“A Dangerous World Waits Above, Hurling Avalanches Down in White Fury”
Lost on Everest
Fifty years ago this month, Jim Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest. Three weeks later, a second party from the same team made an even more stunning assault on the mountain’s unclimbed West Ridge. Using never before published transcripts from the 1963 expedition, Grayson Schaffer takes a new look at a bold ascent that changed everything.
“Yanks Seek Himalaya Grand Slam: 3 Seattleites Going”Chapter 1
There’s been a bit of news around recently, but not from Washington, Moscow or outer space.” This was the first line of a dispatch sent by James Ullman, the American Mount Everest Expedition’s official historian and a Life magazine correspondent. He was trying to play it cool. It was May 4, 1963, seven months after the Cuban missile crisis and during the early years of the moon race. The news Ullman was breaking—and that he and others at the American Embassy in Kathmandu had huddled by the radio to hear, waiting with “damp palms and thumping hearts”—was this: three days earlier, on May 1, an effusive six-foot-five-inch store manager from the Seattle gear co-op Recreational Equipment Inc. had become the first American to climb the world’s tallest mountain.
The names of James “Big Jim” Whittaker, then 32, and his Sherpa climbing partner, Nawang Gombu, a 28-year-old nephew of Everest pioneer Tenzing Norgay, were initially withheld from the public. The expedition’s leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, a 44-year-old Swiss-American climber and the former head of the UCLA film school, had turned around short of the summit on May 1. Back in Base Camp, before he radioed the news to Kathmandu, he polled eight of the expedition’s climbers, who voted to keep the successful pair anonymous for the time being. Dyhrenfurth had at least two more assault teams, as they were called, still trying to make the summit—one of them via a fearsome new route up the West Ridge, a steep and technical line—and the group didn’t want its potential accomplishments overshadowed.
Despite coming ten years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic first ascent, the announcement of Whittaker’s triumph would be big news back home. Like everything else at the height of the Cold War, the American Mount Everest Expedition wasn’t just a race to claim bragging rights but a proxy battle among nations. The Soviets were rumored to have attempted the mountain from the north in 1952 and failed. The Swiss made the second ascent, in 1956, via the South Col. And in 1960, a Chinese expedition made a bid for the summit via the North Col, though few people outside the Communist world believed Mao’s claim that they had summited. Getting an American to the top “will be like winning the Olympics,” Dyhrenfurth had told the New York Mirror in 1961, amping things up as he worked to raise funds.
By 1963, the golden age of Himalayan mountaineering was winding down. All but one of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks had been summited. Most of them were claimed by massive expeditions run like military campaigns, with siege-style tactics, top-down chains of command, and an emphasis on the collective over the individual. From an outsider’s perspective, the American expedition was no different. The operation required an army of men, including more than 900 lowland porters who carried 27 tons of equipment into Base Camp. And it was organized like a military detachment, with Dyhrenfurth in charge and the other men given ministerial titles like deputy leader and climbing leader.
On the other hand, the American expedition had a lot in common with modern climbing projects. It was laden with science experiments that, like charity causes and awareness raising, have since become standard operating procedure for anybody who wants to get funding. Likewise, Dyhrenfurth’s desire for good footage of the trip for his film Americans on Everest was second only to his need to put somebody on the summit. (In 2012, you couldn’t find a climber on Everest who wasn’t making a documentary.) And as Dyhrenfurth admitted in his audio diary, the 1963 expedition was not run like those that came before it. “I am not a dictator,” he said. “We try to be as democratic as possible.”
The team also included a new generation of climbers who were beginning to put more emphasis on style and route difficulty than on “conquering” virgin summits. The insurgents were led by Tom Hornbein, a 32-year-old anesthesiologist from St. Louis, and Willi Unsoeld, a 36-year-old Kathmandu-based Peace Corps staffer. The two had climbed together three years earlier on the first ascent of Pakistan’s steep and treacherous Masherbrum (25,659 feet), though only Unsoeld and George Bell had made the summit. Hornbein and Unsoeld, while respectful of Whittaker’s achievement, didn’t particularly care about summiting via the South Col route; it had already been climbed. In their view, there was only one challenge worthy of the force they’d marshalled: the West Ridge.
