In May, 1963, Jim Whittaker summited Everest from the South Col, becoming the first American to reach the highest point in the world. But later that month, several members of the American team set out to climb Everest from the West Ridge, never before done, a route that required traversing the peak to descend the South Col. Though Whittaker gets credit for being the first American to the top, the West Ridge ascent made by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld was the more difficult climb; shortly after they began they realized they’d not be able to downclimb; their lives were committed to making it over and down the other side. It will forever be recognized as one of mountaineering most stunning achievements.
Hornbein died this past weekend at his home in Colorado. He was 92 years old.
The night of their traverse, Hornbein and Unsoeld were forced to make an unplanned bivouac at 28,000 feet. They’d climbed slowly, lingered at the summit, then descended without oxygen, inching down the mountain. Along the way, they encountered climbers who’d summited via the South Col, but who were too exhausted to make their way to basecamp. At midnight the group huddled together to conserve warmth and waited for morning, hoping to survive. They all did, though the deep cold claimed nine of Unsoeld’s toes.
In his 1965 book, Everest: The West Ridge, Hornbein tried to make sense of that night. "The night was overwhelming empty. The black silhouette of the Lhotse Mountain was lurking there, half to see, half to assume, and below of us. In general there was nothing – simply nothing. We hung in a timeless gap, pained by an intensive cold air – and had the idea not to be able to do anything but shiver and to wait for the sun arising.”
To this day, some 10,000 people have reached Everest’s summit. Only fourteen have climbed via the West Ridge.
Hornbein climbed mountains well into his 70s, but he was prouder of what came after his famous West Ridge traverse—his career in medicine. After Everest, he first became faculty, then chair of the University of Washington Medical School’s Department of Anesthesiology. For decades he was a leader in that field, a deeply respected researcher and teacher. “For me, Everest was just another event in my life, not the only event,” he told Kelly Cordes in his profile of Hornbein, published in Adventure Journal 28.
Cordes, a friend of Hornbein, said this in remembrance:
“As astounding as his contributions were -- to climbing and to medicine (for all of his deserved acclaim in climbing and adventure, from what I gathered, his contributions to medicine were even greater) -- I loved the underlying thread that I think connected them: His unrelenting curiosity. It never ceased for 92 years. He embraced the unknown in both intellectual and physical realms. He was always learning. He approached death as "life's final adventure," an experience not separate from living but part of it.”
“I don’t trouble about an afterlife,” Hornbein told Cordes in his profile. He continued:
“My biggest fear is that there is one and hell will be the internet.” When we finished laughing, he adds, “The afterlife is in the memories of the people who think about you.”
Lots of fantastic memories, Tom. Thanks.
Words by Justin Housman