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Home » Features » What’s Past is Prologue: Tom Hornbein’s Winding Road to Chomolungma

What’s Past is Prologue: Tom Hornbein’s Winding Road to Chomolungma

[To honor the life of Tom Hornbein, who died on May 6, 2023, at his home in Estes Park, Colorado, at age 92, we are sharing this feature story from Alpinist 73 (2021) by mountaineering historian Maurice Isserman. Hornbein was one of America’s greatest climbers, best known for completing the first ascent of Mt. Everest’s West Ridge with Willi Unsoeld in 1963. He also earned distinction in his long career as an anesthesiologist and advanced research on the effects of altitude on the human body. The American Alpine Club awarded him the AAC President’s Gold Medal twice and bestowed him with an honorary membership and special recognition for service to the club. In this story, Isserman interviews Hornbein about the youthful adventures that led him to the world’s highest peak and the meanings that he still sought in the mountains at age 90.–Ed.]

Tom Hornbein in 2011. [Photo] Claudia Camila Lopez

Tom Hornbein in 2011. [Photo] Claudia Camila Lopez

On May 22, 1963, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld woke in their tent around 4 a.m., perched at 27,200 feet above sea level. They still had another 1,800 or so vertical feet to climb before they reached the summit and completed the first ascent of the West Ridge of Mt. Everest (or Chomolungma, as Tibetans call the world’s highest peak). It took a little more than two hours for them to prepare and consume a bouillon breakfast, assemble their gear, and hitch up their oxygen tanks. The final task before departure, Tom recalled in his 1965 book, Everest: The West Ridge, was roping up to Willi:

I snugged a bowline about my waist, feeling satisfaction at the ease with which the knot fell together beneath heavily mittened hands…. This knot tied me to the past, to experiences known, to difficulties faced and overcome. To tie it here on this lonely morning on Everest brought my venture into context with the known….

Later that day they climbed out of the couloir that would subsequently bear Tom’s name.

Still more than 1,000 feet below the summit, they realized there was no turning back. The rock below was too fragile. The snow had grown too soft. With no secure cracks for rappel anchors, they were committed to going up and over. But the feeling of continuity Tom experienced while tying the bowline hours before stayed with him. The knot reminded him of performing the same climbing ritual when he was still a college student more than a decade earlier, he recounted, “with cold hands on a winter night while I prepared to tackle my first steep ice on Longs Peak.”

While Tom and Willi clambered over bands of rotten shale and limestone, hours passed on a mountain more than twice the height of Longs. Tom felt anxious that they were getting behind schedule. Not only did they have to reach the top before sunset, they also had to climb down the Southeast Ridge on the Nepalese side of the mountain to the safe haven of tents erected just above the South Col. If it got too dark to proceed, they might have to spend the night outdoors, with only the clothes they wore to keep them from freezing to death.

Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in 1963 during the first ascent of the West Ridge of Chomolungma (Everest, 8849m). [Photo] Barry Bishop / National Geographic Society

Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in 1963 during the first ascent of the West Ridge of Chomolungma (Everest, 8849m). [Photo] Barry Bishop / National Geographic Society

As they moved higher, however, Tom’s concerns subsided, “lost in a feeling of calm, of pleasure at the joy of climbing,” he remembered. The journey from Longs Peak to Mt. Everest spanned a great geographic distance, but it was a shorter jump than he’d expected in terms of experience and feelings. Near the top, while they picked their way up small edges and nubs of rock, Tom felt as if they were back in Colorado again, “almost like a day in the Rockies,” he wrote. At 6:15 p.m., a dozen hours after setting out, Tom and Willi climbed the last narrow crest of white to the summit. Gusts blew so loud they could hardly hear each other speak. Yet Tom didn’t feel isolated. He imagined an invisible rope stretching between them and all their companions, now far below, who had helped them reach this remote place.

The setting was spectacular beyond imagination. “The last brilliance of the day cast the shadow of our summit on the cloud plain a hundred miles to the east,” Tom recalled. The valleys were filling with “the indistinct purple haze of evening,” a reminder that they couldn’t linger long to enjoy the view. Twenty minutes later, they began their descent down the other side. It was the first time that climbers had attempted a traverse of the mountain. Night engulfed them. Their flashlight faded to a dying orange beam. The stars seemed to leave no reflection across the frozen slopes. Only dim shadows of footprints indicated an uncertain path to safety.

Through the gloom, they became aware of voices below them: their teammates Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad, who’d reached the summit by the Southeast Ridge earlier that day and who now huddled like “shivering lumps” of exhaustion in the snow. Joining forces, the men tended to each other as best they could. Tom offered Lute and Barry the two Dexedrine pills he’d brought for emergencies. Lute gave up his oxygen bottle to help Barry, who was in the worst shape. Together, they continued fumbling for the route through the inky darkness. A maze of snow gullies branched in the rocks ahead. Heat lightning flickered on the horizon, too far away to guide them.

At 28,000 feet, they realized they had no alternative except to wait for daybreak in an open bivouac. Willi warmed Tom’s chilly feet against his stomach (neither of them realizing, then, that Willi’s feet, already without sensation, were in much greater danger). During the long but fortunately windless night–“a dreamlike eternity,” Tom later called it–the four men hunkered near each other while feeling profoundly alone, perched on a ridge that rose above the rest of the world and vanished into the dark. They survived their ordeal, though Willi and Barry would lose their toes to frostbite, and the memory would be fixed forever in Tom’s mind: a void in which “death had no meaning, nor, for that matter, did life,” and all that remained was a longing for the return of light.

Tom’s subsequent account of the climb is widely regarded as one of the classics of mountaineering literature. Generations of readers, many of them born long after the events described, have been entranced by the drama of the story, the lucidity of the author’s voice, and the evident modesty and decency of the protagonist. Everest: The West Ridge is a book about great deeds that avoids grandstanding. In fact, it is precisely the non- or perhaps even anti-triumphalist tone of the book that distinguishes it from many other accounts of legendary expeditions. The most famous moment in Tom’s life, when he stood on that summit in the gathering dusk, was not, to his way of thinking, the singularly defining one. “The peculiar thing about Mt. Everest,” Willi liked to say afterward, and Tom agreed, “is that once you’ve climbed it, you’re never allowed to forget it. It hangs around your neck like a great leaden albatross.” The West Ridge was neither the beginning nor the end of the story of Tom’s journey.

During the month-long trek to Everest Base Camp, after the sun sank over the horizon, still far from the mountain that was their destination, he’d already grappled with doubts. What were he and his teammates seeking? Was it worth the effort and the risk? Would he be a different person for having climbed, or attempted to climb, the world’s highest mountain? Looking ahead, he felt “as if my whole life lay behind me. Once on the mountain I knew (or trusted) that this would give way to total absorption with the task at hand. But at times I wondered if I had not come a long way only to find that what I really sought was something I had left behind.”

Hornbein and Unsoeld at Base Camp in 1963, after the first ascent of the West Ridge. [Photo] Jim Whittaker

Hornbein and Unsoeld at Base Camp in 1963, after the first ascent of the West Ridge. [Photo] Jim Whittaker

NEARLY SIX DECADES LATER, Tom agreed to share some thoughts about his time on Everest with the students enrolled in my seminar on Himalayan mountaineering history, a class I teach every spring semester at Hamilton College in New York. On March 12, 2020, he joined us via Skype from his home in Colorado. In preparation, I’d assigned Everest: The West Ridge to my students, and they were eager to meet its author, if only virtually. I remember we talked a lot that afternoon about the conflict between those who wanted to climb the mountain via the Southeast Ridge, by then the “standard” route to the summit, and those–like Tom and Willi–who favored the still-unclimbed West Ridge. And we devoted about as much time to the question of risk, an inevitable topic in any conversation about high-altitude mountaineering.

Willi and Barry’s toes weren’t the only casualties on the 1963 expedition. When a serac collapsed during the initial foray into the Khumbu Icefall, their teammate Jake Breitenbach had lost his life. Just twenty-seven when he died, Jake wasn’t much older in 1963 than my students were in 2020. Some of my students were climbers themselves (although none with Himalayan experience). Others were armchair mountaineers. They all wanted to know if Tom felt the climb was worth it, and if so, why? I can’t remember Tom’s exact words that day, but they echoed a passage I’d long before underlined in my copy of The West Ridge:

Existence on a mountain is simple. Seldom in life does it come any simpler: survival, plus the striving toward a summit. The goal is solidly, three-dimensionally there–you can see it, touch it, stand upon it–the way to reach it well defined, the energy of all directed toward its achievement. It is this simplicity that strips the veneer off civilization and makes that which is meaningful easier to come by–the pleasure of deep companionship, moments of uninhibited humor, the tasting of hardship, sorrow, beauty, joy. But it is this very simplicity that may prevent finding answers to the questions I had asked as we approached the mountain.