Their quest would require a radical and risky new approach to mountaineering, and their zeal had the potential to upend the entire expedition. Even now, 50 years later, many aspects of their story have never been deeply explored. More than a dozen books and magazine stories have been written about the American Mount Everest Expedition, but nearly all of them are first-person accounts that politely gloss over the competing visions of Dyhrenfurth and the West Ridgers. As Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver noted in their authoritative Himalayan climbing history Fallen Giants, “The American Mount Everest expedition had not been without conflict but it would take a careful reader to detect animosity.”
Only Hornbein, in his 1965 book Everest: The West Ridge, really explains the schism. But the trip was laboriously documented by each of the climbers in diaries and on reel-to-reel audiotapes. When Barry Bishop, the team’s National Geographic staff photographer, died in a car crash in 1994, he left 500 pages of these transcripts and diary entries to his son, Brent. Combing through these and the pages of Dyhrenfurth’s audio diary, recently released by the American Alpine Club (AAC), provides a more complete picture of the 1963 expedition that highlights why, even today, elite climbers give Whittaker his due yet still stand in awe of the team’s accomplishments on the West Ridge. “It really set the bar for American Himalayan climbing,” says Brent Bishop, 46, an accomplished alpinist who has climbed Everest and recently attempted the West Ridge, though not successfully. “It is by far the most significant American Himalayan ascent to date. And it happened 50 years ago.”
“Everest Teams Assault Peak From Two Sides”
It was Dyhrenfurth, oddly enough, who came up with the idea of attempting the West Ridge, pointing it out on a series of photographs arranged on the floor during a pre-trip meeting in San Diego. Hornbein would later become fixated on an Indian air force aerial photograph of Everest, taken from the west, that appeared in the 1953 book Mountain World. Even from that photo he could vaguely make out the route. It was a beast.
Following a path from Base Camp through the Khumbu Icefall, the West Ridge climb shares its first two camps with the South Col route. From there it jogs left, up to the mountain’s west shoulder at 23,000 feet, and traverses out into Tibet along Everest’s giant North Face, which gets pounded by the jet stream’s full force. Climbers then ascend through a double-black-diamond-steep ribbon of snow—a feature the 1963 team named the Hornbein Couloir—and then back to the ridge itself, where a series of cliffs perched 4,000 sheer feet above the Western Cwm lead to the summit.
Until they arrived in Nepal,the expedition had plans to execute the “grand slam” idea that Dyhrenfurth had sold to sponsors: Everest via the South Col, followed by ascents of its neighbors, Lhotse (at 27,940 feet, the world’s fourth-highest peak) and Nuptse (25,790 feet). But by the start of the three-week walk to Base Camp from the town of Banepa, Hornbein and Unsoeld were obsessing over the West Ridge and began lobbying for a change of plans. With their experience in the Himalayas, each of them understood that a new route up Everest would be a far more coveted prize than Everest via the South Col—a route Hornbein, in Everest: The West Ridge, was presciently dismissive of, noting that one of the climbing Sherpas even dubbed it “the old milk run.” And what was the point of knocking off Lhotse and Nuptse, which had already been climbed? “The West Ridge,” said Unsoeld after the expedition, carried “greater prestige value expedition-wise than either of the other two peaks, which had been conjured up previously in an attempt to make the expedition more attractive to potential backers.”
The two made an odd but effective combo. Hornbein came across as both nerdy and supremely confident, the type to disconnect his oxygen at 27,000 feet while writing a letter home to examine hypoxia’s effect on his handwriting. Unsoeld was something of a charismatic wild man, a self-styled Old Guide who’d named his daughter Nanda Devi after India’s second-highest peak. A lifelong educator and professor of philosophy, he embraced risk as essential for growth. “It has to be real enough that it can kill you,” he often told students—a mantra that would help define his legacy.
In nightly discussions along the trail, which were recorded as part of a psychological study commissioned by the U.S. Navy of men under stress in tight quarters, Hornbein and Unsoeld presented their case to Dyhrenfurth and the 16 other climbers. Hornbein played evangelist, while Unsoeld stayed silent or pretended to restrain him. Initially, Dyhrenfurth wasn’t hearing any of it. “He had really not considered [the West Ridge] seriously,” Unsoeld said after the expedition. “He gave an impassioned pitch … to pursue the avowed objective of the expedition. It was not until … the entire expedition was highly in favor of a West Ridge attempt that he began to change his views.”
