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With space to race

The 50th anniversary of Americans on Everest sheds light on current conditions

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"In a way it was a magical moment. There was a little feeling of unreality and at that hour of the day (6:15pm) an incredible beauty. The shadows of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse were off to the east and the colour of the mountains was golden, yellow and orange of sunset. You're not oblivious to the fact that you are standing on the highest point of the Earth, having just succeeded in muddling your way up an unknown ridge. There is also that anxiety of realizing that it's going to be dark pretty soon and you have to get down the other side."

- Tom Hornbein 1963 AMEE Team) recalls the summit of Everest's West Ridge

Competitive nationalism rapidly advanced exploration in the 1960s. The great Space Race, a contest between Russia and America for extraterrestrial firsts, is perhaps the most famous national rivalry of the era. In the mid '60s, rockets were launched daily by both countries, each one vying to be known as the more technologically advanced country. Meanwhile, back on Earth, terrestrial explorations were seen as an equally viable way to showcase national superiority. From the highest mountain ranges to the deepest oceans, expeditions funded by government dollars explored some of the most severe terrain on the planet. As the tallest mountain on Earth, the summit of Mount Everest (8,848 metres) was a prize in the eyes of both experienced mountaineers and ambitious bureaucrats.

On May 1,1963 an American expedition lead by Norman Dyhrenfurth placed Seattle, Washington native Jim Whittaker on the summit of Mount Everest. Whittaker is highly regarded as the first American to set foot on the summit of Everest via the South Col Route, a line previously established by New Zealand climber Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepal's Tenzing Norgay in 1953. But the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition (AMEE) didn't stop there. After a few weeks rest, four other American climbers would take on the world's highest peak. Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein would tackle the previously unclimbed West Ridge. Meanwhile, Americans Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop would ascend via the South Col Route and meet the West Ridge climbers on the summit.

Although the climbers would not meet on top of the formation on May 22 as planned, both teams would reach the summit and tackle the harrowing descent back to Base Camp as a group.

In climbing and mountaineering first ascents are highly coveted, yet for these men the accomplishments were more personal than competitive. Each member of the AMEE Team had a great passion for mountaineering, a personal goal to reach the summit of Mount Everest and, most importantly, the ability to pull it off. As the first successful summit bid on the peak by American climbers, the ascents of the team were widely received and heavily publicized, yet the AMEE Team would not fully realize the effect this climb would have on a global scale until they were back on U.S. soil.

"It is inspirational in the lives of other people, but I have to say, when I was up there climbing on Everest, that wasn't what was going through my head at all," said Tom Hornbein of the 1963 AMEE Team.

May 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Mount Everest. The date sparked fundraisers, media events and marketing campaigns by a handful of United States-based companies and organizations, but the event also brought a sense of reflection from the world-wide climbing community about the current state of Everest and the style in which the peak is currently climbed.

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Attempts to summit Mount Everest have been traced as far back as the 1920s, yet the pace and veracity of such missions reached a new highpoint after the mountain's first ascent in 1953. Many attempts to gain the world's highest summit have resulted in numerous fatalities. Almost countless tragedies have occurred on the mountain, but perhaps no attempt is more famous than the expedition that resulted in the deaths of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who mysteriously perished close to the summit in 1924.

At 10:30 a.m. on June 8, 1924 it was reported by onlookers at a base camp that Mallory and Irvine made it to a section of Mount Everest known as The First Step. At 2:30 p.m. they were hit by a severe snow squall, which forced a retreat (if one was not already in progress) and prompted the team to rope up. It is presumed, from some examination of Mallory's body found by Conrad Anker during the 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, that Mallory had suffered severe rope-jerk injuries from a catastrophic fall. Although it is widely presumed that Mallory and Irvine did not reach the summit, some speculation still exists among the public that they were successful. The body of Irvine was never recovered.

After the tragic loss of Mallory and Irvine, nearly 30 years and numerous attempts would pass before Everest's first ascent in 1953 by Hillary and Norgay. Everest would see its second ascent in 1956 by a team of four Swiss climbers.

Then came 1963 and as if in tune to the competitive energy sweeping the country at the time, five American climbers successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest. When Jim Whittaker became the first American to set foot on the summit of Everest, the American team consisting of 19 American climbers and over 900 Sherpa workers became the first successful American-lead team to reach the highest point on Earth.

"After we did the first traverse of Everest and we were received by Kennedy, all of a sudden even Americans became interested in mountaineers," said Norman Dyhrenfurth of the 1963 AMEE Team.

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Planning for the American Everest Expedition (picking team members and acquiring funding) started as early as 1960. The climb would start, as scheduled, in Nepal in February of 1963. The 19 American climbers, 37 Sherpa and over 900 porters that made up the AMEE Team would hike a staggering 300 kilometres just to reach Everest Base Camp (today many climbers fly to a point about 70km from Everest Base Camp). After the initial approach, the team would then move thousands of pounds of equipment and set up multiple camps at various high-points before attempts on the summit were considered.

