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With space to race

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

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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."