Indeed, as the team neared Base Camp, most of its 19 climbers had embraced the idea of climbing the West Ridge instead of Lhotse and Nuptse, and they’d divided themselves into two camps. The climbers with Himalayan experience tended toward the West Ridge. Also supporting Hornbein and Unsoeld were a contingent of Teton climbers who’d all attended Dartmouth College. These included Bishop, Barry Corbet, Jake Breitenbach, and surgeon Dave Dingman. Sociologist Dick Emerson, who’d been with Hornbein and Unsoeld on Masherbrum, also chose the West Ridge. On the South Col side were Whittaker, Dyhrenfurth, University of Oregon graduate student Luther Jerstad, and a handful of others.
Dyhrenfurth conceded to the change in plans, but he wasn’t about to let the West Ridgers put his goal of getting a team to the summit at risk. He had worked for two years to secure $400,000 ($3 million in today’s dollars), which came from sponsors that included the National Geographic Society—by far the largest benefactor, with a contribution of $114,000—Life, the American Tobacco Company, and Rainier Beer. The Office of Naval Research chipped in, hoping to use the climbers as lab rats in a Pentagon altitude study. Seattle gearmaker Eddie Bauer outfitted the entire team and issued all 37 climbing Sherpas high-loft down sleeping bags and Nylon parkas with first-of-their-kind Velcro closures. As trip leader, Dyhrenfurth carried the full weight of these sponsors’ expectations. Believing the team’s best chance at a summit was via the South Col, he focused his manpower there.
A diary entry recently released by the AAC shows that Dyhrenfurth believed Hornbein was willing to “possibly jeopardize success” because of his devotion to the West Ridge.
But the frustration was mutual. In a taped debriefing shortly after the expedition, Unsoeld expressed his displeasure with Dyhrenfurth’s decision making. “The Sherpas were stripped from … the West Ridge and primarily concentrated on the Col route,” he said. “Extra climbers were shunted over to the Col. … This illustrated to our minds a vacillation on Norman’s part. He did not have the decisiveness to carry out the initial [West Ridge] plan. In fact, initial plans sat very lightly on him, and he would alter them with an extreme casualness.”
“Mt. Everest Climber Dies; Wife Notified in Wyoming”
Early on, the team was unified by the grueling task of simply getting to the mountain and up to the higher camps. During their trek, a rickety chain-link bridge collapsed, injuring eight porters. On another day, they attended to a woman who’d been badly burned trying to rescue her dzo (a yak-bovine hybrid) from a barn fire. But by far the most troubling incident in the early going was an outbreak of smallpox, brought into the Khumbu region by a 13-year-old porter.
“We looked back at him and under [his] cloth cover. He had a swollen, sweaty face,” Bishop said in an audiodiary entry. “It was broken out with what we found out to be smallpox.”
The boy died. Though none of the team’s climbing Sherpas were infected, and the expedition had vaccinations brought in, Ullman, in his book Americans on Everest, estimated that 40 Khumbu locals succumbed to the disease in the subsequent outbreak.
Once the team arrived at Base Camp, they had to contend with the Khumbu Icefall, a half-mile-wide glacier flowing down from Everest’s Western Cwm and blocking the path to Camp I. The mess of constantly shifting and teetering blocks, which moves some four feet every day, has killed more than two dozen climbers over the years. Nowadays, the icefall is tamed each climbing season with aluminum ladders placed by a group of Sherpas whose sole job is to maintain a safe passage through it. In 1963, the team also employed a special group of Sherpas to help with the icefall, but their tools were more basic. They had a few aluminum ladders from Acme Ironworks in Seattle but mostly relied on ropes, rope ladders, and timbers that were cut, limbed, and dragged up from lower elevations, then slung across the glacier’s yawning gaps to create bridges.
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.
“We went up and couldn’t get to Jake,” recalled Whittaker. “We cut the rope that led down to him, and I carried Ang Pema down in a fireman’s carry. We came down that night very demoralized.”
In an audiotape debriefing after the expedition, Bishop recalled that the men briefly considered quitting and going home. Instead they dealt with their grief by throwing themselves into the monumental task ahead. “We knew that the best memorial [for] Jake would be just clobbering the hell out of the mountain.”
