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With space to race

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

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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.