Highest Adventure

PrintPrintEmailEmailAt One O’Clock on May 1, 1963, Jim whittaker, a 34-year-old native of Seattle on his first Himalayan expedition, stepped onto the summit of Mount Everest. The six-foot-five-inch mountaineer, known as “Big Jim” to his fellow climbers, was the tenth climber and the first American to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain, 29,035 feet above sea level. Nawang Gombu, a 27-year-old Sherpa climber on his third expedition to Everest, accompanied him to the top. Before the two climbers left the summit to head back down the mountain’s Southeast Ridge toward base camp in Nepal, Whittaker planted an American flag on a four-foot aluminum stake he had carried strapped to his pack.

Three weeks later, on May 22, four more Americans reached the summit by two separate routes. Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop followed Whittaker’s trail up the Southeast Ridge, while Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld scaled Everest’s previously unclimbed West Ridge. The two parties of climbers each knew they were nearing the summit when they caught sight of the American flag Whittaker had driven into the summit snow on May Day, a little tattered but still flapping in the eternal wind.

Life magazine ran a cover story on the American mountaineering triumph in September 1963, with the headline MASS CONQUEST OF EVEREST. The use of the word mass is worth contemplating, for Life’s editors employed it to describe an expedition that saw a grand total of six climbers reach the summit of Everest over a three-week period, with no more than two climbers at any one time actually standing together atop the mountain. In contrast, on May 22, 2003, the fortieth anniversary of the day that Bishop, Jerstad, Hornbein, and Unsoeld made their summit bids, a total of 109 people reached the top of Everest. Clearly the meaning of mass on Mount Everest had changed over the decades, along with much else connected with the act of climbing the mountain. The 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition played a large role in sparking those changes.

“Nobody gives that much of a damn”

Ten years before Americans succeeded in climbing Everest, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent of the mountain as members of the 1953 British Everest expedition. Their triumph came near the start of a remarkable decade of mountaineering firsts. In the 10 years between 1950 and 1960, 13 of the world’s 14 highest mountains (that is, those over 8,000 meters, or roughly 26,247 feet above sea level and higher) were scaled for the first time.

Americans accounted for the first ascent of only one of these giants. On July 5, 1958, Andrew Kauffman and Pete Schoening reached the summit of Gasherbrum I in Pakistan. Better known as Hidden Peak, at 26,470 feet it was the eleventh-tallest mountain in the world and thus a significant mountaineering prize. When the French climbed Nepal’s Annapurna in 1950, and the British climbed Everest in 1953, and the Italians climbed Pakistan’s K2 in 1954, the men who reached these summits became national and even international heroes. In contrast, few Americans took any notice whatsoever of Kauffman and Schoening’s achievement. The New York Times restricted its coverage to a brief inside-page account that understated the height of the mountain by 2,000 feet.

In 1960 Norman Dyhrenfurth, a 41-year-old climber from Santa Monica, California, mentioned to Nick Clinch, organizer of the 1958 Hidden Peak expedition, that he hoped to raise several hundred thousand dollars to launch an American Everest expedition in a few years’ time. “You’ll never get that kind of money in this country,” Clinch replied flatly. “Nobody gives that much of a damn about mountains or mountaineering.” Dyhrenfurth decided he would have to find a way to make Americans in general—and the American government in particular—give a damn.

“Winning new friends in many places”

Raised in Switzerland, Norman Dyhrenfurth was the son of the famous Himalayan mountaineer Günther Dyhrenfurth. Norman emigrated to the United States shortly before World War II and, following wartime service in the U.S. Army, embarked on a career as a documentary filmmaker. Retaining close ties with European climbers, he served as photographer on an unsuccessful Swiss attempt to climb Everest in 1952. Someday, he vowed, he would lead his own expedition to the mountain.

The Nepalese government controlled the only access route to Everest available to Westerners in the 1950s, via the mountain’s southern flank. Permits for Everest expeditions in those days were hard to come by. At most, Nepalese authorities would allow only two expeditions a year, one in the spring, or pre-monsoon season, and another in the fall, following the monsoon. There were, however, plenty of other prizes available in Nepal. In 1953 Dyhrenfurth wrote to an old friend, the American mountaineering historian and novelist James Ramsey Ullman, inviting him along on an expedition the following year for an attempt on Ama Dablam, a beautiful unclimbed peak near Everest. For reasons of political expediency, Dyhrenfurth explained to Ullman, he would launch his expedition under Swiss rather than American auspices: “In view of the fact that Americans are not particularly well-liked in either India or Nepal (as a matter of fact, they are quite strongly disliked), I have decided to get the necessary authorization from Nepal through the political department in Berne.” That expedition never got off the ground, but in 1955 Dyhrenfurth returned to Nepal to lead an unsuccessful attempt on Everest’s nearest neighbor, Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest mountain.