July 04, 2013 Features & Images » Feature Story

With space to race 

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

click to flip through (11) PHOTO BY HENRY S. HALL - An expedition member climbs up a ladder in the Khumbu Icefall.
  • Photo by Henry S. Hall
  • An expedition member climbs up a ladder in the Khumbu Icefall.

"In a way it was a magical moment. There was a little feeling of unreality and at that hour of the day (6:15pm) an incredible beauty. The shadows of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse were off to the east and the colour of the mountains was golden, yellow and orange of sunset. You're not oblivious to the fact that you are standing on the highest point of the Earth, having just succeeded in muddling your way up an unknown ridge. There is also that anxiety of realizing that it's going to be dark pretty soon and you have to get down the other side."

- Tom Hornbein 1963 AMEE Team) recalls the summit of Everest's West Ridge

Competitive nationalism rapidly advanced exploration in the 1960s. The great Space Race, a contest between Russia and America for extraterrestrial firsts, is perhaps the most famous national rivalry of the era. In the mid '60s, rockets were launched daily by both countries, each one vying to be known as the more technologically advanced country. Meanwhile, back on Earth, terrestrial explorations were seen as an equally viable way to showcase national superiority. From the highest mountain ranges to the deepest oceans, expeditions funded by government dollars explored some of the most severe terrain on the planet. As the tallest mountain on Earth, the summit of Mount Everest (8,848 metres) was a prize in the eyes of both experienced mountaineers and ambitious bureaucrats.

On May 1,1963 an American expedition lead by Norman Dyhrenfurth placed Seattle, Washington native Jim Whittaker on the summit of Mount Everest. Whittaker is highly regarded as the first American to set foot on the summit of Everest via the South Col Route, a line previously established by New Zealand climber Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepal's Tenzing Norgay in 1953. But the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition (AMEE) didn't stop there. After a few weeks rest, four other American climbers would take on the world's highest peak. Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein would tackle the previously unclimbed West Ridge. Meanwhile, Americans Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop would ascend via the South Col Route and meet the West Ridge climbers on the summit.

Although the climbers would not meet on top of the formation on May 22 as planned, both teams would reach the summit and tackle the harrowing descent back to Base Camp as a group.

In climbing and mountaineering first ascents are highly coveted, yet for these men the accomplishments were more personal than competitive. Each member of the AMEE Team had a great passion for mountaineering, a personal goal to reach the summit of Mount Everest and, most importantly, the ability to pull it off. As the first successful summit bid on the peak by American climbers, the ascents of the team were widely received and heavily publicized, yet the AMEE Team would not fully realize the effect this climb would have on a global scale until they were back on U.S. soil.

"It is inspirational in the lives of other people, but I have to say, when I was up there climbing on Everest, that wasn't what was going through my head at all," said Tom Hornbein of the 1963 AMEE Team.

May 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Mount Everest. The date sparked fundraisers, media events and marketing campaigns by a handful of United States-based companies and organizations, but the event also brought a sense of reflection from the world-wide climbing community about the current state of Everest and the style in which the peak is currently climbed.

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