Highest Adventure

The expedition split and took two different routes to the summit.
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His passion for Everest remained undiminished as the 1950s drew to a close. What changed was his estimation of the advantage of leading an expedition to the mountain under the auspices of his adopted homeland, the United States. The only two successful climbs of Everest thus far—the British effort in 1953 and a subsequent successful one by the Swiss in 1956—had been large and well-equipped affairs under quasi-official national sponsorship (a 1960 Chinese expedition that claimed to have climbed the mountain’s Tibetan side had been wholly state-sponsored, but Western mountaineers questioned if it had actually reached the summit). It would take a lot of money to launch a similar effort, what with the cost of equipping and transporting climbers, hiring Sherpas for high-altitude support, and paying porters to transport tons of supplies to the base camp. Where would such sums for an American expedition come from if not, at least in part, the U.S. government? But how could Dyhrenfurth interest the authorities in something as esoteric and apparently inessential to the national welfare as mountain climbing?

There was a way, he decided. “Most mountaineers of the Free World agree that the struggle for the Himalaya should remain a purely idealistic, non-political pursuit,” Dyhrenfurth wrote in the summer of 1960, in a prospectus for his newest project, the American Mount Everest Expedition (AMEE). Climbers had a long tradition of prideful irrelevance to contemporary concerns; when the British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Everest, he replied, simply and famously, “Because it is there.” But Dyhrenfurth’s prospectus offered a calculation for the worth of mountaineering that was less intrinsic, more instrumental. Noting Chinese claims to have reached the summit of Everest that spring, Dyhrenfurth suggested Americans needed to prove they too were up to the challenge of ascending the world’s highest mountain: “There can be no doubt that the ascent of [Everest] by an American team would go a long way toward winning new friends in many places.”

“A nation gone soft and gutless”?

Six months later John F. Kennedy took the oath of office as President of the United States and pledged the nation to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” to support its friends and oppose its enemies around the world. Not since Teddy Roosevelt had such an outspoken enthusiast for the virtues of the strenuous life— vigor was the term favored by Kennedy—occupied the White House. The new President declared his intention to lead America to a “New Frontier.”

How could Dyhrenfurth persuade the authorities that mountaineering was essential to the national welfare?

Rhetorical style merged with official policy. As Kennedy saw it, winning support in the Cold War required Americans to prove they could face up to the challenges of hardship and self-sacrifice in the struggle against communism. Foreign aid, for example, thought of in the Eisenhower years in terms of mammoth development projects like dams and roads, was given an adventurous new spin under Kennedy with his proposal for a Peace Corps. This agency proved one of his most popular initiatives and attracted a contingent of young, idealistic, and hardy volunteers, nowhere hardier than in Nepal, where the Peace Corps effort was headed by the veteran Himalayan mountaineer Bob Bates, with an up-and-coming climber named Willi Unsoeld serving as his deputy director. Peace Corps recruitment efforts appealed to the desire of young Americans to test themselves by living in exotic places; one advertisement for service in Nepal described the country as “The Land of Yeti and Everest.”

Kennedy’s official rhetoric could not have been better suited for Dyhrenfurth’s purposes. What was the summit of Everest but the ultimate New Frontier? Sensing an opportunity, in July 1961 Dyhrenfurth wrote to the White House outlining his plans for an Everest expedition and requesting an appointment with the President. The White House science adviser Jerome B. Wiesner replied on the President’s behalf, regretting that he would not have time to see Dyhrenfurth but passing along Kennedy’s “best wishes … for success in your 1963 assault.” If this was intended as a polite brushoff, Dyhrenfurth chose not to take it as such. “Yesterday I received a most encouraging letter from the White House,” he announced in “Expedition Letter #1,” which went out to members and supporters on August 1, “wherein the President expressed his personal interest in the expedition.”

In the months to come the President’s schedule remained too full to meet with Dyhrenfurth, and not just because of crises in Berlin and Cuba. Kennedy was a shrewd politician who spent political capital carefully. He gained nothing by prematurely endorsing a private venture that might end in embarrassing failure. Dyhrenfurth tried new enticements, offering, for example, to have his climbers install a nuclear-powered weather station high atop Everest’s southern flank (apparently without checking with the Nepalese to see if they wanted such a device on their territory). Nothing availed to get him into the Oval Office. Eventually he had to settle for a meeting with the Secretary of the Interior.