The trek to Everest Base Camp began on February 20, and would take a staggering month to complete. During this exhausting approach, a discussion between team members took place about splitting up the team so that one party could ascend the South Col Route and another could pioneer a new route up the unclimbed West Ridge. Team Leader Norman Dyhrenfurth would not agree to the split, instead opting for the original plan, which would more assuredly put an American (Jim Whittaker) on the summit via the South Col Route. Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld would have to wait until after the South Col was completed to start their new route up West Ridge.

The climbers set siege on the South Col Route from Everest Base Camp on March 21. Only two days into the climb from Base Camp, American team member Jake Breitenbach was killed low on the mountain by a wall of falling ice in a treacherous area known as the Khumbu Icefall. The death of Breitenbach surprised and shook the team. Many wanted to turn back, and some did, yet most pressed on towards the higher regions of the peak.

In the extremely thin air above 7,300 metres the climbers used bottled oxygen. The Oxygen helped to keep their muscles working, to maintain coherent mental states, and to stave off frequently fatal conditions, high altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema. Every climber would require multiple bottles each day — not an easy load considering each bottle weighed in at nearly six kilograms and over 200 bottles would be needed.

After a few hard weeks of carrying loads and setting up camps higher and higher up the peak, Dyhrenfurth made the decision to keep the South Col Team members Lute Jerstad and National Geographic Society cameraman Barry Bishop low on the mountain while Dyhrenfurth and Whittaker pushed on towards camp VI and the summit. In the evening of April 30 a severe storm swept over the mountain sending 129kp/h winds screaming past the climbers at high camp. At 4:00 a.m. the following morning, Dyhrenfurth decided to wait out the storm while Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu pushed on to the top.

Just feet from the summit a short but now-famous conversation took place. "You first Gombu!" Whittaker shouted. "You first Big Jim!" Gombu shouted back. They staggered to the summit side-by-side where Whittaker planted the first American flag. In an interview after the expedition, Gombu was asked what his first thought was on top of the world's highest peak. He replied, "How to get down." After only 20 minutes on the summit, Gombu and Whittaker descended the steep slopes back to camp.

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"If we can pull it off," said Norman Dyhrenfurth of the first ascent of the West Ridge, "it would be the biggest possible thing still to be accomplished in Himalayan mountaineering." And it was. What many refer to as the first traverse of Everest — meaning the climbers went up one side and down the other — began when Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein started up the previously unclimbed West Ridge of Mount Everest.

Hornbein and Unsoeld had motioned to pioneer the new route up the West Ridge at the same time the South Col Team with Jim Whittaker was tackling the summit on the first of May; however, they stayed behind to support the South Col Team and would not make their push on the West Ridge for a few more weeks.

Finally, after some much needed recuperation and resupply, Unsoeld and Hornbein set out to scale the unknown terrain of the West Ridge. At the same time, Americans Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop would ascend Everest via the South Col Route with a plan to meet the West Ridge Team on the summit.

After many hardships on the new route, including a section the AMEE Team dubbed "Holbein's Avalanche Trap," Unsoeld and Hornbein staggered to the summit of Everest, successfully establishing one of the most difficult routes on the peak. As the West Ridge Team staged over the top they were spotted by Jerstad and Bishop, who were just re-treating after finally making their own ascent — they had managed to summit despite a mishap with a fuel canister that caused a pretty severe explosion in camp.

The climbers attempted to descend the route together, but because of the late hour the climbers were forced to spend the night at a gruesome 8,500 metres. At the time it was the highest elevation open bivy in the history of mountaineering, but it wasn't without its consequences. Without sleeping bags or tents, Unsoeld and Bishop suffered severe frostbite in the extreme climate. Bishop would loose all ten toes and the tips of his pinky fingers and Unsoeld would loose nine toes to frostbite. The extreme technical difficulty of the West Ridge has proved itself many times over; since 1963 only three other climbers have summited Everest by this route.

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Many more intimidating and far more technically demanding peaks exist around the globe, yet because of its extreme elevation Mount Everest is widely regarded as the pinnacle of mountaineering achievement. Summiting Everest is a monumental task by any means; however, with today's equipment and the support of guide services, some believe that Everest's reputation now supersedes its actual difficulty. Access to the mountain and amenities near the base have changed significantly in the past five decades and the style in which the mountain is climbed has been widely transformed by the industry of guided mountaineering.

Dave Dingman, of the 1963 AMEE Team commented on the state of current climbing activities on Everest in a recent interview released by the American Alpine Club. "(Climbing Everest is) the ultimate expression of an endurance sport now and that is different than the mountaineering culture that it was in our time. Most of the people, it seems to me, that are guided up Everest now, I don't think that they are mountaineers. They aren't interested in climbing anything else."

The expedition members of the 1960s needed to be self-sufficient while climbing, leading each section and setting up their own ropes for the team to ascend. Although many independent climbers still succeed on Everest in good style, guided clients who attempt to summit the mountain are often led by teams of Tibetan Sherpas and guides who lead the routes, fix ropes for the clients to ascend, set up camps at various high-points and carry most of the supplemental oxygen and supplies.

