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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.

In the gathering darkness, Jerstad and Bishop heard voices. Unsoeld and Hornbein had also reached the summit. (The first to do so from the West Ridge route.) But now the climbers were forced to descend an unfamiliar path, in total darkness no less. Bishop and Jerstad stopped in their tracks and spent the next few hours stamping their feet to keep warm while leading their comrades down by the call of their voices. Finally reunited, the four climbers resumed their descent. The path became too treacherous to follow in darkness. Sometime around 12:30 a.m., as the wind uncharacteristically died down, the foursome elected to bivouac on an outcrop of rock and wait for the sun to rise—a high-stakes gamble at such an extreme altitude. As they huddled together for warmth; Unsoeld warmed Hornbein's freezing feet against his bare stomach.

As day broke, the men set off again, exhausted but elated in the knowledge they had beaten the odds and survived their high-altitude bivouac without tents or sleeping bags, another Mount Everest first. They were met by fellow climber Dave Dingman who forfeited his own chance to try for the summit in order to search for his missing teammates. After administering bottled oxygen to the exhausted climbers, Dingman and a Sherpa guide escorted the four mountaineers down to base camp.

Hobbled By Frostbite

There, Unsoeld and Bishop found they were no longer able to walk on their frostbitten feet. Sherpas carried the two climbers in relays from base camp to Namche Bazar, where a helicopter flew them to a hospital in Katmandu. Military transport evacuated Bishop to New Delhi and into the care of a U.S. Navy doctor. Bishop's severe case of frostbite cost him all ten toes plus the tips of his little fingers. Unsoeld was hospitalized for several months, ultimately losing nine toes.

The expedition had a tragic coda. On March 23, just three days after base camp was established, Jake Breitenbach, a young mountaineer from Wyoming, was killed instantly when tons of ice came crashing down in the mountain's Khumbu Icefall.

The American Mount Everest Expedition accomplished many firsts. It placed the first Americans and the most climbers atop the world's tallest mountain, and it charted the first simultaneous climb from two directions. In July 1963, the team reunited at the White House as President John F. Kennedy presented them with the National Geographic Society's highest honor, the Hubbard Medal.

More Mount Everest Stories From National Geographic News:
Climber Conrad Anker on the State of Everest
Everest Attempt Is Focus of New Reality TV Show
Everest: Now Just Another Tourist Trap?
Everest Clinic Tends Ills on High
Everest Time Line: 80 Years of Triumph and Tragedy
Making Movies on the Roof of the World
Everest Snowboarder Vanishes On Second Try
Altitude a Major Challenge to Climbers
The Sherpas of Mount Everest
Everest Melting? High Signs of Climate Change
Everest Anniversary Expedition Wrap-Up
National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition Reaches Summit
Everest Anniversary Team Makes Final Summit Attempt
Jet-Stream Winds Trap Climbers on Everest
Sons of Mount Everest Pioneers to Repeat Historic Climb



Related Stories From National Geographic Magazine:
Everest: 50 Years and Counting
Sights & Sounds: The Sherpas
American Summit



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Romance on Everest: The Highest Taboo
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Life on Assignment: Himalaya's Cho Oyu (Audio)
The Last Cairn: A Climber's Tragic Saga (Excerpt)
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On Television:
National Geographic Channel: Surviving Everest
 

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