Unexpectedly, our Skype session with Tom proved the coda to that academic year. The very next day, all my students were sent packing, while Hamilton College and much of the rest of the country shut down in the face of the global pandemic. Questions about risk, fear, mortality and survival had suddenly become a lot more relevant to all of us, young and old, in our everyday lives. But with the world in upheaval and Tom about to turn ninety, I felt all the more urgency in continuing our conversation.

During the next few months, Tom and I talked online for hours. Although neither of us find Zoom a particularly congenial medium, he remained an engaging storyteller, animated and quick, with a sly sense of humor. His verbal tics reminded me of his Midwestern, mid-twentieth century upbringing. “Neat,” is one of his most frequent superlatives. “Dorking around,” or “just dorking around,” means doing something casually or for fun. “Whoop-de-do” signifies something overblown. The homely idioms, properly understood, also reflect Tom’s core values as a climber: teaming up with a small group of friends who are skilled enough to take on a serious challenge, while making it look as if they’re just dorking around and remaining unencumbered with the flashy and cumbersome burdens of official, commercial or publicity-minded whoop-de-do–this is definitely the neat way to go.

Hornbein rappelling on the lower East Face of Longs Peak (Neniisoteyou'u, 14,259'), Rocky Mountain National Park, ca. 1950. [Photo] Hornbein collection

Hornbein rappelling on the lower East Face of Longs Peak (Neniisoteyou’u, 14,259′), Rocky Mountain National Park, ca. 1950. [Photo] Hornbein collection

I was just fourteen years old in September 1965 when I encountered Tom on a television screen in my parents’ Connecticut home. The hour-long National Geographic documentary, Americans on Everest, narrated by Orson Welles, displayed scenes of the tortuous path through the Khumbu Icefall, the vast white expanse of Lhotse Face, the bleak windswept camp atop the South Col, and the first-ever moving pictures shot from the top of the world. My family had just acquired our first color television set, and the bright red down parka worn by Jim Whittaker on the summit left an indelible afterimage in my memory. Back then, the tallest mountains I’d seen in real life were the low-lying and heavily forested Adirondacks of New York. The full scale and complexity of Everest eluded my teenaged imagination, and I didn’t yet grasp what set Tom and Willi’s West Ridge climb in a separate category from their teammates’ Southeast Ridge ascents (as fine an achievement as those also were). But the documentary played powerfully to a growing adolescent hunger for adventure and for what Henry David Thoreau (whom I encountered in the pages of Walden around the same time) called living “deliberately.” A life led with deliberation, I came to think, required commitment–and you couldn’t get much more committed than Tom and Willi were that day on the West Ridge when they realized it was “up and over,” and no going back.

Soon afterward, I read James Ramsey Ullman’s expedition account, also titled Americans on Everest, the beginning of a lifelong addiction to mountaineering tales. And when I reached Oregon as a college student in the late 1960s and began climbing on my own, I was finally able to appreciate more of Tom and Willi’s achievement–not just the difficulties of their route, but the dedication of their vision. Alpinism, I learned, was not just a physical activity, and not just about getting from the base of a mountain to its summit. It was an art that had its own set of aesthetics and meanings. As Tom wrote in The West Ridge, the decision about which goal to focus on–a first ascent of the West Ridge, despite the heightened dangers and uncertainties of unknown terrain, or a more likely success by the standard route–only “seemed to be based on climbing interests and skills: rock scramblers on the West Ridge, ice climbers on the Col [Southeast Ridge] route. Underneath lurked far more important intangibles; similarities or fine differences in philosophies, moral values, social interests.”

When I got around to reading The West Ridge in my early twenties, I decided (in a fit of youthful enthusiasm, or perhaps more accurately, self-deluding bravado), that I was a West Ridger at heart: bold, independent, willing to take long chances in pursuit of idealistic goals. Tom and Willi became my climbing heroes–all the more so because they were both living in Washington State by then, and I associated them with my newfound home near the glaciers and rocky towers of the Cascades. In time, I would make it to the summit of Kala Pathar, a “trekker’s peak” overlooking Everest Base Camp, where I could gaze admiringly at the immensity of the West Ridge towering above. But that’s as close as I got. Those who can, do. Those who can’t–as in my case–could do worse than train as a historian, a profession that sometimes provides the opportunity to meet the heroes of younger days.

Thus, I found myself in the summer of 2002 knocking on the front door of Tom Hornbein’s home on the shores of Lake Sammamish. I’d flown out from New York to Seattle to interview him for a history of Himalayan mountaineering, Fallen Giants, which I was co-authoring with my colleague Stewart Weaver. There was something different about my experience with Tom than my meetings with other climbers of the 1963 expedition (although all of them, in their own ways, were helpful and gracious). First of all, Tom suggested we go for a hike before sitting down to tape an interview (time constraints, alas, prevented that excursion). Second, he seemed genuinely interested in what drew me to the topic of mountaineering, what peaks I had climbed, and what I planned to write about once I finished with my current project. (I responded hesitantly, “Uh, maybe more mountaineering?” Which turned out to be the case.) Since then, Tom has been supportive in ways both large and small for my various mountain history projects. Somewhere along the line, he and I became good friends. Indeed, one of the most distinct characteristics of Tom’s life history has been a gift for enduring friendships–and not just with his own generation, but with older and younger people he has encountered along the way.

Hornbein as a boy. [Photo] Hornbein collection

Hornbein as a boy. [Photo] Hornbein collection

“MY PARENTS USED TO CALL ME ‘TOM MULE,'” Tom told me in our very first Zoom session. “I was slightly stubborn. Am still, although I package it more nicely now.” As an adult, at least in the decades of our acquaintance, Tom has projected a low-key affability, which seems quite genuine. But something else, certainly in younger days, has lain beneath the surface. It’s worth considering the relation (although not necessarily contradiction) between his affability and his ambition. Growing up, he was a small, skinny kid, not particularly athletic, at least not in the sense of participating in organized competitive sports. He remained short and slight into adulthood. It’s become a cliche over the years for interviewers to describe him as “elfin.” In The Vast Unknown, mountaineering historian Broughton Coburn offers a variation, writing that from a distance, Tom “might be mistaken for a mountain gnome.” I get that. But “mulish,” which is to say driven in a stubborn, down-to-earth kind of way, seems to me closer to the mark than any comparison to fanciful creatures.

Born on November 6, 1930, in St. Louis, Missouri, to parents Rosalie (Bernstein) Hornbein and Leonard Hornbein, Tom was a middle child, sandwiched between two sisters: Roberta (nicknamed “Pudge”) and Frances (“Cissie”). The Hornbein family home in a suburb called University City came with a backyard and lots of trees that Tom, from an early age, loved to climb. Tom’s father was the advertising director for a well-known St. Louis department store called Famous-Barr. His mother was a homemaker. The years of his childhood were a tumultuous time in global history, with the Great Depression followed by the Second World War. But Tom’s own life, then, was uneventful, peaceful and relatively privileged, centered on the circle of family, friends, school and the local reform synagogue. His future seemed set on a conventional path, even if he couldn’t yet envision where that path might ultimately lead.

Then in the summer of 1944, when he was thirteen, Tom’s parents put him on a train to Denver, en route to a five-week stay at a summer camp called Boys’ Trail’s End Ranch near Estes Park. He’d never been to Colorado, where his father was born, and he’d never seen a mountain before. Tom slept through the night on a fold-down bunk in a sleeping car. When he awoke the next morning, he eagerly looked out the window for his first glimpse of the Rockies. At first, he mistook a distant band of clouds for snow-capped mountains. Finally, the Front Range loomed into full and stunning view above the dry, brown plains. Something profound was about to befall him. “Every now and then,” he mused in our first interview, “I’ve thought, ‘Oh, suppose they had sent me to a camp on Lake Michigan?'”

