970, Luther Jerstad started a trekking outfitter in Nepal, which he ran until his death in 1998, at 62. He was leading his grandson up Kala Patthar, the iconic Everest overlook at 18,000 feet, when he suffered a heart attack.

The former head of the UCLA fin school, Norman Dyhrenfurth never outdid his 1963 Everest expedition. In 1971, he led an unsuccessful international attempt up Everest's southwest face, a route completed by Sir Chris Bonnington in 1975. Dyhrenfurth is now 94 and lives in Salzburg Austria.

Sherpa Nawang Gombu and Jim Whittaker made the expedition's first summit bid, setting out at 6 A.M. in a gale, followed shortly by Dyhrenfurth and Ang Dawa. “You couldn’t see your feet,” Whittaker recalled of that day. “I looked over and said, ‘Up, Gombu. We go up.’ ”

On March 23, the expedition’s second day probing the icefall, two rope teams were hit by a collapsing wall. Jake Breitenbach, a 27-year-old Teton guide from Wyoming, became the icefall’s first casualty. His ropemates Dick Pownall and Sherpa Ang Pema were banged up but survived. Breitenbach’s wife of three years, Lou, was notified by a Wyoming sheriff.

Whittaker hydrates with Rainier Beer, one of the expedition's sponsors.

From Base Camp, Bishop and Unsoeld were carried by Sherpas down to Namche Bazaar, where they could be flown by helicopter back to Kathmandu. Bishop lost all ten toes.

Jerstad is carried back with frostbitten toes after he and Bishop summited at 3:15 in high winds, arriving well beyond a reasonable turnaround time.

President Kennedy gives Norman Dyhrenfurth the National Geographic Society's Hubbard Medal in 1963.

Denis Urubko (pictured) and compatriot Alexey Bolotov are planning an alpine-style ascent of the southwest face, the sheer wall that rises above Camp II. Though the wall was first climbed in 1975, there are many variations that would still constitute a new route. In December, Urubko told a Spanish magazine that he and Bolotov are "ready to work hard and die if necessary."

For the full story behind the push up the West Ridge, read Lost On Everest.

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