Tom Hornbein portrait, 2013
(Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP)

Remembering Everest Pioneer Tom Hornbein

The American, who attained legend status for his 1963 ascent of the West Ridge, died at age 93

Tom Hornbein portrait, 2013
Jeff Chiu/AP
Steve Swenson

from Climbing

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Tom Hornbein passed away on May 6, 2023, at his home in Estes Park, Colorado. He is best known for his audacious climb of the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1963 with Willi Unsoeld, but also by the warm and caring friendship he extended to so very many.

Hornbein was born in St. Louis on November 6, 1930. As a boy he was attracted to climbing trees and the slate roof of the family home where he realized that “getting off the ground was in my genes.” At the age of 13 his parents sent him off to Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park near Rocky Mountain National Park for the summer. Hornbein would later say, “Looking back, discovering mountains has been the major pivotal event of my life. Those high hills became my spiritual home, underpinning all that followed: mountaineering, medicine, research, family, and community.” 

The mountains drew him to the University of Colorado Boulder where Hornbein became a very active and talented rock climber. Hornbein said that during his undergraduate years, “I spent every spare minute climbing, often cutting my classes and laboratories.” In the summer he worked as a counselor at the same Cheley Colorado Camps where he had gone as a boy. It was there that he met Nick Clinch, and their friendship, which began as “doing grunt work like cleaning toilets,” became a lifelong one. Later, Nick would play a key role in Hornbein’s introduction to climbing in the Great Ranges of South Asia. 

In 1950, with Bill Eubank, and Brad Van Diver, Hornbein led the first ascent of Chasm View Crack, situated at 13,500 feet to the right of the Diamond on Longs Peak (before the Diamond had been climbed). The route included a 60-foot layback crack that was too wide to protect with the gear that was available then. Today most climbers traverse right around that crack via the Chasm View Cutoff or Red Wall routes and those descriptions say, “it’s possible to continue straight up but it’s supposedly 5.9+.”  In the early 1950’s Hornbein made the first ascent of Central Chimney (5.7+) of Twin Owls on Lumpy Ridge near Estes Park with D. Sherman and H. Higgins. The Mountain Project description says, “This is an impressive route considering when it was first ascended. However, given the amazing Tom Hornbein was involved, it is a bit less surprising.” In 1951 Hornbein made the first ascent of Zumie’s Thumb (5.9) left of the Upper East Face of Longs Peak with Dexter Brinker, and Harry Waldrup. They hiked in from the back side, rappelled into the notch behind the Thumb, then Hornbein climbed up onto Harry’s shoulders to leap for a hold that got them to the tiny summit of the spire. In April the next year, it took Hornbein and his partners Dale Johnson, Harry Nance, Wes Nelson, and Phil Robertson four days to make the second ascent of Ship Rock in New Mexico.

Hornbein was originally a geology major at CU and helped create what would later be known as the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. Mountain rescue and first aid generated an interest in medicine, so he switched to pre-med. After finishing his undergraduate studies, he was accepted into medical school at Washington University in St. Louis where he said, “In medical school, I began to explore the scientific literature on how humans adapt to high altitude. Questions arose. Thoughts of becoming a doctor practicing in a small mountain town succumbed to a growing curiosity about altitude acclimatization.” 

He graduated from medical school in 1956 and in 1957 he went to Alaska to attempt the first ascent of Mount Huntington on an expedition led by Fred Beckey. The expedition, which also included John Rupley, Herb Staley, and others, was dropped off by the pilot Don Sheldon on the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier. Though they reached the crest of what would later be called the French Ridge, named after Frenchman Lionel Terray, who in 1964  made the first ascent, poor snow conditions prevented them from completing the ascent. They also made an attempt on the Moose’s Tooth and completed the second ascent of Mount Barrille.