“Americans Reach Summit”
Over the next month, the expedition established Camp II, a cluster of four-man Eureka Draw-Tite tents at 21,350 feet. From there both teams began shuttling gear up their respective routes, setting and stocking higher camps as their bodies acclimatized to the altitude. The South Col team, however, was having much more success. By late April they had established their Camp V on the geographical pass that the route is named after, while the West Ridgers, given fewer Sherpas and less oxygen to work with, were struggling with a gasoline-powered winch that was never able to haul much of anything up to their Camp III on the west shoulder.
On May 1, after setting up Camp VI on the triangle face, just 2,000 feet shy of Everest’s peak, two teams with the South Col group were in position to launch the expedition’s first summit bids. Whittaker and Gombu went first, setting out at 6 A.M. in a gale, followed shortly after 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.’ ” Before leaving, they melted snow for water but put the bottles in their packs instead of under their jackets, so they froze within minutes. “Dumb as hell,” said Whittaker. Despite climbing without liquids all day, they reached the summit by 1 P.M. Gombu’s most pressing thought, he later told an Indian reporter, was “how to get down.”
That was Whittaker’s first concern, too, but close behind was the urgent need to move his bowels. Near the South Summit, he yanked the rope and brought Gombu to a halt. “I dropped my pants and went—face down into Nepal, everything blowing into Tibet. When I took off my pack, the camera went rolling down into Nepal and stopped. I thought: Oh shit, I’m going to leave it.” This is how the mind operates at 28,000 feet, but fortunately for Whittaker and the rest of the world, he came to his senses. The summit photos were on that camera. He tromped down some 80 feet into Nepal and retrieved it.
Dyhrenfurth and Ang Dawa, who had turned back shy of the South Summit, were waiting for Whittaker and Gombu at Camp VI when the two returned. As they descended, a radio operator at Camp II relayed a coded message about their success—“the tall one and the small one.” Dyhrenfurth hadn’t been able to shoot as much film of the triumphant pair as he’d hoped, so he restaged the climbing scenes in the ice pinnacles around Base Camp, “pretending that this was Camp VI.” He had one man rattle the tent, simulating wind, while Whittaker spoke into the radio. In Americans on Everest, you can see Whittaker start to crack a smile during this scene and come out of character as the camera cuts away. “I think we can get away with it,” said Dyhrenfurth in his audio diary.
After Ullman’s press release went out, the outside world clamored for Dyhrenfurth to reveal the names of the successful summit team. Ullman was under considerable pressure from his editors at Life to give them the scoop. Dyhrenfurth objected, anticipating that the media would overlook the efforts of the rest of the team—including himself. Besides, he lamented, “Life didn’t give us very much money compared to the National Geographic.”
Henry Stebbins, the first U.S. ambassador to Nepal, got on the radio to twist arms. Finally, on May 9, Dyhrenfurth relented, though he wasn’t pleased about it. “I’ll be God damned if we’re going to have one or two heroes” he said. He knew that he and Whittaker, as the expedition’s leader and the first American on the summit, would get the lion’s share of public adulation. But it would be another two weeks before climbing entered the modern era.
“Winds Delay Everest Climbers”
After a brief lull and a celebration for the successful summit team, the climbers began to regroup for the next summit bids. Hornbein and Unsoeld were relentless in their pursuit of the new route, a state Dyhrenfurth described in his diary as “pathological fanaticism.” Hornbein became hypervigilant about fighting for resources. At Base Camp, he recoiled when he overheard glaciologist Maynard Millar saying, “Now that the mountain is climbed, we’ve got to put our major effort into research.”
Whittaker and Gombu’s summit had consumed 75 of the 95 oxygen canisters the team had budgeted for the Col, but Dyhrenfurth still wanted to get a second team up the route. The next assault team would consist of Luther “Lute” Jerstad, 26, and Bishop, a veteran climber who had made the first ascent of Everest’s iconic neighbor Ama Dablam (22,494 feet) in 1961. Meanwhile, Unsoeld, Hornbein, Corbet, Emerson, expedition radio operator Al Auten, and five Sherpas busied themselves carrying loads up the west shoulder to continue stocking Camp III and establish Camp IV at 25,000 feet. On the night of May 16, a windstorm on the west shoulder nearly ended their quest.
