1963 Flashback: First Everest Summit by Americans

Cathy Hunter
for National Geographic News
April 15, 2003

In 1963, a Swiss climber named Norman Dyhrenfurth began "a little war against a big mountain." Leading 19 Americans, 32 Sherpas, and 909 porters carrying 27 tons (25 metric tons) of gear, Dyhrenfurth spearheaded the highly successful 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition for his adopted country.

With the notable exception of Sir Edmund Hillary's successful summit of Mount Everest in May 1953, the peak had defeated nearly every other challenger. But the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition, sponsored in part by the National Geographic Society, would prove the exception, placing the first Americans atop the mountain and pioneering a new route to the summit.

Dyhrenfurth had eyed Everest for a long time. The son of two famous mountain climbers, he participated in a failed 1952 Swiss expedition. In 1960, he began organizing another, this one composed of Americans. Dyhrenfurth discovered that mountaineering had not yet caught on in his newly-adopted land and encountered difficulty finding sponsors. But plans to conduct scientific research during the expedition attracted the attention of the National Geographic Society. The Society became the expedition's primary sponsor and awarded scientific grants to glaciologist Maynard Miller and one of their own, staff member Barry Bishop, to study solar radiation.

Bishop was a short, barrel-chested man who had climbed since childhood. He had dreamed of climbing Everest and working for the National Geographic Society. Now he had the opportunity to do both. Lugging heavy camera equipment with his bulky climbing gear, Bishop would take pictures for National Geographic magazine.

Ace Mountaineers

Dyhrenfurth knew he needed ace mountaineers to fill out the expedition's roster. He got one of the best in "Big Jim" Whittaker, a tall, rugged climber from Seattle, Washington. (Whittaker would later describe himself as "strong as an ox.")

It was Whittaker, together with his Sherpa companion Nawang Gombu, who led the first push for the summit, planting an American flag on the summit on May 1. The success, however, would not mark the expedition's only achievement.

After a few weeks to rest and resupply, four other climbers were ready to tackle the summit. The plan was ambitious. Climbers Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein would ascend via a new West Ridge route they had reconnoitered a few weeks previously. Meanwhile Lute Jerstad and Bishop would follow the South Col route established by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay during their 1953 climb. Both groups hoped to meet on the summit on May 22 and descend together.

A tent fire sparked by a butane fuel cooking cylinder signaled an ominous start to Bishop and Jerstad's summit push. Events went from bad to worse en route. Winds never dropped below 60 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour). Bishop described the South Col as "the most desolate, God-forsaken spot on the face of the Earth… On Everest the wind speaks with many voices. It rises, it falls, it thunders. Sometimes it is the remote night cry of a sick child. But it is always the wind."

But seven and a half grueling hours later, the pair stood atop the summit. They planted the National Geographic Society's banner next to Whittaker's fluttering American flag. Jerstad filmed the first motion pictures ever captured on the summit, while Bishop concentrated on still photography. (Bishop had scribbled the list of shots he wanted to capture on his parka in case the altitude clouded his mind.)

Treacherous Descent

With a wind chill factor of roughly minus 85° to minus 90° Fahrenheit (minus 65° to 68° Celsius), both men's hands were freezing. After 45 minutes on the summit with no sign of Unsoeld and Hornbein and their supply of oxygen dwindling, Bishop and Jerstad began their descent. Nightfall caught the pair perilously far from camp.

Continued on Next Page >>


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