February/March 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 1
The farthest, coldest outpost of President Kennedy’s New Frontier turned out to be in the Himalayas.
Three weeks later, on May 22, four more Americans reached the summit by two separate routes. Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop followed Whittaker’s trail up the Southeast Ridge, while Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld scaled Everest’s previously unclimbed West Ridge. The two parties of climbers each knew they were nearing the summit when they caught sight of the American flag Whittaker had driven into the summit snow on May Day, a little tattered but still flapping in the eternal wind.
Life magazine ran a cover story on the American mountaineering triumph in September 1963, with the headline MASS CONQUEST OF EVEREST. The use of the word mass is worth contemplating, for Life’s editors employed it to describe an expedition that saw a grand total of six climbers reach the summit of Everest over a three-week period, with no more than two climbers at any one time actually standing together atop the mountain. In contrast, on May 22, 2003, the fortieth anniversary of the day that Bishop, Jerstad, Hornbein, and Unsoeld made their summit bids, a total of 109 people reached the top of Everest. Clearly the meaning of mass on Mount Everest had changed over the decades, along with much else connected with the act of climbing the mountain. The 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition played a large role in sparking those changes.
Ten years before Americans succeeded in climbing Everest, Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent of the mountain as members of the 1953 British Everest expedition. Their triumph came near the start of a remarkable decade of mountaineering firsts. In the 10 years between 1950 and 1960, 13 of the world’s 14 highest mountains (that is, those over 8,000 meters, or roughly 26,247 feet above sea level and higher) were scaled for the first time.
Americans accounted for the first ascent of only one of these giants. On July 5, 1958, Andrew Kauffman and Pete Schoening reached the summit of Gasherbrum I in Pakistan. Better known as Hidden Peak, at 26,470 feet it was the eleventh-tallest mountain in the world and thus a significant mountaineering prize. When the French climbed Nepal’s Annapurna in 1950, and the British climbed Everest in 1953, and the Italians climbed Pakistan’s K2 in 1954, the men who reached these summits became national and even international heroes. In contrast, few Americans took any notice whatsoever of Kauffman and Schoening’s achievement. The New York Times restricted its coverage to a brief inside-page account that understated the height of the mountain by 2,000 feet.
In 1960 Norman Dyhrenfurth, a 41-year-old climber from Santa Monica, California, mentioned to Nick Clinch, organizer of the 1958 Hidden Peak expedition, that he hoped to raise several hundred thousand dollars to launch an American Everest expedition in a few years’ time. “You’ll never get that kind of money in this country,” Clinch replied flatly. “Nobody gives that much of a damn about mountains or mountaineering.” Dyhrenfurth decided he would have to find a way to make Americans in general—and the American government in particular—give a damn.
Raised in Switzerland, Norman Dyhrenfurth was the son of the famous Himalayan mountaineer Günther Dyhrenfurth. Norman emigrated to the United States shortly before World War II and, following wartime service in the U.S. Army, embarked on a career as a documentary filmmaker. Retaining close ties with European climbers, he served as photographer on an unsuccessful Swiss attempt to climb Everest in 1952. Someday, he vowed, he would lead his own expedition to the mountain.
The Nepalese government controlled the only access route to Everest available to Westerners in the 1950s, via the mountain’s southern flank. Permits for Everest expeditions in those days were hard to come by. At most, Nepalese authorities would allow only two expeditions a year, one in the spring, or pre-monsoon season, and another in the fall, following the monsoon. There were, however, plenty of other prizes available in Nepal. In 1953 Dyhrenfurth wrote to an old friend, the American mountaineering historian and novelist James Ramsey Ullman, inviting him along on an expedition the following year for an attempt on Ama Dablam, a beautiful unclimbed peak near Everest. For reasons of political expediency, Dyhrenfurth explained to Ullman, he would launch his expedition under Swiss rather than American auspices: “In view of the fact that Americans are not particularly well-liked in either India or Nepal (as a matter of fact, they are quite strongly disliked), I have decided to get the necessary authorization from Nepal through the political department in Berne.” That expedition never got off the ground, but in 1955 Dyhrenfurth returned to Nepal to lead an unsuccessful attempt on Everest’s nearest neighbor, Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest mountain.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The connections between the AMEE and this consumer revolution were not hard to detect. “Our flag flies atop Mt. Everest!” the Eddie Bauer company proudly declared in an advertisement in 1965, and it was apparent that it was not the Stars and Stripes the clothing manufacturer had in mind: “Every member of the American Mt. Everest Expedition 1963 was outfitted from head to toe with Eddie BAUER 100% northern goose down insulated parkas, pants, underwear, mitts, booties and sleeping bags.” Eddie Bauer saw its sales of outdoor gear go up dramatically. But the greatest commercial beneficiary of the Everest climb turned out to be Jim Whittaker’s employer, Recreational Equipment Incorporated, which increased its membership from 50,000 to a 250,000 between 1965 and 1972. From its lone Seattle outlet, where Jim Whittaker’s Everest ice ax was proudly displayed, REI expanded its marketing empire across the country in the 1970s; by century’s end the co-op had grown to a chain of 46 retail outlets, plus a catalogue order business that together brought in a half-billion dollars a year. New retailers also entered the market, including Eastern Mountain Sports, which opened its first store in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1967, and spread its retail outlets westward just as REI was spreading eastward.
In the decades that followed, more and more Americans, baby boomers and their children, made their way to the Himalayas. Many went as trekkers, making their contribution to the prosperity of the new adventure-travel industry. Some had their eyes set on higher goals. In the early 1990s guides began leading commercial expeditions of paying clients up Himalayan peaks, including Everest. A day after Jim Whittaker reached the summit of Everest in 1963, someone asked Norman Dyhrenfurth why he was so drawn to Everest. “Well,” he replied, “there is altogether too prevalent an idea that Americans are soft and rich or, let’s say, fat and happy. In the Himalayas money can’t help you.” But as subsequent events would prove, money could. The going rate for a client on a commercial expedition on Mount Everest during the 1990s was $65,000, which bought a lot of fixed ropes, bottled oxygen, and Sherpa assistance. The clientele of the commercial expeditions, many of them Americans, accounted for a large part of the human traffic jams that by the end of the twentieth century were a regular feature on Everest’s summit.
In a recent interview, Tom Hornbein reflected on the changes that had taken place on Everest since his first encounter with the mountain. The 1963 expedition, he acknowledged, could be seen as the turning point. “I feel fortunate that I was born when I was. I was in the right place at the right time. You could go to Everest, and it could be an isolated adventure. Now, sadly, that’s no longer the case.”
Less than a half-century ago American mountaineers regretted that most of their countrymen didn’t give a damn about mountains or mountaineering. Now, obviously, they do. You’ve got to be careful what you wish for.