Campers at Boys' Trail's End Ranch, near Estes Park, Colorado, in 1946 or 1947. Hornbein is at the left end of the front row. [Photo] Hornbein collection

Campers at Boys’ Trail’s End Ranch, near Estes Park, Colorado, in 1946 or 1947. Hornbein is at the left end of the front row. [Photo] Hornbein collection

For the first month, Tom was homesick, missing his family and his dog. Despite the beauty and novelty of the surrounding mountains, he avoided the more adventurous hiking and backpacking activities, preferring horseback riding and arts and crafts. Toward the end of his stay, Tom agreed somewhat reluctantly to go on a trip to Ypsilon Lake, 10,632 feet above sea level in the Mummy Range. He huffed and puffed his way for four miles from the trailhead up the 2,500 feet of elevation gain. After arriving at his destination, and putting down his pack, he decided it was worth the effort. He was enchanted by his surroundings. “It was a lovely lake, surrounded by spruce and alpine fir,” he recalled. And then, invoking his favorite superlative, “I found it really kind of neat to be up in those really high mountains.”

More than three quarters of a century later, Tom considers this discovery of mountains “the number one pivotal event in my life. Everything that followed, including my career in medicine, came from that.” For the first time, he’d found “a spiritual home.” Tom returned to Boys’ Trail’s End Ranch every summer for the next seven years as a camper, then a junior counselor, and finally as a hiking and backpacking counselor. His second summer made a confirmed climber out of him. In the opening pages of The West Ridge, he fondly recalls reaching his first mountaintop, an 11,262-foot peak in the Mummy Range:

It was a long gentle walk, rising through a grove of quivering aspen blanketing the crest of an old moraine. I saw the wind-flattened trees at timberline and finally climbed breathlessly over gentle tundra to the summit of Signal Mountain and tasted the effort of the climb, the soaring freedom waiting at the top. It was a beginning.

Boys’ Trail’s End offered no formal rock-climbing instruction. But one day, on a whim, Tom borrowed a length of manila rope used for horse-packing, and he took off with some other campers for the local cliffs, unsupervised by the counselors. The boys knew that real climbers used ropes, but they weren’t exactly clear on how. “One of us would climb up and hold on to the end of the rope,” Tom recalled, “and then the ones who followed could use it as a handline.” On another occasion, Tom was scrambling up a pointy rock formation he later dubbed Lone Eagle Pinnacle (“pretty vertical and even overhanging”) when his partner decided discretion was the better part of valor and turned back. “I was past the point of no return,” Tom recounted. “I had to go on, and then had this adrenaline surge and scrambled up the last bit and grasped an ‘Oh thank God’ handhold.” It was the first occasion when he confronted a serious physical risk head on, and the lesson he drew from it was that he was “smart enough to be scared.”

Like many alpine converts, Tom grew addicted to the rich literature of mountaineering. In a St. Louis library, he came across a copy of James Ramsey Ullman’s High Conquest: The Story of Mountaineering, the first attempt by an American author at a comprehensive history of the subject. For Tom, the volume “became sort of a bible, full of magical stories.” He was mesmerized by Ullman’s recounting of the British quest for Everest’s summit in the 1920s and 1930s. The mountaineers on those early expeditions became Tom’s heroes. He didn’t imagine them having any doubts. No one had stood atop the mountain yet. It was still a matter of if and how someone could even reach that great an altitude and survive. Tom opened adventure writer Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels and stared at a grainy, indistinct photo of Everest, a pale tower against a darkened sky. He imagined passing through the picture frame and making his own way to the icy summit crest. In an essay for a high school English class, entitled “Ambition,” the teenager wrote:

I greatly long to someday climb in the Himalayas. I dream of the day when I shall first gaze upon such peaks as Everest, the mysterious Amne Machen, K-2, Kangchenjunga, Nanga Parbat, which has taken so many lives, Nanda Devi, the not quite so high but equally entrancing Mustagh Tower.

While there were doubtless other teenagers in St. Louis in those years whose fantasies included reaching the summit of the world’s highest peak, it seems unlikely that there were all that many who dreamed of (or had even heard of) the “equally entrancing” Muztagh Tower in the Karakoram. Tom had a surprisingly well-informed imagination.

Hornbein on Longs Peak (Neniisoteyou'u), wearing army surplus pants and a turtleneck sweater knitted by his mother. [Photo] Bob Riley / Hornbein collection

Hornbein on Longs Peak (Neniisoteyou’u), wearing army surplus pants and a turtleneck sweater knitted by his mother. “Likely,” Hornbein recalls, this was a “winter ascent on a balmy day around January 1949.” [Photo] Bob Riley / Hornbein collection

TOM’S FOURTH SUMMER in Colorado in 1947 brought a new gift, also destined to be life-changing, the friendship he formed with fellow junior counselor Nick Clinch (born just three days after Tom in 1930). Nick was from Dallas, his father a US Air Force officer. Nick, who suffered from asthma and poor vision was, as Tom recalled, “tall, gangly, physically inept, not an athlete, but determined, a dreamer. More than anyone else I knew, he was proof of what quiet and committed can do.” Their climbing partnership would endure for decades. Tom’s first choice for college was the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU Boulder), where he arrived in the autumn of 1948 intending to major in geology. What he really majored in over the next four years was climbing. According to Tom, the local climbing community was “teeny” in those days–just a handful of CU faculty and students, and some of the 10th Mountain veterans who settled in the area after the war. During his first semester, Tom encountered “a lanky lad” and fellow geology major called Bill Braddock. Bill had read about routes on the Flatirons in Trail and Timberline, the magazine of the Colorado Mountain Club, and he invited Tom to attempt a climb with him there. Rising to the west of downtown Boulder, these 1,000-plus-foot sandstone slabs were named for their resemblance to the old-fashioned clothes irons that early settlers brought with them. On that first outing, Tom and Bill started up the 1911 Gully on the Third Flatiron with only a half-inch manila rope. “Maybe sixty feet long,” Tom recalled. “We had the route description in one hand and the rope in the other. Every time we got to a hard spot in this gully, one of us would climb up and drop the rope down, so the other would have a handhold if he needed it. We weren’t tied into it.”

In American Rock, mountain writer Don Mellor writes, “The Flatirons are so deeply woven into the mystique of Boulder that even the best and most jaded climbers are still drawn to what some consider the best beginner climbing in the country.” Nevertheless, plenty of climbers have died there over the years, including some with appropriate equipment, training and experience. In 1946 there were three separate fatalities on the Third Flatiron alone. Fortunately, Tom and Bill proved quick and adept at self-teaching. They experimented with pitons and carabiners, at first to place protection, and then to use as direct aid. They bought a longer manila rope of 120 feet and learned to wrap it around their waists and tie a bowline on a coil. Of course, this method was still pretty risky–that rope probably wouldn’t have held them in a long fall–but at least they’d begun to climb in accordance with the safety standards of the era.

It wasn’t easy to come by climbing equipment in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of it was literally harvested in the wild: “We went down to Camp Carson, where there were pitons that the army troops had pounded into the cliffs and trees for practice,” Tom told me. “We would go in there with a crowbar, and come back with several hundred pitons, these little, short things with rings in them.” Gerry Cunningham, a 10th Mountain vet, lived in a cabin in Ward, Colorado, in the hills northwest of Boulder. He manufactured packs and parkas and other gear in an adjacent shed, the humble origins of the Gerry outdoor empire. LeRoy (“Roy”) Holubar, a math professor at CU, and his wife, Alice, ran a little mountaineering store from a closet in their house, offering both army surplus and European gear. An accomplished seamstress, Alice also sewed sleeping bags and down jackets for sale. The Holubars “were sort of like in loco parentis” to the younger climbers, according to Tom. On Saturdays, they held square dances in their basement. Tom, Bill and a new climbing partner, Bob Riley, formed a musical group. Wearing “little alpine hats,” they performed with guitars and harmonicas at hiking club gatherings in the student union building, sometimes rappelling down a balcony as the climax of the act.

