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1963. Everest West Ridge Traverse

1963. Everest West Ridge Traverse

Ed Webster

For Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, such a tentsite—if you could call it that—couldn’t have been a more thrilling perch for the night. From 27,200 feet up this prominent couloir on Everest’s north face, a glance out the tent door revealed Gyanchung Kang and Cho Oyu, proud patriarchs astride the Nepal-Tibet border. Frozen footsteps from Al Auten and their support Sherpas disappeared below and marked their tenuous link with the known world and safety. Life—exploring, achieving, the comradeship of partners, food, and a hot drink—could only be continued if Willi and Tom, somehow, managed to traverse Everest’s summit and join Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop on the South Col route.

No one had traversed the summit of Everest before; likely, no mountaineer had ever considered it a viable option. Unsoeld and Horbein did. But clearly there was now no easy seduction of “descent” or “going down.” There was only the blue, nearly oxygenless sky embracing them, frost crystals tinkling into the 10,000-foot abyss beneath them, and the mountain’s upper, wind- chiseled west ridge. They were scared, but not terrified. Each man was an academic and an adventurer, scholarly in his own bent. Tom and Willi were secure in what they believed in and firm in their self confidence. Together, they could think and rationalize and climb their way out of most any blind corner.

“It’s like Long’s Peak—just bigger,” mused Tom, contemplating his summer training grounds on Colorado’s most challenging 14,000-foot peak, recalling his halcyon adventures making the first ascents of Zummie’s Thumb and the Hornbein Crack. And in those morning hours of May 22,1963, as he turned another corner in the gully, Tom’s partner did likewise, cocking his oxygen mask upward to see the raw limestone of the Yellow Band, a rocky headstone barring their exit onto Everest’s summit ridge. “Whew, just a little bit more than the Grand Teton, isn’t it?” said Willi.

Surpassing the 28,000-foot-mark, the two men severed every fiber of earthly connection that had secured them to the rest of humanity. Now, tied to a single climbing rope, they were anchored to each other and to fate and the stars that would soon sparkle overhead if they didn’t escape the confines of this rock-walled gully.

Next came the crux, moving diagonally right, crampons scraping on limestone, against the friable former ocean bed of the Tethys Sea. Welcoming terrain, easier ground but exposed—so exposed!— beckoned the pair onto the summit ridge of the world, the final pyramid-sharp crest of Everest’s upper west ridge. The sun dropped into the western haze of the Himalayan horizon. The men’s hearts pounded in a constant drumbeat, conversation now reduced to exclamations as their jagged ridge gradually merged with a snow arête leading to ... a wind-torn flag, planted on the summit three weeks earlier by Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu.

A small town “can-do” attitude and that resilient American curiosity had compelled Tom and Willi to step out of the bounds of safety, to go stridently beyond reasonable risk, to grapple with fears unknown, to climb a route into the unknown on Earth’s highest mountain. Out of both plan and necessity, they would make the first traverse of Everest. After photographing the sunset, the two commenced descending, following the recent footsteps of their companions Lute and Barry who’d attained the summit earlier that day.

Miles to go before these four men could sleep, a reunion high upon Everest’s southeast ridge, then a stern forced bivouac above 28,000 feet—at the time, the highest ever made—that would steal some of the men’s fingers and toes. But their brave footsteps, their friendship and camaraderie, would inspire every generation of mountaineers worldwide to climb into the high unknown after them.