In 1960 Hornbein’s old summer camp friend Nick Clinch invited him on an expedition he was leading to Masherbrum, a spectacular unclimbed 25,659-foot peak in Pakistan. Besides Clinch and Hornbein, the expedition included George Bell (member of 1953 American attempt on K2), Captain Jawed Akhter, Captain Imtiaz Azim, Richard Emerson, Thomas McCormack, Richard McGowan, Captain Akram Quereshi, and William Unsoeld. As Unsoeld would write, “Masherbrum was an extremely well-scouted objective when our party approached it in May of 1960. …. [In} 1938 a British party … reached a point high on the southeast face … In 1955 a New Zealand group … [gave] up at the foot of the southeast face…. [and in] 1957 a party from Manchester, England, reached a point only about 300 feet short of the summit.” They followed the route on the SE Face attempted by the others that consisted of steep snow slopes susceptible to avalanche. At one point on the climb a large surface slide enveloped the whole party and they tumbled head-over-heels towards the cliffs below. Unsoeld and Bell managed to self-arrest through the slide and stop the party which included Hornbein, who slid at least 200 feet. On their way up to make the first summit attempt, Akhter was climbing with Emerson and Hornbein and suddenly slipped from the steps in the snow and missed grabbing the fixed rope. As Akhter somersaulted down the slope, Hornbein only had time to grab Akhter’s rope with one hand while wrapping his other arm around the fixed line. By now Akhter had fallen about 130 feet and was still shooting downwards when Emerson asked, “Are your arms going to be strong enough, Tom?” His reply was, “Well, they’d better be.” And they were. This fall, along with a recurrence of Emerson’s coughing problems, sent them back down and Hornbein’s duties as a doctor prevented him from making a summit try. Bell and Unsoeld made the first ascent on July 6th followed by Clinch and Akhter two days later.

After completing his medical research fellowship with the National Institutes of Health in Saint Louis, Hornbein went to San Diego as an anesthesiologist to fulfill a two-year service obligation with the Navy. While there he was invited to participate in an American expedition to Everest in 1963. With some intervention by friends in the Kennedy Administration, Hornbein obtained an early discharge to join the expedition. The expedition had two objectives, and the first and foremost was to make a successful ascent of the mountain via the South Col route that had already been climbed by British and Swiss teams. The second objective was to climb a new route via the West Ridge. Hornbein had seen an aerial photograph of Everest from the Indian Air Force, and he noticed a narrow couloir on the upper part of the mountain that looked climbable. There was a natural tension over resources between expedition members who committed themselves early on to one of the two objectives. But given the results, good leadership held everyone together, and they succeeded on both fronts. After Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu reached the summit via the South Col on May 1, the pressure was off to get someone to the top. The West Ridge team now had the full support of the expedition, which in addition to  Hornbein included Willi Unsoeld and Dick Emerson, his friends from Masherbrum, along with Al Auten, Barry Corbett, Ang Dorjie, Passang Tendi, Ila Tsering, Tensing Nindra, Tenzing Gyaltso and several other Sherpas. The entire group had spent weeks preparing the route and carrying loads so that on May 22, Unsoeld and Hornbein could leave from their high camp in the Hornbein Couloir at 27,200 feet for the summit. Climbing alpine style without the security of fixed ropes, the pair encountered technical rock and ice climbing that slowed their progress. They reached the summit at 6:15 that night. The plan was to descend the route that Whittaker and Gombu had climbed almost a month earlier by following the tracks left by Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad, who had summited via the South Col earlier that day. Hornbein and Unsoeld caught up with them as it was getting dark, and the four climbers descended until the darkness forced them into an open bivouac. They resumed their descent at daylight to the lower camps and discovered that Unsoeld had frostbite on all his toes, and Bishop and Jerstad had suffered frostbite injuries as well. Hornbein didn’t lose his toes because Unsoeld elected to warm them on his belly that night. One of the classic mountaineering books from that era, Everest The West Ridge, is Hornbein’s account of the ascent.