Gradually, equipment got better. Hardened chrome-moly pitons replaced the soft iron ones. Hemp and manila ropes gave way to sturdier nylon, more likely to catch a fall without breaking. Lightweight aluminum carabiners relieved climbers of carrying the burden of heavier steel. And so on. As their equipment improved, so did Tom and his friends’ knowledge of technique. And their ambitions grew apace. Colorado wasn’t yet the center of climbing innovation it would later become. That distinction belonged to California. Beginning in 1947, with John Salathe and Ax Nelson’s five-day first ascent of Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite Valley, the valley entered its golden era (1947-1971) of what, before the war, would have seemed impossibly daring “Big Wall” climbs. Still, American climbing culture remained very regional and parochial for a while longer. Tom told me that he and his friends knew about the Lost Arrow Spire climb, “but it was like it was another continent.” There was nothing yet resembling a national mountaineering community, with uniform standards, gear or methods. “We were very insular in our climbing,” he said. “We spent a lot of afternoons going up to the Flatirons, cutting labs. I don’t know how many times we’d go up there and dork around, pound pitons, do pendulum traverses. We were inventing as we went along.”

Atop the Matron, a rock pinnacle near Boulder, ca. 1950. From left to right: Bob Riley, Tom Hornbein, Dick Sherman. [Photo] Hornbein collection

Atop the Matron, a rock pinnacle near Boulder, ca. 1950. From left to right: Bob Riley, Tom Hornbein, Dick Sherman. [Photo] Hornbein collection

During those early years, Tom and his buddies established several new climbs in the Flatirons, including a 200-foot route on the steep northwest face of the Third Flatiron, which they named “the Northwest Passage.” It was, as writers Bob Godfrey and Dudley Chelton note in Climb!: Rock Climbing in Colorado, the first climb in the state “to tackle a major overhang using artificial aids.” The three young friends hammered in pitons, drilled a hole for an expansion bolt (which ultimately failed to hold), and at one point, and on the spot, invented their own rope stirrups for aid climbing (without realizing that climbers in the eastern European Alps had been using multi-runged stirrups since the early twentieth century). Climbing had become a way for Tom to express himself creatively. Already he found he liked the uncertainty of going where no one had gone before. The Northwest Passage, he joked, was “just like the West Ridge of Everest,” except the latter took “a lot more money and a lot more time.”

“Longs [Peak], of course, was the big attraction,” Tom recalled. The Colorado Rockies may lack big glaciers, but a wintry ascent on the East Face of Longs was good preparation for climbs to come at higher altitudes. He remembers climbing the ice-choked Alexander’s Chimney in the middle of the night, seeing the lights of Denver glitter white, pink and orange to the south. He also remembers the crampons of the era, all but useless on steep patches because they lacked frontpoints. Longs offered abundant opportunities for first ascents in those days. South of the Notch on Longs’ east side juts a little detached spire called Zumie’s Thumb, named after a local guide from the 1930s. It was still unclimbed in 1951 when Tom, Dex Brinker and Harry Waldrop rappelled from the saddle between Longs and Meeker into the gap behind Zumie’s and set off for the summit. When they reached an impasse, Waldrop stood on a tiny ledge while Tom, the smallest of the three, clambered on top of his head and then took a further step onto his outstretched hand. Perched there, Tom finally found the hold that allowed him to pull himself up and over.

Tom made other first ascents in his college years, too numerous to enumerate here. But one is particularly worth mentioning, since it earned him the first of the two mountain features that bear his name. Year after year since 1950, Tom returned to the East Face of Longs to try a long steep and overhanging cleft, known today as the “Hornbein Crack” that links the celebrated features of Broadway Ledge and Chasm View. The challenge of surmounting the crack– which he regards today as an unhealthy obsession–appealed to Tom’s signature characteristics as a climber: a combination of commitment and problem-solving, of intellectual and physical activity. On this route, the problem to be solved lay in the last sixty or so feet, which at that time had to be climbed unprotected. For years he could never quite get past that final stretch, but mulishly, he kept coming back, through college, and then afterward, drawn to the unsolved puzzle.

AROUND THE SAME TIME, Tom was also developing a keen interest in other mountain-related pursuits that would become a central part of his climbing and professional life. A series of fatalities during the winter of 1946-1947 led to the formation of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, the first such all-volunteer group in Colorado. Tom joined up and trained with other members in search organization, high-angle evacuations and first aid. For technical instruction, they relied on an illustrated textbook by German climber Wastl Mariner, later translated into English as Mountain Rescue Techniques, as their main source. The Boulder climbers couldn’t read the words of the German edition, but they studied the drawings before heading out to practice. On the first such occasion, they were lowering a brave volunteer in a litter down the face of the Third Flatiron when someone spotted them, decided there had been a real accident, and called the sheriff. Thereafter, they were careful to notify his office before heading out to train.

When the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group formally incorporated as a nonprofit in September 1951, Tom, not yet twenty-one years old, signed on as one of four original directors. Although fortunately, apart from finding a few lost hikers, the group wasn’t called on for any serious missions during his Boulder years, Tom’s experiences with practicing first aid pushed him to consider a career in medicine rather than geology. By the end of his junior year, 1950-1951, he’d pieced together a hybrid major in geology, mineralogy and chemistry, which somehow passed muster as pre-med preparation. “Basically, what climbing gave me was self-awareness of who I was and what I wanted to do,” Tom told me.

He knew that medical school represented an academic and professional commitment far more grueling than his undergraduate courses at CU. No more cutting labs for an afternoon dorking around on the Flatirons. Yet medicine proved to be as great a passion in his life as the alpinism for which he is much better known. Like most of his peers, Tom never made a living as a climber. His climbing life was an avocation, not a vocation. And his medical and scientific career became as central to his identity as his endeavors in the mountains. Some medical colleagues in later years didn’t even know that he’d climbed Everest until long after they had first begun to work together.

In the autumn of 1952, Tom returned to St. Louis to enroll in the Washington University School of Medicine. By then, there was already a venerable tradition of mountain-minded scientists and physicians interested in high-altitude physiology. During the third ascent of Mont Blanc in 1787, Horace Benedict de Saussure, a geologist and physicist from Geneva, measured his own pulse and respiration at various elevations and noted the thinness of oxygen on the summit. In 1920 the Scottish-born chemist Alexander Kellas experimented with bottled oxygen at altitude on 7756-meter Kamet, the second highest mountain in the Indian Garhwal Himalaya. As a member of the first British Everest expedition in 1921, Kellas brought a primitive oxygen apparatus with him, but he died before reaching the mountain, and his equipment was abandoned. Both the 1922 and 1924 British Everest expeditions employed oxygen sets. George Mallory, at first an oxygen skeptic, became a firm believer by the time he and Sandy Irvine disappeared on their 1924 summit bid. Dr. Charles S. Houston, leader of the 1938 American K2 expedition (which didn’t employ bottled oxygen), became a Navy physician in the Second World War. Shortly after the fighting ended, he persuaded the Navy to fund an experiment to measure the impact of altitude and acclimatization on the human body. Four volunteers performed tasks in a decompression chamber as air pressure was reduced over the course of a month to simulate climbing the world’s highest peak–hence the name of the experiment, Operation Everest. And just a few years later, in 1953, British physiologist Griffith Pugh carefully monitored the effects of altitude and cold on participants in the expedition that placed Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the actual summit of Everest.

Still, for all these efforts and others, high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) weren’t yet fully understood (or named) mountain ailments. It’s revealing that on Charlie Houston’s return to K2 in 1953, once more on an expedition that didn’t use bottled oxygen, the climbers decided to remain at their high camp at 25,500 feet, instead of retreating to lower altitudes, when the weather turned bad for days on end. “We thought that by staying up,” team member Dee Molenaar explained some years later, “we were saving our acclimatization.” The reality, he later realized, was the climbers were “actually getting weaker and weaker and not thinking as clearly as we should.”

For Tom, and other climbers of his generation, the 1953 K2 expedition became a model of heroic brotherhood. While Bob Bates, George Bell, Bob Craig, Dee Molenaar, Charles Houston, Tony Streather and Pete Schoening tried to evacuate an incapacitated teammate, Art Gilkey, from their high camp, George slipped and entangled the ropes of six of the others as he slid helplessly toward a precipice. Only the quick thinking and strong belay of Pete, the last man standing, saved them all from certain death. Although Gilkey died later in the descent, Nick Clinch declared that the rescue attempt was “the finest moment in the history of American mountaineering.”