"Mountaineering should be a thing of passion. Not to just go home and say, 'Well, I've climbed Mount Everest.' It's absurd," said Norman Dyhrenfurth, a member of the 1963 AMEE Team in an interview with the American Alpine Club. "What is happening now, I'm sorry to say it doesn't please me."

The motivation behind much of the climbing taking place on Everest today is fuelled by the mountain's authority as the highest point on Earth and the relatively high price-tag (between $30,000 and $120,000) an ascent can bring to guides and Sherpa workers. "A lot of the reasons why people go there are driven by ego and achievement," said Melissa Arnot, Everest climber and guide. "When you mix that in to how something is developed, I think it's risky. We are going to make a lot of mistakes. We have already made a lot of mistakes."

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"The mountain hasn't changed and the experience can be very much like it was if you choose to go about it that way. So you can still have that exploratory experience," said George Lowe, of the 1983 Expedition of the Kanshung Face. Many unexplored routes in the Everest region still exist, yet impacts from human traffic on the peak and dangers resulting from relatively inexperienced climbers attempting to summit Everest have changed the atmosphere of Everest's more popular routes and the logistics of climbing the mountain in general.

"Today we see lines of people stacked up like ants, tent cities at base camp — and this week we hear reports of fights between independent climbers and Sherpa workers on Mount Everest," said Phil Powers, Executive Director of The American Alpine Club on May 1, 2013.

Although efforts to clean up Everest's Base Camp have been recently implemented, the amount of litter higher up on the mountain is among the deepest acts of disrespect seen on Everest today. Climbers have recently reported mountains of human waist piled next to abandoned tents and other garbage at the higher camps along Everest's most popular routes. In an act of disrespect for both the mountain and the families of deceased climbers, some 200 bodies have been left on Everest's Southeast Ridge and North Ridge routes.

The current state of Everest climbing is most often attributed to the sheer amount of traffic the peak sees in a given climbing season and the need for stricter regulations for climbers and guide services. It is widely believed that releasing fewer permits and requiring a stronger level of experience for guided climbers would greatly reduce the impacts to the mountain.

"Yes, the domination of the guided routes on Everest affects others. But that is a concession I think we can make given the near limitless opportunities," said Phil Powers, Executive Director of the American Alpine Club. "People are different. They have different circumstances. Climbing is dangerous and how one approaches the heights is a very personal decision. Those style choices are freedoms we all enjoy until they affect others or hurt the mountain."

The success rate with Everest attempts has increased dramatically since the early 1960s, yet many climbers still fail to reach the summit. Nevertheless, the environmental impacts on the ever-expanding Everest Base Camp increase with each attempt. Some feel the current state of Everest climbing is mostly negative, yet others feel that the most frequently guided routes on Everest — primarily the Southeast Ridge — are only a small part of what the mountain has to offer.

"You can step off that route a quarter of a mile and you'll never see anybody on Everest," said Jim Whittaker, the first American Everest summiteer. "There are places that people don't go (and) there are a lot of routes yet to be done that are difficult."

Since its early ascents in the 1950s and 1960s, the scene on Everest has undergone a dramatic transformation. During the entire 1963 Everest climbing season a total of six climbers reached the summit of Mount Everest. Before 1963 only six people on Earth had climbed to the top of the world. In 2012 alone, more than 500 people reached the summit of Everest with many more retreating from the peak before tagging the true summit.

"I don't feel sad about it. I just feel that times change and the world changes," said Tom Hornbein of the 1963 AMEE Team. "Everest, as a wonderful metaphor in so many other ways, is just a microcosm of our larger existence on this Earth."

Dean Fleming has been climbing in the U.S. for 17 years and currently works as a climbing photojournalist in the small town of Sonora, CA. Dean is also the publisher of the regional climbing magazine California Climber. www.californiaclimbermagazine.com.

Sources:

"Everest: Then and Now" May 1st 2013, by The American Alpine Club

"Entries From The Top: An Everest Journal with Tom Hornbein" by The American Alpine Club

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American Alpine CLub

Historical information, quotes and images for this story were provided by the American Alpine Club, a charitable organization that provides knowledge and inspiration, conservation and advocacy, and logistical support for the climbing community. The AAC advocates for climbers around the world; provides grants and volunteer opportunities to protect and conserve the places we climb; hosts local and national climbing festivals and events; publishes two of the world's most sought-after climbing annuals, the American Alpine Journal and Accidents in North American Mountaineering; cares for the world's leading climbing library and country's leading mountaineering museum and annually gives about $100,000 toward climbing, conservation, and research grants to adventurers who travel the world.

Learn about additional programs and become a member at americanalpineclub.org. Join the AAC's online community at facebook.com/americanalpineclub or americanalpineclub.org/news.

Canada also has an active climbing organization, the Alpine Club of Canada, based in Canmore, Alberta. The ACC has been a focal point for Canadian mountaineers since 1906. With regional club sections across Canada (accwhistler.ca) membership in the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (UIAA), year round mountain adventures and an extensive system of alpine and backcountry huts throughout the Canadian Rockies, the ACC has grown from its early inception into a full-fledged mountain organization with a strong foundation of volunteer, professional and corporate support. For more go to www.alpineclubofcanada.ca