Hornbein and Unsoeld were asleep in their tent at Camp IV just past midnight. Unsoeld recalled, “Suddenly, we were awakened by the screams of Al Auten, who had his head stuck in the door … and was shouting to us that the tents had blown away. It took us some time to take this in, but we finally decided we would have to go outside and investigate.”
In the spot where the four-man Draw-Tite tents should have been they found only a skid trail leading down into the dark. Unsoeld, Hornbein, and Auten followed the track downhill 150 feet into Tibet, where they discovered the tents upside down, with Corbet and Tashi Sherpa still inside. “None of us were hurt. … I was simply just dragging my hands through the floor of the tent,” said Corbet in a post-expedition interview. “The floor became the ceiling and the ceiling became the wall. We didn’t know what direction we were going.”
“The direction was extremely important,” said Auten. “Because to the south of us lay the Western Cwm, and at that point we were at the top of a many, many thousand–foot cliff.”
The tents were ruined, recalled Unsoeld, “with one large spar standing up like a pylon out of the middle with a ragged piece of fabric flapping in the wind like a flag, and great holes and tears all over them.” The team drove their ice axes into the snow, then used ropes to cover what remained of the tents with a web to hold it down. Corbet and Tashi spent the night in the ruined tent, and Auten climbed in with Hornbein and Unsoeld. The next morning the wind strengthened, delivering 100-mile-per-hour gusts. The men lay prone and clung to their ice axes to avoid being sent into the sky above China.
The gale finally let up, but it was followed by the inevitable realization of its consequences: the West Ridgers had lost too much equipment to establish and stock the last two camps they’d planned to help them reach the summit. “We also thought [the] death warrant had been [signed] for the West Ridge,” said Corbet.
But Hornbein hatched a new plan that night; he kneed a sleeping -Unsoeld in the ribs and started talking. Rather than trying to set and stock two additional camps above Camp IV, they’d all make one carry to 27,000 feet and set up a single two-man tent that would be Camp V. The support team would descend, and Hornbein and Unsoeld would spend the night there and try to finish off the remaining 2,000 feet of steep couloir and crumbling rock, pushing for the summit in a single day. Then they’d descend toward the South Col and spend the night at Camp VI.
When they radioed the plan back to Dyhrenfurth, he’d said, “We’re all 200 percent with you,” and he agreed to hold off Bishop and Jerstad, who were moving into position for a summit bid via the South Col. They’d all try to meet on top of the world on May 22, the same day Dyhrenfurth had originally set as the deadline to break down Base Camp and begin the march home.
In his post-expedition tapes, Hornbein aptly described his plan as “one last desperate effort.” By the standards of the era, the notion of covering 4,000 vertical feet of steep, unknown, unprotected terrain in two days—all of it above 25,000 feet—and then descending via an unfamiliar route was a suicide mission. Should things go wrong after they set out on the second day, the terrain was too steep and their gear too limited to turn back and descend the West Ridge. Like a cat climbing a tree, they had no way to reverse course. After Corbet and the Sherpas left them at Camp V, they’d either go over the top or die on the mountain.
If they were successful, however, it was a gamble that would go down in history. At that time, only Austria’s Hermann Buhl, who executed the first ascent of Nanga Parbat solo and without oxygen in 1953, could lay claim to a bolder climb. The 1963 American team had set out to climb in the old siege style. But on May 22, Hornbein and Unsoeld were ushering in a new age of bold, light-and-fast climbing that would come to define the strict standards of modern alpinism.
“Four Americans Do ‘Impossible,’ Meet Near Top of the World; Two Climb ‘Unclimbable’ on Everest”
On the night of May 21, Corbet, Auten, and a team of five Sherpas led Hornbein and Unsoeld up to an 18-inch-wide ledge just below a stripe of sandstone layer known as the yellow band. “Ang Dorje got up to the top,” Corbet recalled in a post-expedition interview, “and he was gasping, and he sat down with his load and scraped his oxygen mask off his face, put a cigarette between his lips, and lit it.” They were at 27,250 feet.