During his “spare time” in medical school, Tom read studies about human adaptation to altitude. He chanced upon an article by a Peruvian researcher, Hugo Chiodi. As Tom recalled, Chiodi had recorded the response of three groups to high elevations: healthy permanent high-altitude inhabitants; well-acclimatized lowlanders; and high-altitude inhabitants with extremely high red blood cell amounts, [a condition known as] polycythemia. In his final year in medical school, Tom devised a research project to test the link between hematocrit (the percentage of red cells of the total volume of a blood sample) and breathing. Tom, his only research subject, underwent transfusions of five bags of blood to raise his hematocrit from 45 percent to 60. Performing exercise at simulated higher altitudes, he found that the higher the hematocrit, the lower the ventilation for the same equivalent altitude and workload. His findings were published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the first of many articles, and the beginning of a career-long interest in the physiology of breathing and acclimatization.

The Fifties were also the Baby Boom era, early marriages were the norm, and Tom became a husband himself in 1952. Within eight years, his family would grow to four daughters and a son. During his medical school summers, Tom, his wife Gene and their young children returned to Colorado, where he worked as a seasonal ranger naturalist in Rocky Mountain National Park. By then, Tom’s fantasies about the world’s highest peak were fading, as he later wrote, “buried beneath … a raft of real responsibilities, so full of all the challenge and pleasure a man should ask for, that Everest no longer seemed so important.” Moreover, after 1953, the summit of the world’s highest peak was no longer a wholly mysterious place. “So men could climb it,” Tom mused. “Did it make man greater or the mountain less? Whatever the answer, the unknown was no longer unknown; a bit more of the dream died.”

CLOSER TO HOME, Tom still had his own small Everests. In the summer of 1953, he made two more attempts on the route that would become known as the “Hornbein Crack.” The first one ended with a scary fall by his partner, Cary Huston, which fortunately didn’t result in injury. A week later, they set off again at 6 a.m. Within three hours, they were at the base of the crux pitch. “I never felt so committed,” Tom recalled:

We put an angle piton in down on the ledge, and then I took off like a scared rabbit, which I distinctly was. By the time I reached the chockstone ten feet below the top, I was scrambling with no pretense of technique at all, completely out of breath from either the effort or the fear or both. I stuffed myself into the crack and panted for about five minutes before climbing the last section to the top…. [This] was the only thing I had ever climbed that I would never care to repeat.

The passage of time hasn’t changed his opinion: “That was the scariest climbing pitch I ever did.” For their part, Bob Godfrey and Dudley Chelton concluded in Climb! that “Hornbein’s lead was certainly the hardest free-climbing pitch in the Colorado high mountains at the time.”

In 1954, his third summer as a ranger, Tom was dispatched to Grand Teton National Park to consult about rescue techniques with the chief climbing ranger, Dick Emerson, who would become one of Tom’s closest friends and climbing companions in the Himalaya. While in Wyoming, Tom encountered another climber destined to play a major role in his future. On his way to a bivy with a partner before climbing the slim tower of Red Sentinel, Tom paused by the brook tumbling from the Lower Saddle. Broughton Coburn described what happened next in The Vast Unknown:

A bearded man wearing baggy shorts with oversized pockets came bounding down the trail above. The man’s Tyrolean hat bobbed up and down, and his army rucksack swung from side to side on his back. Fifty feet away he stopped.

“Hoo–Tom Boy,” he shouted amiably. “How are you?”

Tom had no idea who the exuberant stranger was, or how he knew his name. It turned out he was Willi Unsoeld, and he’d already met Tom’s climbing partner farther up the trail. Willi, a few years older and a few inches taller than Tom, had worked for seven seasons in the 1950s as a mountain guide in the Tetons. He was a bit of a showman who entertained his climbing clients with his yodeling, patter and harmonica-playing. He also had a fierce, competitive streak. Tom was comparatively low-key. Despite their differing personalities, this encounter was the seed that in due course grew into another climbing partnership and long-term friendship.

Hornbein and Unsoeld (with the hat) after the descent from Masherbrum (7821m) in Pakistan, in 1960. [Photo] Hornbein collection

Hornbein and Unsoeld (with the hat) after the descent from Masherbrum (7821m) in Pakistan, in 1960. [Photo] Hornbein collection

On graduating from medical school in 1956, Tom spent the next year interning at King County Hospital in Seattle. In free moments, he climbed, sometimes with Willi, who was then getting his PhD in philosophy at the University of Washington. The Cascades represented “a whole new mountain world” to Tom, “glaciers and stuff!” He also met Fred Beckey, who was into his third decade of racking up an astounding list of first ascents across North America. Tom recognized in Beckey a quality not often emphasized in accounts of the legendary anti-hero. “When he got on a climb,” Tom recalled, “he was meticulous and appropriately anxious at appropriate times, which is probably why he lived to climb to an old age.” In the summer of 1957, Beckey assembled a team that included Tom, John Rupley, Herb Staley and Wes Grande, with the goal of making the first ascent of 12,240-foot Mt. Huntington in Alaska, a formidable fang of rock and ice eight miles south of Denali.

The famous bush pilot Don Sheldon ferried the climbers and their gear from Talkeetna to the upper Ruth Glacier on several flights between July 6 and July 8. According to Tom, although Huntington was a little more than half the height of Denali, it was a “way harder” objective, with no obvious route to the summit. On July 9, they began to move up the mountain’s narrow northwest ridge. After a day of exploring the possibilities, as Beckey noted tersely in his diary, “We decided to forget the climb in view of time, equipment, weather, difficulties.”

Tom offered further detail in our conversation:

We were equipped to climb Denali, not Huntington. We had what were called back in those days “Mickey Mouse” boots, which were big army-surplus galoshes, very warm and bulky, but not designed for serious climbing. This was high summer. The snow was utterly unconsolidated and awful. I remember there were these little vertical walls of snow that you could punch your arm into right up to your armpit, it was so soft and granular. And finding ways to protect it were impossible really, so we wimped out.

John Rupley, descending from a 1957 attempt on the northwest ridge of Mt. Huntington (12,240'), Alaska, with Hornbein and others. [Photo] Hornbein collection

John Rupley, descending from a 1957 attempt on the northwest ridge of Mt. Huntington (12,240′), Alaska, with Hornbein and others. [Photo] Hornbein collection

“Wimped out,” in this case, meant making a prudent choice in unfavorable conditions. (Huntington remained unclimbed until 1964, when a French team led by Lionel Terray completed the same route to the summit. In his American Alpine Journal report, Terray described the ridge as “hung with gigantic cornices … chiseled into delicate lacework … much longer than any I had even imagined.”)

On July 13, Tom and the others moved camp to the base of the 10,335-foot Mooses Tooth “over crevassed glacier,” as Beckey characterized the journey in another laconic entry. Tom’s memory of crossing the glacier is again more detailed. As Tom described it, they traversed a “sea of hidden crevasses.” Since Tom was the lightest in the group–and thus “the easiest” to pull out of a chasm in the event of a fall–he went first, and he tumbled into a hole “probably once or twice,” he recalled. When they were about halfway across, Beckey plunged into an immense cavern and hung suspended by the rope in midair. It took the team around an hour to drag him back out. “It was all pretty hollow everywhere we probed,” Tom said, “and it was a scary moment realizing how much empty space there was beneath our feet.”

On The Mooses Tooth the next day, their luck was no better. “Found rock rotten,” Beckey recorded. In Tom’s version, the couloir they attempted consisted of “basically ball bearings, just little tiny rubble.” (No one obtained the top of The Mooses Tooth until 1964.) They packed down again, and headed west to the foot of another mountain, possibly 7,650-foot Mt. Barrille, although memories and written records vary. Here, they finally reached a summit on July 20, before Don Sheldon arrived to pick them up. “It was certainly not a terribly challenging climb,” Tom remembered. It was “like climbing Rainier.” A modest adventure, at least in Tom’s telling. (Mountaineering in Alaska before air rescue became common was inherently serious.) But Tom learned some valuable lessons from his first remote expedition about evaluating risk, coping with uncertainty and recovering from accidents–all of which would prove crucial to his future climbs in the Himalaya, mountains that existed for him, at this point, still only in the realm of boyhood imagination and ambition.

