Members of the 1963 American Everest Expedition use felled trees as bridges to navigate the dangerous Khumbu Icefall. Here, tragedy struck early in the
Members of the 1963 American Everest Expedition use felled trees as bridges to navigate the dangerous Khumbu Icefall. Here, tragedy struck early in the trip when 27-year-old Jake Breitenbach was killed by falling ice. ( Photo courtesy of American Alpine Club library )

When Jim Whittaker stood atop Mount Everest with Sherpa Nawang Gombu 50 years ago, America was thrust into the spotlight of Himalayan mountaineering, a nationalistic quest that represented much more than scaling great mountains.

"Like everything else at the height of the Cold War," writes Grayson Schaffer in the May 2013 issue of Outside Magazine, "the American Mount Everest Expedition wasn't just a race to claim bragging rights but a proxy battle among nations."

But while Whittaker's historic ascent May 1, 1963, garnered global glory for our country, a second American Everest team, just three weeks later and with little fanfare, accomplished something decades ahead of its time and astronomically more significant for the mountaineering world. They demonstrated that small teams climbing "fast and light" can accomplish exponentially more -- even in the Himalaya -- than the unwieldy, siege-style assaults of the day.

Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld were uninterested in repeating Everest's Southeast Ridge, the route taken on the mountain's first ascent in 1953 and by Whittaker, their teammate. Instead, they hungered for a greater challenge: a new route on Everest.

But national pride was at stake and, like all major expeditions back then, emphasis was placed on team success, not individual goals. Which is why, after Whittaker's ascent (which required most of the expedition's 909 porters and 27 tons of gear!), Hornbein and Unsoeld were left with anemic supplies, manpower and time to climb the West Ridge. Their greatest asset was Hornbein's wholehearted passion, which team leader Norman Dhyrenfurth described as "pathological fanaticism."

Low on the West Ridge a windstorm destroyed tents and other equipment thought crucial to their success. Above them loomed 4,000 feet of complicated and unexplored terrain. They had only two days of provisions. Most alarming was the impossibility of bailing down the convoluted West Ridge if something went wrong. "They'd either go over the top or die on the mountain," writes Schaffer.

By all means they should have given up.

Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld dwarfed by Mount Everest’s enormous West Ridge. An exhibit of the 1963 expedition is available at
Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld dwarfed by Mount Everest's enormous West Ridge. An exhibit of the 1963 expedition is available at americanalpineclub.org. (Photo courtesy of American Alpine Club library)

But the two zealously committed to a one-way ticket on the ridge, surmounting steep snow, shattered limestone and smooth slabs that offered few anchors -- the hardest climbing ever done on Everest at that point. They finally reached the top at 6:15 p.m., way later than modern-day "turnaround times."

Darkness eclipsed the mountain and the descent was foreign to them. Only the footsteps of Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, American teammates who summited three hours earlier via the normal route, guided them down. "Without them," Unsoeld later recalled, "I am sure we would have gone down the wrong ridge."

Hornbein and Unsoeld eventually caught the others, and all four continued down together, exhausted and stumbling, lost in the dark. Eventually, they were forced to bivouac despite their grim situation: above 28,000 feet, without tents or sleeping bags.

No one had ever bivouacked that high and survived.

"The night was overpoweringly empty," Hornbein wrote in his 1965 book "Everest: The West Ridge." "Stars shed cold, unshimmering light. We hung suspended in a timeless void. Unsignaled, unembellished, the hours passed. I floated in a dreamlike eternity, devoid of fears, plans or regrets. Death had no meaning. Nor, for that matter, did life."

Unsoeld would lose nine toes to frostbite, Bishop all 10. Yet they all made it down safely.

Chris Weidner
Chris Weidner ( PAUL AIKEN )

Like many core achievements, only the players of the game could fully appreciate the significance of the West Ridge ascent. Writes Schaffer, "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."

But perhaps what matters most about America's Everest climbs five decades ago is much simpler than patriotism, fame or conquering the tallest mountain in the world.

"Climbing Everest did as much for outdoor participation as the moon landing did for stoking young people's interest in the sciences," Phil Powers said in a February article in Adventure Journal. "It inspired a whole generation to get outside."

Contact Chris Weidner at cweidner8@gmail.com.