The team helped Hornbein and Unsoeld sculpt out a site for their two-man tent and said their goodbyes with the realization that it might be for the last time. “We all three admitted that we were bawling behind our oxygen masks,” said Corbet.
That night, Hornbein and Unsoeld ate a four-man ration of chicken-and-rice soup and grapefruit segments. Hornbein wrote a letter to his wife, whom he would see again only if he summited. Around 9 P.M., Unsoeld stepped out of the tent to relieve himself, and Hornbein offered him a belay. “No thanks, Tom,” Hornbein recounted in Everest: The West Ridge. “A guide can handle these things himself.”
At 4 A.M. the two awoke, ate, strapped on their crampons in the dark, and, just before seven, abandoned their camp for good. They first made their way up through the couloir as it cut through the yellow band. Where it pinched in at the top, they had to climb two pitches of limestone, hammering pitons into the rotten rock. By noon they had reached the upper flanks of the mountain but had lost their bearings; they couldn’t figure out which route led to the summit. Up would seem like the obvious answer, but as Unsoeld observed, “The mountain is so immense, and you get such a different perspective when you are right in the midst of it, that we couldn’t tell whether we were in the westernmost couloir or eastern-most couloir.” They radioed down to Whittaker in Base Camp to see if he could offer some direction, but he’d barely seen anything from inside the ground blizzard of his summit day. When Unsoeld told Whittaker that they’d already passed their point of no return, Whittaker immediately tried to get them to turn around.
“Uh, boys, I want you to reconsider this carefully,” Whittaker told them. “I don’t like the sound of that at all. You always want to have an escape route off the mountain.”
“He was genuinely concerned,” recalled Unsoeld. “The main thing that we got out of these contacts was the reassurance of hearing Big Jim’s voice. Indeed, I can remember great difficulty in keeping my own voice steady just from the fact that he was talking to me. It just broke me up.” Hornbein and Unsoeld decided that traversing back toward the West Ridge would lead them to the summit. At 3 P.M. in the middle of the traverse, they hit a rocky slab and stopped for a lunch of kippered snacks.
At nearly the exact same time, unbeknownst to them or anyone else on the expedition, Bishop and Jerstad were 1,000 feet above them near the summit. The team summited at about 3:15 in high winds. Though they had a radio—not light in those days—they never turned it on, so Dyhrenfurth and the rest of the men didn’t know what had happened to them. By today’s standards, Bishop and Jerstad arrived well beyond a reasonable turnaround time. When they saw no sign of the West Ridgers, they turned back, assuming the team had given up.
Hornbein and Unsoeld, of course, didn’t have a turnaround time. When they finished their traverse back to the ridge itself, they were confronted by a series of rocky cliffs that would require “three or four leads of delight ful rock climbing and then a bit of rottenness,” recalled Hornbein, understating the challenge that lay ahead. They removed their crampons and began climbing—Unsoeld on lead— making slow progress toward the summit as the afternoon wore on, still unsure of how far they had to go.
“It was sheer pleasure to edge out over” the Cwm, said Unsoeld. “We felt like we were just climbing an alpine peak someplace.”
Finally, around 6:15 P.M., Unsoeld stopped and began coiling the rope. In an interview with Bishop after the climb, he described the moment he saw the flag Whittaker had planted three weeks earlier.
“Suddenly, plodding along … head to the ground, I raised my eyes, and about 40 feet ahead was the American flag, shining in the slanting rays of the sun and flapping wildly in the breeze. It was wrapped around the picket once and very slightly frayed.” They didn’t say much. “We did talk some,” Unsoeld later recalled, “but it was just an emotional expression of how closely together this climb had brought us. It was a testimony to interpersonal relations rather than overcoming a great mountain.”
With daylight waning and another 2,000 feet to descend, there was little time to celebrate. Unsoeld keyed the radio, and Maynard Miller answered from Camp II. He was overjoyed but wanted to know if there was any sign of Bishop and Jerstad. Yes, replied Unsoeld. There was a faint set of tracks that in the fading gray twilight became a lifeline. “Without them,” he recalled, “I am sure we would have gone down the wrong ridge.”
