Highest Adventure


The two climbers looked around for the bust of Mao Zedong supposedly left behind by the Chinese in 1960 but found no sign of it. After 20 minutes they began their descent. It took them five hours to reach Camp VI, where they found Dyhrenfurth and Ang Dawa waiting and where they would all spend the night of May 1. By May 2 they were back in Advanced Base Camp, and the news of their triumph was radioed to the world.

This time the news would not be confined to the inside pages of newspapers. The American press responded with just the kind of “feather in our cap” enthusiasm Ullman had predicted. Newsweek magazine proclaimed that the United States “had a new hero last week” (it didn’t know his name because for a few days the expedition attempted to keep the identities of the summit team a secret). Whoever the summiter turned out to be, Newsweek announced in high Kennedyesque rhetorical flight, he was undoubtedly “young, vigorous, talented, a New Frontiersman on a Himalayan scale… . And proud the nation was of this first American to plant Old Glory atop Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world.”

President Kennedy no longer hesitated to link his administration’s prestige with Dyhrenfurth’s expedition. “These American climbers,” he declared in his official congratulations (not knowing then that one of them was a Sherpa), “pushing human endurance and experience to their farthest frontiers, join the distinguished group of British and Swiss mountaineers who have performed this feat. I know that all Americans will join me in saluting our gallant countrymen.”

Miles to go

Had Whittaker and Gombu’s ascent marked the end of the American Mount Everest Expedition, it would have been an event that pleased the public but left many of the climbers dissatisfied and at odds. Because the summit had been reached so early in the season, there remained time for subsequent attempts.

As they walked the last few feet up the West Ridge to the summit, Hornbein and Unsoeld linked arms.

On May 6 Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein headed back up the mountain to resume the attempt on the West Ridge (others were already up on the West Shoulder, ferrying supplies with the aid of a temperamental winch system). A few days later Barry Bishop, who had switched his efforts from the West Ridge to the South Col, and Lute Jerstad headed up the Western Cwm to get into position for a second attempt on the Southeast Ridge, timed to coincide with the West Ridge attempt. There were delays and setbacks, including a windstorm that destroyed the West Ridgers’ camp on the West Shoulder. But on the night of May 21, four Americans bedded down for the night in two assault camps on opposite sides of Everest. Bishop and Jerstad were in the high camp on the Southeast Ridge. Hornbein and Unsoeld were actually sleeping in Tibet, having moved out onto the North Face of Everest. The hope was that the next day Hornbein and Unsoeld would follow a steep snow-filled couloir, or gully, high up the North Face and then return to the West Ridge, which they would follow to the summit. At the same time, Bishop and Jerstad would follow the Southeast Ridge up. With luck, all four would rendezvous atop the mountain sometime in the early afternoon and then descend together down the Southeast Ridge. In doing so, the Americans would not only have pulled off the first ascent of a new route but also the first traverse of Everest, ascending one route and descending another.

Hornbein and Unsoeld awoke at 4:00 a.m. on May 22 and set out three hours later. They took nothing with them but oxygen equipment, a little food, and their walkie-talkies. The slope on the North Face was steep, about 55 degrees. Their crampons gripped poorly in the granular snow, necessitating laborious step cutting. It took four hours to do the first 400 feet. Near the top of the couloir they encountered a 60-foot-high cliff, a level of technical climbing challenge absent on the Southeast Ridge. Hornbein took the lead and came to within 8 feet of the top where, exhausted, he had to give up and drop down beside Unsoeld. Unsoeld climbed back up, using the rope that Hornbein had left in place. Reaching Hornbein’s high mark, Unsoeld removed his mittens for a better grip on the rock, turned up the flow of oxygen, and surmounted the last 8 feet. Now they were fully committed to climbing the rest of the way to the top because they believed they could not safely descend the cliff. They cut back across the tricky downsloping rock slabs of the North Face to regain the West Ridge.

As they had hoped, the upper reach of the West Ridge proved less treacherous, and they began to make rapid progress, although they were far behind the schedule that would have gotten them to the top by early afternoon. Rock gave way to snow as they neared the summit. At 6:15 p.m., just over 11 hours after setting out, they looked up and could see the American flag on the summit. They walked the last few feet to the top, arms linked. “Now some people have suggested it was to avoid the argument as to who got there first,” Unsoeld would later tell audiences at the slide shows he did about the climb, “but there are other reasons to link arms with your buddy.” Once at the top, Unsoeld wrapped a kata , a Buddhist prayer scarf, around the flagstaff and buried a crucifix in the snow next it.