Highest Adventure

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“As we stood where man had never stood before,” wrote Hornbein, “we could look back into history.”

On the approach march, the climbers refined their plans. Their most important choice came down to which of the two proposed routes each climber would pursue. Dyhrenfurth, Jim Whittaker, and Lute Jerstad, a 26-year-old speech instructor from Eugene, Oregon, became the core of the group committed to tackling the mountain via the South Col and the Southeast Ridge; they were dubbed the South Colers. Willi Unsoeld, the 36-year-old deputy director of the Peace Corps in Nepal, and his friend Tom Hornbein, a 32-year-old physician recently released from service as a Navy doctor, plus Barry Bishop, a 31-year-old geologist and photographer for the National Geographic Society, were the stalwarts of the alternate route, the West Ridgers. Though most of the climbers came from similar backgrounds (white, middle class, in their late twenties or early thirties, well educated), the expedition’s psychologist, Jim Lester, noted a difference in outlook between the two parties. “The West Ridge advocates,” he later wrote, “seemed to care less about rewards in the outside world and to be less sensitive to the possibility of objective failure, more willing to risk failure in favor of possible internalized or self-given rewards.” Such was Tom Hornbein’s enthusiasm for the West Ridge that he even suggested it take priority over the attempt by the Southeast Ridge. That risky strategy, Dyhrenfurth made clear, was not an option. But, at least at the start, the expedition’s two routes were deemed of equal importance.

On March 21 the Americans established their base camp at 17,800 feet, below the Khumbu Icefall. For the next few days they threaded their way through the icefall’s treacherous chaos. On March 23 an ice cliff collapsed on a party of climbers, and Jake Breitenbach, a 27-year-old mountain guide from Jackson, Wyoming, was buried under tons of ice, his body unrecoverable. He was the sixteenth climber and the first American to die on Everest.

Nevertheless, three days later Americans and Sherpas were back at work in the icefall, and by March 29 they had reached the Western Cwm. Now the expedition split into two parties, as the South Colers headed up the cwm toward Lhotse Face, and the West Ridgers put a new route up to the top of the West Shoulder, the snowy hump that formed the border between Nepal and Tibet and which would lead them to Everest’s West Ridge. On April 11 Hornbein, Unsoeld, Bishop, and another team member, Dave Dingman, stood atop the West Shoulder, where they could look over into Tibet. And farther, as Hornbein later wrote: “Our eyes climbed a mile of sloping sedimentary shingles, black rock, yellow rock, grey rock, to the summit. The North Col was a thousand feet below us across this vast glacier amphitheater. As we stood where man had never stood before, we could look back into history. All the British attempts of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties had approached from the Rongbuk Glacier, over that Col, on to that North Face… . And there against the sky along the North Ridge, Mallory’s steps.”

While the West Ridgers were contemplating the view into Tibet, and plotting a route that would take them out onto the North Face to a higher junction with the West Ridge, Dyhrenfurth was contemplating the costs of failure on Everest. In particular, he was having second thoughts about trying to simultaneously push two separate routes up the mountain, a strategy draining resources from the surer bet of the Southeast Ridge. By the time the West Ridgers descended to Advanced Base Camp in the Western Cwm on April 13 they found that the South Colers had voted in their absence for a change of plans. Rather than a simultaneous push for the West Ridge and the South Col, with Sherpas having to carry supplies to high camps on both routes, there would now be sequential bids—first the South Col and then, and only then, the West Ridge. Meanwhile, no Sherpas could be spared for supplying the West Ridgers. As Hornbein would note, with rueful humor, his minority party “found ourselves preserved of the basic freedoms of speech, and the right to the pursuit of happiness (the West Ridge), but no inalienable right to Sherpas.”

There were some hard feelings, but the strategy paid off in terms of the primary goal of the expedition—that of getting an American with a flag to the top. On the night of April 30 four men slept in the American assault camp on the Southeast Ridge, Camp VI, at an altitude of 27,450 feet. The next day, May 1, Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu set off for the summit at 6:30 a.m., followed a hour later by Norman Dyhrenfurth and Sherpa Ang Dawa. Dyhrenfurth, laden with a movie camera, hoped to get footage of the summit team en route to the top, but he and Ang Dawa were soon overcome by the wind and forced to turn back. Determined to avoid the “who got there first” controversy that marred the aftermath of the first ascent of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing, Whittaker and Gombu staggered the last few feet to the summit together. When Whittaker planted the flag, Dyhrenfurth’s expedition fulfilled the promise in its fundraising appeals. None of that was on Jim Whittaker’s mind at the summit: “I did not feel expansive or sublime; I felt only, as I said later, ‘like a frail human being.’ People—mostly nonclimbers—talk about ‘conquering’ mountains. In my mind, nothing could be further from the truth. The mountain is so huge and powerful, and the climber so puny, exhausted, and powerless.”