For the next hour, the pair blindly descended. They clumsily rappelled over the famous Hillary Step and were soon enveloped in darkness. “Willi was out of sight … out on the saddle … where Whittaker had taken his famous defecation 21 days earlier,” recalled Hornbein. “I yelled at him to wait.” Unsoeld’s torch was nearly dead, and they could no longer see the tracks. They wandered aimlessly downward until Hornbein suggested that they switch on the torch one last time. There were the tracks again. They shouted into the darkness, and somebody shouted back.
“It’s the first time in my life I’ve used the international distress signal of three yodels in succession,” recalled Unsoeld. “We had just about given up hope when suddenly we heard an answer.”
Bishop and Jerstad were still descending but had become lost themselves and were just sitting down—a dangerous precursor to giving up. With the tricks wind and altitude play with sound, they could have been a few hundred feet or half a mile away.
“It was about 7:30 P.M. when we first heard their voices,” recalled Jerstad, who’d been reciting poetry to make sure he wasn’t losing his mind. “We were calling, ‘Who’s there?’ … They yelled again. The second or third time, we started thinking … this isn’t coming from below.”
Hornbein crept down through the dark toward the voices but suddenly tumbled. “He stepped off a cut bank and disappeared in thin air,” recalled Unsoeld. “I gave him a great static belay, just crunch. Practically shattered his ribs.”
Two hours later, Hornbein and Unsoeld came upon two hunched shapes—Bishop and Jerstad, who had stopped moving. It was 9:30 P.M., and the men were roughly halfway between Camp VI and the summit. They’d all been climbing for more than 14 hours straight, and only Hornbein, whose regulator had likely malfunctioned, had a bit of oxygen left. Bishop was in the worst shape of all. Hornbein fished a couple of pills of dexadrine—an amphetamine—out of his shirt pocket and gave one to Bishop and one to Jerstad.
“We went on and on and on, stumbling, falling, and getting up again, waking Barry up when he’d fall asleep,” said Unsoeld. “He would sit down and he’d be gone just like that. We felt like beasts, but the Old Guide’s instincts came to the fore, and we’d flay the flesh off his bones to get him on his feet. We’d keep telling him, Anybody can walk 100 feet. … It’s only another 100 feet!”
At 12:30 A.M., exhausted and making little headway, the group finally decided to bivouac. Even with today’s equipment, a bivouac above 28,000 feet without a tent or sleeping bag is generally a death sentence. Certainly, it almost guarantees the loss of digits to frostbite. Buhl had spent the night standing up on the summit of Nanga Parbat and lived, and Italian climber Walter Bonatti had famously survived an open bivouac unharmed just above 26,000 feet during the first ascent of K2 in 1954, though his high-altitude porter, Amir Mahdi, who was with him, suffered severe frostbite. But above 28,000 feet was exponentially more dangerous; in fact, the four climbers were likely higher than any other summit in the world. Dry lightning popped and fizzed out over the plains of India to the east. There was no moon. They should have died, but despite the minus 18 degree temperature, the night was unusually calm.
None of the men recalled suffering. In a discussion of their night recorded a few weeks later in Kathmandu, the four sound like Boy Scouts proudly reminiscing about a weekend camping trip.
Jerstad: “Willi and Tom found a nice place, and Barry was all curled up, and I was wandering around the place, couldn’t see where I was going. Once I almost fell off the rock looking for a place to lie down.”
Bishop: “I was enjoying it, actually, the view every time I opened my eyes. … I was trying to wiggle my toes during the night. … I couldn’t tell whether they were moving or not.”
Jerstad: “I had my crampons in my pack. Was it you I was kicking?”
Bishop: “Uh-huh. Right in my right kidney.”
Unsoeld took Hornbein’s boots and socks off and was massaging them against his bare belly, likely the only reason Hornbein kept his toes.
“I couldn’t feel a darn thing … but he must have massaged them for at least half an hour,” remembered Hornbein. “I kept thinking, Gee, if my feet are on his belly, I ought to feel a hairy abdomen. But I didn’t.”
The sky lightened at 4:30, but the men stayed put until the sun crested the curving horizon an hour later. Bishop was still delirious as they started down: “I remember Tom patting me on the head like I was a beagle dog, you know, encouraging me. Willi was a little out of it, too.”
“We left you behind not realizing how tired you really were,” said Hornbein. “We rounded the corner on the rocks and there was Dave [Dingman] waiting for us. … He figured he was coming up for Lute and Barry’s bodies.”
