Death of Tom Hornbein, the man of the West Ridge of Everest

The American mountaineer Tom Hornbein died on Saturday, the 6th of May 2023 at the age of 92. He is the first who crossed the West Ridge of Everest with Willy Unsoeld in 1963. He left his name to the impressive corridor on the Tibetan side of the Himalayan giant. A look back at the life of an extraordinary mountaineer thanks to journalist Joel Connelly, who had the chance to talk to Hornbein on several occasions.

Tom Hornbein is known for one of mountaineering’s epic achievements: the 1963 climb of Mount Everest’s West Ridge with Willi Unsoeld (1926-1979), in which the two men traversed the 29,028-foot summit of the earth and spent a night exposed at 27,900 feet. He wrote a celebrated book, Everest: The West Ridge, reissued in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the climb. But Hornbein never returned to the Khumbu region of Nepal, explaining simply, “It was a once in a lifetime event. Life goes forward” (Interview, April 24, 2013).

Mountains shaped Hornbein’s life but, in the words of climber friend Bill Sumner, “He is far from a one-dimensional famous climber” (Interview, January 7, 2014). Hornbein spent his career as a physician and medical researcher, much of it in Seattle, where he joined the faculty of the University of Washington Medical School shortly after his historic climb and later served for 16 years as chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology.

After retiring he moved with his wife Kathy to Estes Park, Colorado, within sight of Long’s Peak where his climbing began nearly 70 years earlier. This is where he died on the morning of Saturday, the 6th of May 2023.

Tom Hornbein during the 1963-expedition to Everest. ©DR

Discovering mountains

Tom Hornbein grew up in St. Louis. His parents – his father was an advertising and public relations man at Famous-Barr in St. Louis, the first department store with air conditioning in America, and his mother was a homemaker – were confronted with a scrawny little kid who loved to climb on rocks and trees. At the age of 13 they sent him off to Cheley Colorado Camps, the historic summer camp founded two decades earlier (and as of 2014 still introducing young people to the Rockies). The experience at Cheley began to shape him: “I discovered mountains. It was the biggest, most pivotal event of my life. Mountains proceeded to direct everything I did in my life.”

And, he added, “I met a guy named Nick Clinch.” Clinch was three days older than Hornbein. The friendship began as kids doing grunt work (like cleaning toilets) at camp. Less than two decades later in 1960, they would be together in a party that made the first ascent of 25,566-foot Masherbrum, in the Karakoram (Pakistan).

The 1960 Masherbrum expedition
needed a mountaineering doctor

Becoming a doctor and an alpinist

When it came time for college, Hornbein headed for the hills, namely the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I spent every spare minute climbing, often cutting my classes and laboratories.” He was a geology major, but grew interested in medicine after being active in the Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue Group. He switched to pre-med after three years, and found that Washington University in St. Louis was willing to look at a student with, as he put it, “experience off the path.” He developed, in medical school, a lifelong interest in humans’ and animals’ adaptation to altitude.

The 1960 expedition to Masherbrum “needed a climbing doctor.” The climb introduced Hornbein to Willi Unsoeld and Dick Emerson, members of the future Everest expedition. The expedition had difficulty with its oxygen masks, prompting Hornbein to work at designing a new mask.

Willy Usoeld and Tom Hornbein on the West Ridge of Everest (1963) ©DR

Getting to Everest

The first legend of Hornbein and high places was how he came to go on the 1963 Everest expedition. He was serving in the U.S. Navy when expedition leader Norman Dyhrenfurth asked him to join. The supervising admiral in San Diego was enthusiastic, but Washington, D.C., nixed the idea. Hornbein was needed, as it turned out, on the Mekong River in Vietnam.

As head of the Peace Corps in Nepal, Willi Unsoeld had met the agency’s founder, Sargent Shriver. He intervened with Shriver. Reportedly, Shriver called his brother-in-law President John F. Kennedy, who then called Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Hornbein was in the operating room in San Diego when he was called to the phone. An admiral came on the line and said, “I understand you want to go climb Mount Everest” — Hornbein replied in the affirmative — “I’ve been instructed you may do so, but you’re going to have to leave the navy.” The story sounded too good even for Hornbein, so when he met one of the principal players years later, “I asked Robert McNamara. He laughed and told me, ‘That’s exactly what happened‘.”

