1963 Flashback: First Everest Summit by Americans

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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

Related Stories From National Geographic Adventure Magazine:
After the Storm: '96 Everest Survivors (Audio)
Romance on Everest: The Highest Taboo
The Everest Mess
Little Sister, Big Mountain: Climbing the Himalaya's Cho Oyu
Life on Assignment: Himalaya's Cho Oyu (Audio)
The Last Cairn: A Climber's Tragic Saga (Excerpt)
The Slipping Point: Disaster on Mount Hood
8,000-Meter Man: Ed Viesturs
Q&A: Eric Simonson, Everest Sleuth
Q&A With the Man Who Found Mallory

On Television:
National Geographic Channel: Surviving Everest

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