At the very end of their taped debriefing, Bishop has one last question: “Lute, I’ve been trying to remember what we ate.”
Jerstad: “A bowl of soup. That’s it, just a bowl of soup. No, we did have the baked beans [scavenged] from the Indian Everest expedition, wondering if we were going to get ptomaine poisoning.”
Hornbein: “Some Kraft cheese.”
Jerstad: “You had Kraft cheese?!”
“Copter Will Fly 2 From Everest: Climbers to Get Treatment for Frostbitten Toes”
By 10:30 P.M., after a short stop for a nap and some tea at Camp VI, the haggard group had made it all the way down to Camp II—some 40 miserable hours after they’d begun climbing the previous day. On the Lhotse face during the descent and by way of a relay, Unsoeld radioed his wife, Jolene, who was in Kathmandu at the American Embassy, and told her, “I promise this will be my last big climb.”
“This time,” Jolene replied, “I have a lot of witnesses.”
The soles of their feet were frozen white and hard. The next morning, they hobbled downhill for one last passage through the icefall. They stopped at the spot where Breitenbach had died. “I thought, ‘Well, Jake, we have the mountain for you,’ ” recalled Bishop. They had a local stonemason carve his name into a boulder near Gorak Shep as a memorial. Breitenbach’s body didn’t emerge from the icefall until 1969.
From Base Camp, Bishop and Unsoeld were carried by Sherpas down to Namche Bazaar, where they could be flown by helicopter back to Kathmandu. Unsoeld lost nine toes, Bishop all ten.
As expected, the press treated their heroic ordeal as an added bonus to Whittaker’s feat rather than the crowning achievement of all mountaineering up to that point. Though Life and National Geographic both did their best to explain the significance of the West Ridge, the South Col route stole the show. It was Whittaker who became the face of the expedition. He was given a starring role in the Orson Welles–narrated Americans on Everest, as well as the key to Seattle. In 1970, he became the second CEO of REI.
Over the years, however, Hornbein’s account, Everest: The West Ridge, gained a following among climbers. In Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer cited Hornbein and Unsoeld as early heroes, and he recently wrote a new foreword to an anniversary edition of Hornbein’s book. Last February, Whittaker and Hornbein joined Dyhrenfurth and Dingman at the American Alpine Club’s annual benefit dinner, in San Francisco, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their expedition.
Unsoeld, the team’s most articulate member, never wrote a book, but his career was celebrated as well. The Old Guide became a professor of philosophy and outdoor education at Evergreen State College, in Washington. Despite his vow to discontinue “big” climbs, he traveled to India’s Garhwhal Himalaya range with his daughter in 1976 to try and summit the mountain he’d named her after, Nanda Devi (25,643 feet). Devi Unsoeld died of altitude sickness in the tent at high camp. Her father and fiancé were both with her. Willi Unsoeld incorporated the incident into his lectures, often punctuating the dark episode with humor. Two years later, Unsoeld died along with one of his students in an avalanche on Mount Rainier. His life became the subject of two biographies—Robert Roper’s Fatal Mountaineer and Kennedy family historian Laurence Leamer’s Ascent. Robert Redford had two different screenplays made from Ascent, but neither has ever been produced.
What lives on is the achievement itself. Conrad Anker, one of today’s most respected alpinists, puts it in perspective, noting that El Capitan was first climbed during the same era, in 1958. That ascent took 47 days, while today some expert climbers can do the route in a couple of hours. The West Ridge is still among the most demanding Himalayan routes and probably always will be. In 50 years, only 17 climbers have repeated variations on Hornbein and Unsoeld’s ascent, and 13 have died in pursuit.
Recent history confirms the enduring legacy. Just last spring, two teams of top modern alpinists tried their luck on the West Ridge, one from Eddie Bauer that included Barry’s son, Brent, and the other sponsored by the North Face that included Anker. Both teams were stopped well short of Camp III by falling rock and hard ice.
Like all great feats of alpinism, the West Ridge is only possible for those who fully commit. Perhaps Hornbein put it best, describing his mentality that final day as “the total feeling of detachment with anything else in the world that seemed to matter—family, child—only Mount Everest was there at the time, and only the summit above us seemed to be beckoning me.”