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The Greatest Moments In American Mountaineering

June 2024
4min read

A list like this is bound to stir controversy among mountaineers. A climb on a given mountain may be significant because it’s a “first,” but it may not be as physically challenging as a second or third ascent of the same mountain by other routes, or in other seasons, or when it is accomplished alone, or without the use of bottled oxygen. But here are 10 strong contenders, and a few sure bets, for anybody’s “greatest” list:—M.I.

1 First Ascents of Mount McKinley, 1910, 1913

Alaska’s Mount McKinley (now known as Denali) is North America’s highest mountain, and its first ascent surely has a place among the greatest moments in American mountaineering. Of McKinley’s two summit peaks, North and South Summit, the northern, 19,470 feet high, was the first to be climbed. On April 3, 1910, Tom Lloyd, Charles McGonagall, Peter Anderson, and Bill Taylor, a group of sourdough Alaskan miners with no previous mountaineering experience, reached the top of North Summit and raised a pole they hoped would be visible from Fairbanks (it wasn’t, but the pole remained as proof of their achievement). A little over three years later, on June 13, 1913, Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, and Robert Tatum climbed the mountain’s true summit, 20,320-foot South Summit. Stuck, Episcopalian Archdeacon of the Yukon, would write of the view from the summit, “Never was a nobler sight displayed to man… .”

2 First Ascent of Minya Konka, 1932

In 1932 four young Americans—Terris Moore, Arthur Emmons, Richard Burdsall, and Jack Young—set off through civil war–torn China to find Minya Konka (now known as Gongga Shan), a previously unattempted giant in remote Szechwan province. Though rumored to be higher than Everest, Minya Konka actually turned out to be considerably shorter; but at 24,790 feet, it still represented a formidable challenge, especially for a small group of climbers, unaided by porters and lacking previous Himalayan experience. Moore, Emmons and Burdsall tackled the mountain’s Northwest Ridge, while Young gathered scientific specimens lower down. An accident at high altitude sidelined Emmons, but on October 28, 1932, Moore and Burdsall reached the top. Minya Konka remained the highest summit attained by Americans for the next quarter-century.

3 Pete Schoening’s Belay on K2, 1953

In the summer of 1953 an American expedition led by the veteran Himalayan climber Dr. Charles S. Houston was attempting a first ascent of K2 in Pakistan, at 28,251 feet the world’s second-highest mountain, when one team member, Art Gilkey, developed a life-threatening altitude sickness. On August 10, in a desperate attempt to save Gilkey’s life, the eight-member expedition evacuated their high camp at 25,300 feet. On a steep slope a few hundred feet farther down the mountain, a team member lost his footing, jerking his partner off his feet. The roped pair snared four more climbers as they slid downward to what appeared certain death. But all were saved by one man, Pete Schoening, who jammed his ice ax into the snow, wrapped his climbing rope around it, and managed to halt his friends’ slide. In a subsequent tragedy, Gilkey was swept to his death by avalanche, but the others survived their epic retreat from K2.

4 First Ascent of Hidden Peak, 1958

On July 5, 1958, Andrew Kauffman and Pete Schoening reached the summit of 26,470 foot Gasherbrum I (Hidden Peak) in Pakistan. Hidden Peak is the eleventh tallest mountain in the world, and the only one of the world’s 14 mountains over 8,000 meters on which Americans made the first ascent.

5 First Ascent of Everest West Ridge, 1963

As described in the accompanying article, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld reached the summit of Everest on May 22, 1963, via the mountain’s unclimbed West Ridge, and completed the first traverse of Everest on May 23, following an emergency bivouac high on the Southeast Ridge. This one, no question, would make any list of American mountaineering’s “10 greatest.”

6 Women’s Expedition Makes First American Ascent of Annapurna, 1978

In 1978 Arlene Blum led an all-women’s expedition to the North Face of 26,545 foot Annapurna in Nepal. Although it had been the first 8,000-meter peak to be climbed, back in 1950, Annapurna enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of the most challenging (and deadliest) Himalayan mountains. On October 15, Irene Beardsley Miller and Vera Komarkova, along with two Sherpas, Mingma Tsering and Chewang Rinjee, reached the top. Miller and Komarkova were the first women and the first Americans to stand on Annapurna’s summit. Along with American and Nepalese flags, they unfurled a banner with the expedition slogan, “A Woman’s Place Is on Top.”

7 First American Ascent of K2, 1978

For many years K2 seemed destined to have its first ascent accomplished by climbers from the United States. In 1938, 1939, and 1953 strong American parties tackled the mountain, but each time came up short. In 1954 an Italian expedition succeeded where they had failed. But Americans did not forget about K2. Jim Whittaker, first American to reach the summit of Everest in 1963, led two K2 expeditions in the 1970s. The first failed, but on the second Lou Reichardt and Jim Wickwire reached the top on September 6, 1978. Reichardt entitled his subsequent expedition report for the American Alpine Journal, “K2: The End of a 40-Year American Quest.”

8 First Ascent of Everest East Face, 1983

In 1921 the British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory made a reconnaissance of the East Face of Mount Everest on the Tibetan side of the mountain, and concluded “it was not for us.” For the next six decades, no climber of any nationality disputed that judgment. But in 1980 the American climber Andy Harvard made a solo reconnaissance of the East (or Kangshung) Face, and spotted a possible route to the summit. An American expedition in the fall of 1981 had to give up midway. A second expedition in 1983, led by Jim Morrissey, was more successful. On October 8, 1983, Carlos Buhler, Kim Momb, and Lou Reichardt reached the summit, marking the second time that Americans had pioneered a daring new route up the mountain.

9 First Winter Solo Ascent of Mount Denali, 1988

Climbing a mountain alone is harder than climbing it with partners; climbing a mountain in winter is harder than climbing it in warmer seasons. Climbing alone in winter is a daunting prospect even for the hardiest professional mountaineers. In 1984 the Japanese climber Naomi Uemura reached the summit of Mount Denali on a solo ascent, but disappeared on his descent. Four years later, on March 7, 1988, Vernon Tejas, an Alaskan mountain guide became the first solo climber to ascend Mount Denali in the winter and make it back alive.

10 Ed Viesturs Becomes the First American to Climb All 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks, 2005

The Rainier mountain guide Ed Viesturs made his first successful climb of an 8,000-meter peak, Kangchenjunga, in 1989. Sixteen years later, on May 12, 2005, he reached the summit of Annapurna (on his third attempt). In doing so, he became the first American and only the twelfth climber to reach the summit of all 14 8,000-meter peaks. He climbed all every one without the aid of bottled oxygen.

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