Returning to the US, Hornbein moved his family to Seattle for an assistant professorship at the University of Washington Medical School Department of Anesthesiology. Hornbein said, “During those years, I found myself in a professional candy store replete with the enticing challenges of caring for patients, especially those at high risk, and in helping shape how we trained anesthesia residents. Those interests led, perhaps inevitably, to becoming involved with peers concerned with shaping the future of academic anesthesiology on the national scene. My personal research adventures ended in 1978 when I …[became] chair of our University of Washington department.”

Not only was Hornbein a great climber, but in his life as a doctor he was a gifted researcher and teacher as well. Hornbein’s wife Kathy shared a recent letter to him from a woman who had been a student in his department at UW in 1979 and wrote:

“It was the first time I was on call with you…I was a little apprehensive, wanting to do my best. What a day it was! A large number of emergencies—we went from one OR to another, and then labor and delivery, all day long. We were SO busy, there wasn’t even any time to THINK of being intimidated! Finally, around 6pm we went…to the neurosurgical unit. The case was a five or six month old baby….We busied ourselves, setting up the [equipment]. You took the baby in your arms and told me to start the IV….I tried the IV and I missed! Wordlessly you took over, while I held the baby. You secured the IV and then came around and, cradling the baby in your arms, you gently whispered to the baby why we had taken so long, apologizing for the delay, while wafting the anesthetic gases over its face. The heartbeats of the baby [from the monitor] and your hushed voice were the only sounds in the OR. And then, you started to sing…. 

        Train whistle blowing makes a sleepy noise,

        Underneath the blankets, go all the girls and boys,

        Rockin’, rollin’ ridin’, out along the bay,

        All bound for morning town, many miles away.

I sat down on the stool, not knowing what to think or do. I just knew that something was happening in the room…and it was awe-inspiring…. I had come from a residency, where there had been no teaching, no compassion, no stories, and certainly no lullabies! In many ways, I too was cradled into this residency and nurtured by gentle and compassionate teaching.”

In 1985 Hornbein was part of an expedition that made the first ascent of 23,000-foot Ulugh Muztagh with Nick Clinch, Bob Bates, Jeff Foott, Dennis Hennek, Peter Molnar, Clark Burchfiel, and 16 Chinese climbers. In 1989, again with Clinch, Hornbein made an attempt on Kang Karpo in southeastern China with Robert Hornbein, Robin Houston, Brian Okonek, and Robert Schoene. In 1995 Hornbein fulfilled one of his long-time aspirations by climbing the Casual Route on the Diamond of Longs Peak. Hornbein also made frequent hikes in the Cascades near Seattle with his friends Pete Schoening and Bill Sumner.

In 2006, after he retired from medicine, Hornbein and Kathy moved to Estes Park, Colorado, where Hornbein first fell in love with mountains. He continued to climb in the Colorado Rockies through his 70’s and well into his 80’s, with many friends including Jon Krakauer, Harry Kent, Chris Reveley, and Rocky Mountain National Park Ranger Jim Detterline. They enjoyed doing routes like Royal Flush on Mount Royal, the Direct South Ridge of Notchtop, Better than Love on Hallett Peak, The Petit Grepon, and various climbs on Lumpy Ridge behind his home. About Hornbein, Krakauer would say, “Under that Hobbit-like good natured person is a very determined climber.”

In 2004 Hornbein was present at the last hours of Barry Corbet, a fellow teammate from the 1963 American Everest Expedition. Hornbein recalled: “It was not rage, nor traveling through the looking glass to some other unknown place (my take anyway), but rather a gentle running down of the clock, the end of a multifaceted journey, an acceptance of inevitability. Barry confronted dying, as he did everything, with style. His three children were there, their spouses, his grandchildren. We watched films and read poetry, splitting our sides over Winnie the Pooh. To have an end like that, a party full of emotions in flux. It was magical. The person dying is only one of the participants…. Barry showed me the way.”  

Tom, you also showed us the way.

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