The 1963 American Everest expedition
had two quasi-conflictinG objectives

The 1963 American Everest expedition had two quasi-conflicting objectives. The first was to put a man on the summit first claimed a decade earlier by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The South Col approach, already climbed by British and Swiss expeditions, beckoned.

The second hope was to pioneer a new route. Hornbein had seen an aerial shot of Everest taken by the Indian Air Force. He studied the West Ridge, and saw a narrow couloir that offered a possible route to the summit. “The real climb would be the new route,” Unsoeld’s widow, Jolene Unsoeld, explained a half-century later.

Dyhrenfurth felt obligated, given support for the expedition, to put a party on the summit using the South Col route, saying, as Hornbein recalled: “If we don’t pull it off (doing the West Ridge alone) we might end up with nothing” (Interview, November 21, 2013). The Americans, without drama, resolved the matter as adults, according to Hornbein.

The expedition’s resources would first go to the established South Col route. He and Unsoeld held out hope for the West Ridge, seeking the route because it was unknown. “We weren’t seeking risk, but — to be truthful — risk is uncertainty. The West Ridge was about maximizing uncertainty. The South Col was zero. Uncertainty maximizes challenge.”

Climbing the West Ridge

When expedition member Jim Whittaker of Seattle summited via the South Col, becoming the first American to stand atop Everest, the West Ridge climbers had their chance. They experienced wild winds, and found the crux of the route to be what became formally known as Hornbein’s Couloir — informally “Hornbein’s Avalanche Chute.

In his book, Hornbein described the scene as he prepared for the final push: “Completely alone: Range on range hazed westward. Beneath me clouds drifted over Lho La, chasing their shadows across the flat of the Rongbuk Glacier. I remembered afternoons of my childhood, when I watched the changing shapes of clouds against a deep blue sky, sensing elephants and horses and soft mountains. On this lonely ridge I was part of all I saw: A single, feeble heartbeat in the span of time, and space about me.” (Everest: The West Ridge)

It is too hard to go back
It would be too dangerous

Hornbein and Unsoeld reached the summit late in the afternoon. As Unsoeld radioed Whittaker at base camp, “It’s too damned tough to try to go back. It would be too dangerous” (Everest: The West Ridge). The men started down the South Col route. They soon caught up with Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, who had climbed that route earlier in the day. Darkness settled over the mountain known to Tibetans as Chomolongma, or “Goddess Mother of the Earth.

All other mountains belong to the Earth, the Himalayas belong to the heavens,” John Kenneth Galbraith wrote after his stint as U.S. Ambassador to India (A Life …). He’s right. Everest is up in the jet stream. The mountain is recognizable, even from afar, by the great plume of snow blowing off its summit.

Hornbein gives a simple explanation for his survival: “That night there was not any wind. Had there been, we would not be having this conversation” (Interviews, April 24 and November 21, 2013).

The normal Nepalese route, via the South Col (right) and the West Ridge via the Hornbein Couloir on the Tibetan side. ©The Denver Post

Telling the story

Hornbein was largely unscarred, but has observed (sometimes in jest) that his mind was never quite the same after the night spent at 27,900 feet. Willi Unsoeld lost nine of his toes to frostbite. Unsoeld died 16 years later in an avalanche on Mount Rainier. “Tom continues the tradition, every year, of calling me on the anniversary of the [Everest] climb,” said Jolene Unsoeld (Interview, February 20, 2014).

Rarely has a book aged as well as Everest: The West Ridge. For each edition, Hornbein wrote a new introduction, updating the lives and the passing of those on the 1963 climb. In those updates, he is clearly discussing treasured friendships.

Hornbein reflected, 50 years after his climb, “My experience was doing something I love to do. This was simply a bigger mountain to which was attached more notoriety. I wanted to show a small group of people working together, solving problems through daily interactions. I wanted to make it real” (Interview, April 24, 2013).

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