Highest Adventure

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But as it happened, this was Stewart Udall, an enthusiastic outdoorsman who proved highly effective in opening doors to official largess. Several government agencies provided funding to the expedition in the form of grants for scientific studies, such as one on high-altitude physiology paid for by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The expedition also acquired some important private backers, including the National Geographic Society and Life magazine, each of which bought rights to publish accounts of the adventure. Dyhrenfurth succeeded in raising more than $400,000, the most money until then ever for a mountaineering attempt.

Meanwhile, Dyhrenfurth and James Ramsey Ullman, who had signed on as the AMEE publicist, continued to advertise the expedition as a kind of high-altitude frontline battle in the struggle for the Free World’s survival. As Ullman defined the issues in an AMEE press release sent out late in 1961, “Strident nationalism and jingo flag-waving have no place on the great peaks that tower above all mankind. But still the fact remains that the first American go at Everest will be an event. If we succeed, it will—no question about it—be a feather in our cap, a booster to our prestige, a refutation beyond argument of our detractors’ taunt that we are a nation gone soft and gutless.” The American Everest climbers in effect were being positioned to wage the Cold War in a very cold place. Having thus defined the stakes as U.S. prestige and credibility, there could be no honorable failure. Dyhrenfurth’s marketing strategy would have a significant impact on actual expedition strategy once the climbers reached the mountain.

The “standard” route up Mount Everest from its Nepalese side, taken by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953 and the Swiss climbers three years later, began at about 18,000 feet at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall, a jumbled mass of unstable ice towers and crevasses that dropped down 2,000 feet between Everest and the neighboring peak of Nuptse. Once climbers had picked their way through that obstacle, they came to a broad upward sloping valley called the Western Cwm ( cwm is the Welsh word for “valley”) that rose gradually to a height of 22,000 feet at the foot of Everest’s adjoining peak Lhotse. From there a long steep traverse up Lhotse’s face took climbers to a saddle at about 26,000 feet, called the South Col. Everest’s Southeast Ridge then led up from the South Col to the summit.

None of this was easy; above 26,000 feet on the mountain has come to be called the “death zone” because even well-acclimatized climbers remaining there more than a day or so will find their stamina and health rapidly declining. But once past the Khumbu Icefall, there was nothing an experienced mountaineer would consider technically difficult. Apart from one 40-foot-high section of rock near the summit known as the Hillary Step, the route was simply a long (albeit in places very steep) snow slog. Sherpas called it the Yak Route.

For days the Americans threaded their way through the treacherous chaos of the Khumbu Icefall.

The “American go at Everest” would be a success in the eyes of the general public in the United States so long as one American reached the summit. That meant that the expedition should make its main effort via the Southeast Ridge, the one proven—if by no means guaranteed—way to the top. But Dyhrenfurth had in mind other audiences, whose good opinion he also valued. As far as the international mountaineering community was concerned, climbing Everest by the Southeast Ridge was old news. The British had done it and so had the Swiss, who had added a note of distinction to their expedition’s record by also making the first ascent of the neighboring Lhotse. What could the Americans do that would, in the eyes of European mountaineers, match the achievements of their predecessors?

Dyhrenfurth’s initial idea was to pursue what he called a grand-slam strategy. Instead of just climbing Everest, his expedition would simultaneously tackle Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse, the three peaks enclosing the Western Cwm. But another possibility appealed more to some of the team: While others on the team scaled the familiar route on the Southeast Ridge, they wanted to attempt a new route up Everest by the unknown and formidable West Ridge.

“A New Frontiersman on a Himalayan scale”

On February 20, 1963, the American Mount Everest Expedition began its trek from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp. There were 19 Americans, including climbers, doctors, and scientists, a British transport officer, about 30 Sherpas who would help in high-altitude carrying and climbing, and more than 900 porters transporting 29 tons of supplies. James Ramsey Ullman, at 55 the oldest member of the expedition, had to turn back after the first day because of poor circulation in his right leg. He would instead serve the AMEE in Kathmandu as the expedition’s press officer.