MEANWHILE, DURING THE LATE 1950s, Tom’s old fellow camper Nick Clinch was beginning to display his capacity, as Tom described it, “to translate fantasy into reality.” Unclimbed 8000-meter Himalayan peaks were getting scarce as British, European and Japanese climbers claimed one summit after another. Nick decided it was time for Americans to take part. Unlike Tom, Nick was an organization man, joining the Stanford Alpine Club (he got both his BA and law degree from the university), the Sierra Club and the American Alpine Club. In 1958, through a combination of Nick’s logistical skills, the climbing abilities of his assembled team, and some good luck with the weather, an expedition with eight American and two Pakistani mountaineers succeeded on Gasherbrum I–by then, one of only three 8000-meter peaks that had remained unclimbed. On July 5, 1958, Pete Schoening and Andrew Kauffman stood on the 8080-meter summit. It was a tremendous achievement, carried out in exemplary style. And nobody in the United States seemed to notice. Clinch’s expedition book, A Walk in the Sky, written the following year, wouldn’t find a publisher until 1982.

Which didn’t trouble Nick. In collaboration with physicist George Bell, who had taken part in the 1953 K2 expedition, Nick almost immediately began planning a return trip to the Karakoram for 1960, this time to Masherbrum. There had been three previous unsuccessful attempts to climb the mountain, the most recent in 1957. At 7821 meters (25,660 feet) Masherbrum fell just below the 8000-meter altitude mark that arbitrarily divides the world’s fourteen highest mountains from lower eminences. As Nick liked to say in the months leading up to the expedition, “We’ve climbed the high one, now let’s climb the hard one.” Named the American-Pakistan Karakoram Expedition, the team received sponsorship from the American Alpine Club and the Sports Control Committee of the Pakistan Army, as well as oxygen equipment and other sup- plies from the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research. Official members included Pakistani captains Jawed Akhter, Imtiaz Azim and Mohd Akram Qureshi, expedition organizer Nick Clinch, climbing leader George Bell and four other Americans, Tom McCormack, Dick McGowan, Dick Emerson and Willi Unsoeld.

Nick asked Tom Hornbein to join as expedition doctor, which he happily agreed to do. By then Tom was back in the flatlands of St. Louis, in the middle of a two-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) research fellowship, still longing for the heights. At the time, there were no more than a few dozen Americans alive who had ever climbed in the Himalaya. But in this group, only Emerson and Tom lacked previous Himalayan experience. On May 19, 1960, they flew from Rawalpindi to Skardu. Sixteen years after Tom had first seen mountains from a train, he looked out the plane window and gained his initial view of the high peaks of Asia. Since the small, unpressurized, propeller plane couldn’t go higher than 16,000 feet, the pilot had to navigate over passes near Nanga Parbat. The mountain’s summit loomed above them. “Of course, we could identify all the features on the classical route up that mountain of tragedies,” Tom recalled. He was thinking of Ullman’s High Conquest, which he had read as a teenager, and its account of the disastrous 1930s German expeditions. Through the window, he could now glimpse the high slopes where six Sherpas and three Germans had died while struggling to escape a storm, and the site below Rakhiot Peak where sixteen more men had perished in an avalanche of ice and snow.

From Skardu, the expedition faced a trek of roughly 100 miles to the foot of Masherbrum. About 150 Balti porters hauled their five and a half tons of food and equipment. After four days of heat and dust, the climbers stopped at the only sizeable village en route, Khapalu. There, over a lunch of curried chicken, pastries and tea, the local Rajah told them that “Masherbrum” meant “Day of Judgement” or “Doomsday Peak.” (According to other sources, its meaning is actually “Queen of Peaks.”) This “lugubrious bit of information,” Willi reported drily in his American Alpine Journal expedition report, did not buoy the spirits of the party as they contemplated the challenges ahead.

Scene from the first ascent of Masherbrum in 1960. [Photo] Hornbein collection

Scene from the first ascent of Masherbrum in 1960. [Photo] Hornbein collection

But as they prepared to set off into higher country and leave the heat and dust behind, Tom felt as if finally, at age twenty-nine, he was on the verge of fulfilling the ambitions he’d first sketched out fourteen years earlier in a high school essay. On May 28, the expedition crossed the Shyok River on rafts made up of blown-up goat skins called zakhs, and then they walked up the Hushe Valley. At the end of the day’s trek, they gained their first view of Masherbrum’s southeast face, its steep snow and ice “pretty intimidating,” as Tom recalls, vastly bigger than anything he’d climbed before. In his own report for The Himalayan Journal, he described how the peak towered in frozen solitude, “gleaming cold and unwelcome in the last light of day. We could do no more than stare in silence.”

Two days later, gusts swept plumes of spindrift from the mountaintops while the expedition members set up a base camp at 13,500 feet. There, they met the Pakistani men who would act as high-altitude staff, helping ferry supplies up the peak: Abdul Rahim and Rahim Khan (who had been on the Gasherbrum expedition), Hussein, Mohammed Hussein (who had evacuated a frostbitten George Bell from K2 in 1953, carrying him on his back), and the sirdar Qasim. The team’s route would be across the Serac Glacier, to the top of a high dome, then up a basin to the southeast face, which would bring them the remaining 4,000 feet to the summit. On June 1, when Tom left with Willi, McGowan, and Jawed to establish Camp I at 15,500 feet, he’d reached an elevation higher than any he’d attained in a decade and a half of climbing in Colorado, the Tetons, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Before the expedition was over, he’d gain yet another 9,000 vertical feet. “I found that climbing on Masherbrum I had no problem with the altitude,” he told me, “despite earlier doubts.”

With ten days of good weather and fifteen more Hushe men hired to help carry loads on the lower mountain, the expedition made good progress. Even after they were hit by three weeks of intermittent snow, team members pushed the route steadily upward, placing wands to mark the way. By June 17, Willi and McGowan, designated as the initial summit party, had pitched Camp IV at a site just below the east ridge at 22,000 feet. Two more camps went in over the next several days. As Tom and the others climbed, new vistas in the Karakoram came in view, “Goddamn big mountains,” Tom remembers, although, he adds, “we were pretty focused on the one we were on.”

On June 25, Willi and McGowan left Camp VI at 24,000 feet for the summit. Later that day, their support party, Tom and George Bell, arrived at the tent site, hoping to greet their friends at the end of a successful climb. But now, unbeknownst to Tom and George, things had started to go wrong. The Swiss oxygen equipment malfunctioned. Willi ripped off the mask gasping for air–not exactly the point of carrying heavy oxygen tanks up steep slopes. Snow was falling swiftly, blotting out the landscape and slowing their steps. They turned back well short of the summit. They decided that the expedition needed to establish a higher camp before another team could reach the top.

For the next two days, snow piled in deeper drifts. At 5 a.m. on June 27, the sky shone blue for a moment, tantalizing Tom, Willi, George and Dick, who were still at Camp VI. Gradually, clouds swathed the surrounding peaks in thicker and thicker layers. George warned the others that a major storm might be about to trap them there. “But we waited,” Tom recalled, “reluctant to surrender so near our goal.” By midmorning, when they finally began the retreat to Camp V, the snowflakes had whirled into a blizzard. Ahead, one of the wands was missing. Unable to see the way, they stumbled forward. Willi was in the lead, then McGowan and George, and last, Tom.

All at once, the mountain started to move, Tom told me:

This snow began to slide down. It was nice and soft and light and sliding between my legs, and then suddenly it was up over my knees and then over the top of my head, and with a very gentle but steady force it took me right off the hillside as it had done with each of the other three before me. But Willi, who had been pretty much on the edge of the slide, flipped over and got his axe in, and George did the same and stopped McGowan and me. So I went from being at the high point on the rope to the lowest point.

The story of the Masherbrum avalanche never became as a famous moment in mountaineering lore as Pete Schoening’s belay on K2. But if Willi and George hadn’t succeeded in planting their ice axes and stopping the slide on Masherbrum, all four men would have fallen to the Serac Glacier thousands of feet below, leaving a substantial number of fatherless children.

Hornbein comforting Dick McGowan after the avalanche on Masherbrum. [Photo] Hornbein collection

Hornbein comforting Dick McGowan after the avalanche on Masherbrum. [Photo] Hornbein collection

Tom and Dick thrashed their way out of the snow that covered them. Tom was unharmed, but Dick had inhaled a lot of ice crystals. In the expedition report, Willi described him as suffering from a “wild delirium.” Tom gave Dick a Dexedrine pill, which helped bring him around sufficiently to make it down to Camp V. Tom recorded in his diary the following day, “We still want the summit badly, but our experience yesterday has taken a bit of starch out of our sails, and the feeling is superstitiously that somehow we are not welcome on ‘Doomsday Mountain.'” It was Tom’s first (and only) experience of an avalanche.

