May 23, 2016
WILLI AND TOM
MONTPELIER – A little after seven in the morning of May 22, 1953, the two climbers struggled out of their tiny mountain tent, tied themselves together, as they had done probably hundreds of times before, at opposite ends of their rope. They fiddled for about twenty minutes with a recalcitrant oxygen fitting and finally, just before seven, keenly aware of passing time, turned to the climb. One of them took a photograph, pointing up the narrow couloir rising above them. Looking at that photo, you can tell that the man who took it knew that he and his partner would not be coming back down that way. They left their sleeping bags, air mattresses, and tent behind and started up toward the highest point on the planet. All in.
The mid-20th century was an exciting time to be young. With the Second World War over, the confidence and energy of the winners boiled over into other pursuits. It was much like the spate of British Arctic exploration that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Those of us who were interested in mountaineering held our breaths as a 1952 Swiss expedition struggled to the south summit of Mount Everest, only 800 vertical feet lower than the summit, before turning back from exhaustion when an oxygen system failed. Then the British, who in effect “owned” the mountain because of their eight previous attempts dating back to 1921, succeeded in putting two climbers on top on May 29, 1953. It was the week of my eighteenth birthday; I remember thinking, “Shucks! There it goes.” The climbers dedicated their success to the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II, who responded with a pair of knighthoods and other imperial honors.
Over the next few years, other nations’ climbers attempted Everest. The Swiss put four men on the summit in 1956, but subsequent attempts by India failed. The Chinese claimed to have made it in 1960 (unauthenticated and doubted), and an American party in 1962 reached about 25,000 feet.
The United States was given a permit by Nepal to have a go at it in 1963. And have a go it did: A more or less organized mob of about 1000 climbers, Sherpas, sirdars, porters, and supernumeraries wound in a great snake from Kathmandu to Base Camp. “A tremendous family to provide for!” Scrooge would have said; but after dumping their loads, the porters left to hike back home, and the job of establishing camps up the now -well-known route began.
A huge expedition doesn’t get far without help from commercial interests. A great deal of attention is given, therefore, to satisfying the priorities of each. No purveyors of an energy drink wants his product associated with an unsuccessful expedition. Thus there was strong pressure from the top of the hierarchy on down to reach the summit, and the surest way to do that was by the previously climbed route – what team member Willi Unsoeld wryly called “the milk run.”
Willi and his best climbing buddy, Tom Hornbein, were, respectively, a Ph.D. in philosophy and religion and an M.D. anesthesiologist. Climbers and individualists by nature, they were less than enthusiastic about the corporate aims of the expedition. I’ve never met Tom Hornbein, but I can attest that Willi never met a regulation he didn’t see a need for without challenging it. When we did a reconnaissance in the spring of 1991 for a summer Outward Bound course in Maine’s Baxter Park, he simply picked up a map and hiked into the park without registering (a severe no-no), camped wherever night overtook him (a hanging offense), and afterward simply drove home.
On the 1953 Everest expedition, Tom and Willi contributed like good soldiers to establishing the route and the camps (and secretly identified the Sherpas they liked the best). Then they began militating for a new, untried route to the summit, up the fearsome-looking west ridge. They managed to get enough supplies and human resources diverted to their effort, and at length, after being literally blown off the ridge by an incredible storm (“I kept thinking, as all that wind went by at 100 miles an hour, hour after hour, that there must be a huge hole in the sky somewhere else,” said Willi), they found themselves in their tiny tent at 27,250 feet in what was already called the Hornbein Couloir. At four the next morning their sleeping oxygen ran out and started their day.
It’s somehow almost obscene to old-time lovers of mountains to compare that climb of those two men – up the rotten, loose, down-sloping, ice-coated roof tiles of the notorious Yellow Band, unable to descend except by going up and over the summit, and unsure of what lay above them – to the hordes of lockstep men and women ascending the fixed ropes of the Lhotse Face (400 so far this year; four dead and two missing this week) past frozen corpses in expensive gear.
Tom Hornbein’s book Everest – The West Ridge has a perpetual place on my bed stand with Don Quixote. Stymied by darkness and a dead flashlight from descending the night after their successful summit, they huddled at 28,000 feet with two teammates who’d ascended from the other side, but had been delayed by a fire in their tent that morning. Hornbein describes the total darkness and bone-chilling cold of their night-long bivouac: the looming shapes of mountains unseen, but sensed, and the “cold, unshimmering light” of the stars (stars don’t twinkle at high altitudes because there’s so little atmosphere), “Survival was...only a dulled impatience for the sun to rise....Then as the cold yellow light touched us, we rose. There were still miles to go.”
Willi died in an avalanche on Mount Rainier in 1979; but every year, wherever he was on May 23, he called Tom wherever he was. I thought that a very nice thing to do, so I sent Tom an e-mail this morning. He’s 85 now, but he texts: “Thanks,” he wrote. “We find ourselves cruising across Prince William Sound this particular day.”