Monday, April 9, 2012

Everest: The West Ridge, by Thomas F. Hornbein

Thomas F. Hornbein tells us what was happening on his side of the mountain during the American Mount Everest Expedition, 1963 in Everest: The West Ridge. While Jim Whittaker, Lute Jerstad and Co. were building up the route and climbing Everest via the South Col, Hornbein, Willi Unsoeld, and a small group of others reconnoitered and climbed the mountain via the West Ridge. It's an overall amazing story-within-a-story (see Ullman's Americans on Everest for an overall picture), as the West Ridge crew fought for supplies, climbers, porters, and even time to make their climb while the Americans were on the mountain. Originally, the expedition had a triple objective, with climbs of Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse planned, but Dyhrenfurth, the expedition leader, planted a seed into the brain of Hornbein, and a new objective grew into the hearts of several climbers during the hike from Kathmandu to the base of the mountain. The climb became an obsession for Hornbein, and he defended the idea of a West Ridge attempt closely, with Unsoeld often tempering his arguments. The small West Ridge team climbed with the leftover supplies and idle porters, as Dyhrenfurth insisted that the South Col team get priority, as the team needed to achieve the summit. After Jim Whittaker (see his A Life on the Edge) an Nawang Gombu climb the mountain on May 1, the West Ridge gets some extra time and resources, though not much of either. Even after a storm takes out their camp on the West Shoulder (and nearly a couple climbers as well), they manage to pull together just enough resources and climbers to place a high camp and send Hornbein and Unsoeld over the top via the (now) Hornbein Couloir and down to the South Col, meeting Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad (see McCallum's Everest Diary) at 28,000 feet for a very uncomfortable night out in the open along the way. It's amazing that on the world's highest mountain they reconnoitered their route only partially (with only a photograph of the ridge to go by beforehand), climbed to the top trusting they would find a way down, traversed the mountain, bivouacked in the open higher than anyone had yet even camped, and lived to write about their adventure.

This is the second time I've read this book, and I could easily pick it up tomorrow and start reading it again. Hornbein concocts an excellent mix of intelligent yet emotional discourse on his climb and drive to accomplish it. He has a sturdy appreciation for Willi Unsoeld, and the book makes a lasting and affecting tribute to this great American philosopher of the mountains (see Leamer's Ascent or Roper's Fatal Mountaineer). Hornbein does some philosophizing of his own in the work, such as a quote I particularly liked: "Like pain, a mountain can be a subjective sensation; for all its solidity and fixity of form, it is more than what one sees. It is awe, pleasure, respect, love, fear, and much, much more. It is an ever-changing, maturing feeling." The two editions of this work are slightly different. The first, from 1965, is somewhat larger, with more photos and quotes from other climbers, though the photos focus more on the trek to the mountain. The second, from 1980, has more photos that focus on the mountain as well as a foreword by Doug Scott, in which Scott presciently predicts that someday, someone will climb Everest in excellent style, alone and without supplementary oxygen. I'm guessing he had no idea Reinhold Messner would do so that very year! I find that Hornbein's book is my favorite of the American expedition accounts, and one of my favorite mountaineering books overall, as it is a grand adventure, told in impeccable style, about the sort of everyday heroes that armchair mountaineers imagine themselves in their finest dreams.

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