A blizzard descended for the next four days. Willi and George hung on at Camp V, while the others retreated to lower camps. On July 4, the snow finally stopped. The next day, the two lead climbers established Camp VII at about 25,000 feet. And on July 6, Willi and George set off for another summit bid, this time without bottled oxygen. That same day, Tom started ferrying loads to Camp VII, with Dick McGowan and Jawed. At a little over 24,000 feet, this altitude would be Tom’s highest yet. Since the expedition members hoped to give a Pakistani climber a chance to attain the top, Tom and Dick might be able to accompany Jawed as part of a second summit team. Soon after they began climbing from Camp VI, however, Dick started suffering from stomach pain. Higher up, he vomited, and while Tom was tending to him, Jawed lost his footing. Another near catastrophe seemed in the making, Tom wrote:

Clutching desperately for the fixed line and missing, Javee [Jawed] was off down the slope, head over heels in ever-accelerating bounds. Time seemed to stand still…. Dick sank his axe deep into the bottomless snow while I, closest to Javee, wrapped one arm many times about the fixed rope and the other about the top end of the line to Javee…. I was determined that nothing short of avulsion of a shoulder would part my contact with the mountainside. Javee took one last huge bound and while still in midair slammed into the end of the rope…. The rope stretched, my arms stretched, and I shudder to think what was happening to Javee as he was suddenly plunged head downward into the snow 120 feet below us.

Jawed lay motionless for a while, the rope wound so tightly around the group that Tom couldn’t get up to help him. “I’m all right,” Jawed yelled, at last, in a faint voice. Slowly, they disentangled themselves, staggered to their feet and stumbled down to Camp VI, where Jawed would rest. Although Tom felt fit and acclimatized, he prudently decided that he and Dick should continue descending to Camp V because “Dick was not doing well. His heart wasn’t in it.” If Tom felt any disappointment, he kept it to himself. What mattered was for the expedition to succeed. And it had. A little after 3 p.m., Tom, Dick and Jawed had been buoyed by spotting Willi and George on top of the mountain, two dots against a dark-blue sky. “Weeks of labor and waiting had been all for this one moment,” Tom reported in The Himalayan Journal, “which we three were privileged to witness as an audience perched on the slopes below.”

To Tom’s surprise, Jawed soon managed to recuperate enough from his fall to keep climbing. Two days later, around 6:30 p.m., Jawed and Nick reached the top. “None of us dreamed [Jawed] would be going back up,” Tom recalls, still awed today. “Sheer will.” Captain Jawed Akhter Khan thus became the first Pakistani to reach the summit of a high peak within his country’s borders. In the process, however, he suffered serious frostbite to his hands and feet, and he eventually lost a finger. Tom and Willi climbed up from Camp V to greet the exhausted pair and aid them on their descent. During the long journey home, Tom thought of the bond that formed between him and the others, the sense of “newfound understanding and closeness.” Could they bring it back from the mountain? he wondered. Months later, Tom decided the answer to his question was probably, “in a large part, ‘Yes.'”

THE NEW YORK TIMES confined its coverage of the first ascent of Masherbrum to a three-paragraph wire story on page 60, that noted that “Dr. William E. Sunsoeld [sic] of Corvallis, Oregon, was in the first party to reach the top.” The other participants went unmentioned, including the names of the Pakistani high-altitude staff, whom Tom had been so careful to credit in his own report (“To extol their contribution to our success is almost superfluous: without them Masherbrum would not have been climbed,” he wrote). But Tom didn’t mind that his own name was left out. “One of the nice things about that expedition,” he remembered, “was that it was just a small collegial team going on an adventure…. Everest was a totally different whoop-de-do compared to that.”

Tom didn’t crave whoop-de-do. “The depth of companionship [on Masherbrum] would be hard to equal. I had tasted the best there was.” But Masherbrum proved to be his ticket to Everest. On his first Himalayan venture, Tom had performed well at high altitude, made a solid contribution to the team’s success–and thus gained the attention of Norman Dyhrenfurth, a German-born immigrant filmmaker and mountaineering impresario. That June, Dyhrenfurth had filed an application with the government of Nepal for a venture he named the American Mount Everest Expedition, scheduled for the spring of 1963. Dyhrenfurth knew how to play on Cold War anxieties, selling the idea to sponsors and the public as a way of proving on yet another New Frontier that Americans hadn’t gone soft. Soon his plan received support from the National Geographic Society, and less officially, from the administration of the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy.

When a postcard from Dyhrenfurth arrived inquiring about his interest in the Everest expedition, Tom found “the old distant longings stirred.” Still, he mused, he wasn’t really sure he understood his desires to go, and he might not have agreed to take part if three of his good climbing friends–George Bell, Willi Unsoeld and Dick Emerson weren’t also invited. While Dyhrenfurth continued assembling the team, Tom returned to St. Louis to complete his fellowship research. He was also determined to improve on the balky Swiss oxygen masks that had been so frustrating on Masherbrum.

Little had changed in the design since the British brought supplemental oxygen to Everest in 1953. “They were airplane pilot masks,” Tom explained, “in which they had put some larger directional in-valves and out-valves, and a rubber cowling over that as insulation.” The problem, as Willi and Dick McGowan had found, was that the multiple valves “were prone to having a very high resistance to breathing in and out.” And the expiratory (out) valves tended to freeze up from the wearer’s moisture-laden exhalations. The Maytag Corporation molded Tom’s redesign as a single rubber unit, which became known as the Maytag mask. In contrast to the more complex British and Swiss models, with their four valves, Tom’s version contained “only a single valve to prevent rebreathing into the bladder,” through which oxygen flowed to the climber. The result was a more efficient and comfortable mask than any that had been used on mountains before. (“The final virtue,” Tom wrote jokingly in the Everest expedition book, “lay in skillfully concealing the countenance of those who over a period of weeks failed to maintain a presentable social appearance.”)

At the conclusion of his medical education in 1961, Tom’s draft deferment came to an end. Like all newly minted male doctors, Tom now owed two years of military service. He took up duties as an anesthesiologist at the naval hospital in San Diego, and he explored the crags and peaks of southern California. Dyhrenfurth drove down from Santa Monica, where he was living at the time, to visit Tom and talk over plans for the expedition. With a showman’s instinct, Dyhrenfurth was thinking of ways that the Americans could distinguish their attempt from previous British and Swiss successes. One idea was to try for what he called a “Grand Slam” of ascending Everest by the standard Southeast Ridge route, as well as the neighboring summits of Lhotse and Nuptse. That plan didn’t appeal to the climbers he had recruited for the expedition, who were only interested in Everest.

Speaking with Tom, Dyhrenfurth tossed in another possibility, summiting Everest via the standard route, and then descending by the unclimbed West Ridge, thus pulling off the first traverse of the mountain. For Tom, that idea was another non-starter–plunging down unknown territory without any possibility of support seemed suicidal. Still, the conversation planted a seed in Tom’s mind. Why not turn Dyhrenfurth’s West Ridge proposal upside down? Instead of making an east-to-west traverse, why not climb the mountain with a first ascent of the West Ridge, then descend by the Southeast Ridge? This was a bold and original proposal, especially considering that, unlike Dyhrenfurth, Tom was still a relative neophyte in terms of his Himalayan experience. Like Northwest Passage on the Third Flatiron, and the Hornbein Crack on Longs’ East Face, the West Ridge route was aesthetically pleasing–direct and simple for all of its difficulties. And it restored the sense of the unknown that had seemed to fade from the mountain, in his mind, after its first ascent.

But there was a problem that might have foreclosed Tom’s chance to climb the mountain by any route. He twice applied for an unpaid leave of absence from the Navy, after which he promised to serve extra months to fulfill the original two-year commitment. Naval authorities didn’t go for his plan. In September 1962, Tom joined the Everest team on a practice climb on Mt. Rainier. There, he introduced the new oxygen masks, still with no expectation of being able to join the expedition. Then Willi, who was on his way to Nepal (where he was serving as the in-country deputy director of the newly created Peace Corps), had an idea. He called the director of the Peace Corps in Washington, Sargent Shriver, who was President Kennedy’s brother-in-law. Shriver called the White House. Kennedy called Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who called the Secretary of the Navy, who called the appropriate admiral. And the admiral called Tom, and told him that as of February 3, 1963, sixteen months into his two-year commitment, he would receive an honorable discharge.

