- Historic Sites
The farthest, coldest outpost of President Kennedy’s New Frontier turned out to be in the Himalayas.
February/March 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 1
They knew from the footprints in the summit snow that Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad had been there earlier that day, that they were too late for the planned rendezvous, and that they were on their own for the descent down the South-east Ridge. From just below the summit, Unsoeld used his walkie-talkie to contact those anxiously awaiting word from them at Advanced Base Camp in the Western Cwm. They had climbed the West Ridge, Unsoeld said, and then signed off, reciting the famous lines from Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (and changing the second I to we ): “I have promises to keep / And miles to go before we sleep / And miles to go before we sleep.”
Frost’s poem is often interpreted as the poet’s description of longing for a release from the cares of life, but that night on Everest four American climbers miraculously cheated death. Unsoeld and Hornbein caught up with Jerstad and Bishop, who were making their slow descent down the Southeast Ridge from the summit. In darkness at midnight, without oxygen, food, or water, they settled down on a rock outcropping at 28,000 feet to wait for dawn. No one had ever experienced an unprotected bivouac at that high an altitude, and they might not have survived, except there was no wind that night. The mountain did take a toll on the climbers: Bishop would lose all his toes and Unsoeld all but one from frostbite.
The American Mount Everest Expedition members returned to the United States as heroes, and Norman Dyhrenfurth finally got his meeting with the President. In a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on July 8, Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal for exploration to him and replicas of the medal to the other AMEE members (only Breitenbach, buried in the Khumbu Icefall, and Unsoeld, still recovering from frostbite in Kathmandu, were absent). “In giving this medal … ,” Kennedy said, “I carry on a great tradition, as do they in demonstrating that the vigorous life still attracts Americans.”
Five of the expedition’s Sherpas were also there (the U.S. State Department thought their presence would generate goodwill in South Asia). Nawang Gombu presented the President with a Buddhist friendship scarf, to Kennedy’s evident delight, although his Secret Service contingent, seeing Nawang reach into his pocket in this unscripted gesture, stiffened and reached for their weapons. The wire-service photographers had been busy throughout the ceremony, but this provided the image that proved irresistible to photo editors the next day; the picture of the smiling six-foot-two President lowering his head to allow the five-foot-two-inch Gombu to place a scarf around his neck ran in both The New York Times and the Washington Post . For John F. Kennedy, it was one more opportunity to celebrate the themes of the New Frontier. For Americans, it was one of the last days of triumphant good feelings, unalloyed by bad news at home or abroad, that the 1960s had to offer.
As far as most Americans were concerned, Jim Whittaker was the greatest hero of the expedition because he was first atop the mountain. Whittaker was bemused by the mantle of fame that had dropped upon his shoulders. “It was, I suppose a more innocent era,” he wrote many years later, “in which an individual could somehow embody a sense of hope for a nation.”
By the end of the twentieth century Americans accounted for the regular traffic jams on Everest.
As far as the international mountaineering community was concerned, however, it was Hornbein and Unsoeld whose achievement shone the brightest. The celebrated British mountaineer Bill Tilman, a veteran of numerous Everest expeditions, reviewed James Ramsey Ullman’s book about the expedition, Americans on Everest , the following year. He reserved his highest praise for Unsoeld and Hornbein, “the moving spirits on the West ridge who from the start chose to be beaten if necessary … rather than succeed by the South Col route. In spite of having to make do with the scrapings of the barrel in the way of Sherpas and support parties, they stuck to their resolution through thick and thin and brought it to a triumphant conclusion… .” The West Ridge climb, he concluded, lifted the 1963 American Everest expedition to “a plane level with that of the first ascent of the mountain in 1953.”
Norman Dyhrenfurth had sold the American Mount Everest Expedition to the White House and to the American public as a morale-boosting, prestige-winning Cold War mission. But none of the climbers who reached the summit described their own motives in those terms in the accounts they wrote afterward. James Ramsey Ullman, who had developed the “feather in our cap” argument in pre-expeditionary press releases, took a very different line in his subsequent expedition book. “Even allowing for the flag on Jim Whittaker’s Maypole,” Ullman would write in Americans on Everest , “conventional patriotism had little part in the venture… . on that high roof in the sky, Washington and Moscow, cold war and warm war, the alarums and excursions of jangling nationalism, were so remote as to be unimaginable.”
The expedition’s real and lasting impact was on the popularity of mountaineering in the United States. Americans took to the hills. From the White Mountains to the Cascades, the number of signatures on the pages of the summit registers rose and rose in the 1960s. In a related development, a consumer revolution, centered on the baby-boom generation, transformed the formerly staid outdoor gear and clothing industry. Vibram-soled hiking boots, popularly known as “waffle stompers,” became a badge of a generational identity.