Mount Everest‘s earliest attempt was in 1922. Its first ascent was in 1953. Its first winter ascent in 1980. Somewhere in the early 1990s current events stopped being interesting.
It became like the American space shuttle program. At first everyone watched every launch with wonder. Then attention slowly evaporated. Then no one cared unless the stale routine turned into a deadly fireball.
I regret that the mountain has become Burning Man on the Khumbu. Okay, that’s a bit off. Even unfair. Burning Man is a much more exciting event today.
So until some wild alpinists successfully traverses Lhotse, Everest and Nuptse in a single push, the activity around the mountain will likely remain less than compelling. But I still enjoy Everest for it’s history. And this spring marks the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by an American.
Over the holidays I read Jim Whitaker’s 1999 autobiography, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, published by the Mountaineers Books in Seattle. My copy was pre-read and evidently bought at an Eddie Bauer based on the price tag firmly baked into the dust jacket.
Whittaker recounts his introduction to climbing as a child, his involvement in mountain rescue organizations, his career as a guide on Mount Rainier, how he grew and expanded outfitter REI, his relationship with the Kennedy family, and of course, his ascent of Mount Everest.
Whittaker’s ascent was actually only the seventh ascent of Mount Everest. With so few lines completed to the top of the mountain at that time, the American expedition, which included Tom Hornbein, and Willi Unsoeld among others, had a virtually blank canvas and yet Whittaker and the majority of his teammates drew over the same line climbed by Hillary and Norgay 10 years earlier. Whittaker’s ascent became the popularly marketable climb through National Geographic and others because he was among the firsts. Yet, the next to reach the top, just days later, took a bold, original line and completed the first traverse of Everest. That climb receives plenty of accolades too, but in many ways deserves more.
During the1963 American attempt, the expedition split into two teams above the Ice Fall. One team, which Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu eventually lead the way to the top, took the route established by Hillary and Norgay up the Ice Fall along the South Col. Meanwhile, Hornbein and Unsoeld were going to create a new route up the West Ridge, and descend by the South Col.
There were more variables with the new route. The West Ridge was steeper and the progress was slow. Hornbein and Unsoeld arrived on the summit quite late in the day. They later spent a cold, strange night on the South Col route at high altitude with two of their partners that had summitted earlier that same day. Overall, their ascent was light and fast. In some ways, the climb was ahead of its time in the same way is was old fashioned; like going up an Alp in the 1800s with only your axe, a loaf of bread and a blaze of courage.
Years later Mark Twight would write with venom about the death of the American alpinist. Since we now know that Steve House and others have redeemed the American alpinist, I guess we can say what Twight perceived wasn’t really death but rather dormancy. Clearly the American alpinist went into hibernation after the West Ridge ascent, because Hornbein and Unsoeld were very much awake and alert American alpinists.
We can’t all be Hornbeins and Unsoelds or Whittakers. But perhaps there is some of that American alpinist dormant in us, ready to keep things interesting.
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Sources: 1) Whittaker, Jim, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1999); and 2) Hornbein, Tom, Everest: The West Ridge (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 1998).