And so over the next several months, a famous story unfolded. Nineteen Americans set off for Everest Base Camp (the expedition historian, James Ramsey Ullman, turned back to Kathmandu after the first day’s trek because of health issues). They were accompanied by a British transport officer, a Nepali liaison officer, thirty-seven Sherpa staff and more than nine hundred porters. By then, Tom felt a “restless urge to come to grips with the mountain, and myself…. The dream was fully alive now and it wouldn’t let go.” Tom became the most forceful proponent of making the West Ridge route the expedition’s priority. Dyhrenfurth ruled otherwise, steering most of the resources to a push up the standard route, in order to maximize the possibilities of getting an American (and an American flag) to the summit. He felt that even dividing the expedition’s resources to allow for two attempts at once could put that goal at risk. But Tom’s childhood stubbornness had matured into a fierce personal determination, and the intensity he brought to the ensuing debate took on legendary proportions. In his journal, Dyhrenfurth wrote, “Tom Hornbein, who is such an idealist…declared himself in favor of throwing everything into [the West Ridge attempt] even if it meant jeopardizing success altogether.”

Ultimately, the expedition managed to fulfill everyone’s goals: once Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu, a Sherpa mountaineer and Indian citizen, climbed Everest on May 1, 1963, via the Southeast Ridge, and planted the American flag on its summit, Tom and his friends could devote all their energy to the West Ridge. Twenty-one days later, Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop headed up the Southeast Ridge as the second summit party, followed by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld from the other side.

Of the nineteen American members of the Everest expedition, only eighteen returned to the United States. Jake Breitenbach remained buried in the Khumbu Icefall. (His body would emerge, six years later, at the base of the Icefall, and he would be reburied at the Tengboche monastery.) On the long trek back to Kathmandu, Tom again had time for self-reflection. He did not see himself as a conquering hero, wearing the laurels of a splendid triumph for which he’d fought so hard. As he recalled in The West Ridge, he felt tired, and beset by questions and grief:

What good was it to Jake?… And to the rest of us?… What possible difference could climbing Everest make? Certainly the mountain hadn’t been changed. Even now wind and falling snow would have obliterated most signs of our having been there. Was I any greater for having stood on the highest place on earth? Within the wasted figure that stumbled weary and fearful back toward home there was no question about the answer to that one. It had been a wonderful dream, but now all that lingered was the memory…. It is strange how when a dream is fulfilled there is little left but doubt.

Four surviving members of the 1963 American Mt. Everest Expedition gathered in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the climb. From left to right: David Dingman, Tom Hornbein, Norman Dyhrenfurth and Jim Whittaker. [Photo] Dianne Roberts

Four surviving members of the 1963 American Mt. Everest Expedition gathered in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the climb. From left to right: David Dingman, Tom Hornbein, Norman Dyhrenfurth and Jim Whittaker. [Photo] Dianne Roberts

TOM AND WILLI AND THE OTHERS returned to find themselves celebrated. President Kennedy welcomed them home in a Rose Garden ceremony. Which is a pretty big whoop-de-do. “It was the world’s biggest mountain, and early in its game,” Tom reflected in our conversation. But now it was time to get on with his life, without any illusion that carrying the honor (or the albatross) of climbing Everest around his neck forever afterward was the end-all and be-all of his future existence.

In the autumn of 1963, Tom joined the faculty of the University of Washington Medical School as an assistant professor of anesthesiology, with decades of patient care and scientific research ahead of him. For fifteen and a half years, he chaired the Department of Anesthesiology. And there was a second marriage along the way to a pediatric physician, Kathy Mikesell, and another daughter.

Today, only three members of the American Mount Everest Expedition team remain alive: Tom, Jim Whittaker and David Dingman. Willi Unsoeld died in an avalanche on March 4, 1979, at age fifty-two, while leading a student group descending Mt. Rainier. Evergreen College student Janie Diepenbrock, roped to Willi, also died. For years, Willi and Tom had shared a ritual phone call every May 22, the anniversary of their first ascent of the West Ridge, exchanging news about family and mutual friends. Willi proved a good friend over the years, but there were others with whom Tom felt more comfortable sharing personal feelings, especially Dick Emerson, “a kindred spirit.” Dick is gone now, too, as is Tom’s original climbing buddy, Nick Clinch. “Willi would say you have to look death in the eyeball to really live,” Tom wrote in his 1980 preface to The West Ridge, as he thought about the friends he’d lost. “Sometimes it stares you down…. The addiction is one we all shared, the risks more or less appreciated, the joys and depths of togetherness…. We, who remain and remember, go on…enriched by moments intensely shared and now an element of our living memory.”

Perhaps the best remembered tale associated with the Masherbrum expedition involves the question George Bell posed to Willi when the latter knelt to bury a crucifix on the summit. As Willi lingered in prayer a little too long for George’s patience, he finally asked, “Well, Willi–shall we go down or up?” In his expedition report, Willi later commented that this was “an intriguing suggestion,” but he rose to his feet, and the two made their way quickly down the mountainside.

Kneeling in prayer on a summit was never Tom’s style. Had he been there with Willi that day in 1960, he too would likely have gently ribbed him, just as George Bell did. Yet when Tom reached the top of Everest three years later, he’d shared at least some of Willi’s sense of the spiritual potential of the place and moment. “Something up here,” he wrote, “must yield an answer, something only dimly felt, comprehended by senses reaching farther yet than the point on which we stood, reaching for understanding, which hovered but a few steps higher.”

In the end, though, I get the feeling that the meanings Tom sought found their truest expression through enduring bonds with others, embodied in daily routine and conversations, rather than in some kind of lofty individual transcendence far removed from life at its basic, ground level. Tom still gets out into the Colorado outdoors he first encountered as a teenager in the 1940s. In 2012 he told Alpinist editor Katie Ives, “Not so many years ago, I did not imagine virtue in living within a body that would not quite do what it was asked. Now I cater to its whims, its discomforts, its role as ruler of my dreams. Perhaps I should have known that the pace it enforces has its own rewards.” These rewards, he suggested, include a heightened consciousness of small blessings, like the serendipity of coming across a moisture-loving Parry’s primrose “tucked into the rock cliff beside a tumbling cascade….” And that appreciation is all the sharper as he learned to reflect on “the ephemeral brevity” of such moments, “so alike yet not alike a former, not forgotten time.” The poet T.S. Eliot, also born in St. Louis, once observed that the end of our life’s exploration may offer the opportunity to return to our origins, and then, “know the place for the first time.”

ON MY LAST VISIT WITH TOM, shortly before his eighty-ninth birthday in November 2019, we went for a walk on Lumpy Ridge behind his house in Estes Park. The ridge’s name seemed appropriate to me, with its knobs of exposed and weathered granite. It was getting dark when we set out, so we had to hurry. For all his talk of putting up with the limits an aging body imposes, thanks to muscle memory, or elevated hematocrits, or whatever, Tom still sets a mean pace when let loose on a hillside. He led briskly to a rock shelf with a stunning view of Longs Peak across the darkening valley, while from behind I picked my way gingerly up and around the stony outcroppings. Longs that day had a light dusting of new snow across the bare reddish rock of its upper slopes, which gleamed in the waning light. How fantastic it must be, I thought, to live where Tom does and see the mountain change, hour by hour, season by season, always the same, always different.

The mountain looks as if it will be there forever; we, of course, won’t. Truthfully, as I get older, I’m still sorting out my own feelings about mortality, but I’ve been inspired by the way Tom faces the prospect of not waking to his view of Longs without fear or regret. “As an ex-doc,” he told me in our final zoomed interview:

I have been involved in the dying of friends in recent years. You come to realize at this stage of life that the transition of your friends from a stage of vitality to one of memory is an inevitable part of the game. I look at these cherished friends, many from my mountaineering community, and there seems to be one common denominator to their exiting. These are people who have lived their life on the edge. They are not risk averse. When the time comes, they take it in their stride.

Tom Hornbein has not ceased from exploration for nine decades now, but he recognizes with calm deliberation the moment approaching when his quest will inevitably reach its natural end. As he recently wrote, “Given the opportunity, dying deserves to be lived with the same style one has chosen to live all the rest of the journey. Death comes after life; dying is part of it.”

Hornbein on the West Ridge in 1963. [Photo] Willi Unsoeld

Hornbein on the West Ridge in 1963. [Photo] Willi Unsoeld

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 73, which is available in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up the latest issue for all the goodness!–Ed.]