Americans On Everest: A Look Back At The Famous 1963 Expedition

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the first American to summit Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain on the planet at 29,029 feet in height. That successful venture came ten years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent of that mountain, but in the decade that had followed only four other climbers had managed to stand on top. The 1963 expedition would not only put an American on the summit for the first time, it would also open an entirely new route that had never been climbed before. That expedition would also go down in history as one of the most daring and successful ever, setting the standard for those that would follow.

Ironically enough, the expedition was actually led by a transplanted Swiss climber by the name of Norman Dyhrenfurth. He took a team that consisted of 19 Americans, 32 Sherpas and 909 porters carrying 27 tons of gear and equipment to the mountain. In those days there was no airport in the Everest region, so that trek began in Kathmandu and covered 183 miles on foot. It took a month just to reach Base Camp, which was where the real work would begin.

In the early weeks of the expedition the team concentrated on acclimatizing to the altitude and preparing for the challenges of climbing the South Col route pioneered by Hillary and Norgay. Those efforts payed off early on when 34-year-old Jim Whittaker of Seattle, WA, and his Sherpa guide Nawang Gombu, planted the U.S. flag at the summit on May 1. It was a huge day for Whittaker personally and an even bigger one for American mountaineering.But the expedition was far from over. On May 22, three weeks after Whittaker’s historic climb, four more Americans would head to the top of the world. Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad would once again go up the South Col while their companions Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld would attempt a difficult new route along the West Ridge. No one had ever approached the summit from that direction before and it would be a true test of their skill and endurance. Not only did Hornbein and Unsoeld successfully manage to complete that route, they met Bishop and Jerstad on the summit. Those two men had endured an eight hour climb in high winds to reach the top as well, and while there they managed to capture the first ever video footage from the summit of Everest.

Any mountaineer will be quick to tell you that the summit is only the halfway point and the four men still had to get back down safely. They started to descend just as the darkness of night settled over the mountain, making an already treacherous experience even worse. At one point, the two groups became separated and Bishop and Jerstad had to stand in place for several hours, calling out to the companions in an effort to help lead them with the sound of their voices. Eventually they were reunited, and the descent would continue, but after stumbling along in the darkness for several more hours they decided to risk bivouacing for the night.

Using a rock outcropping as shelter, the men huddled close for warmth. Without tents or a sleeping bag, they knew their chances of survival were slim, but they didn’t relish the idea of falling down the South Col in the darkness either. The high winds subsided some, bringing a small measure of comfort. But they were all freezing, exhausted and hungry. Their chances of survival looked grim.

But survive they did and the dawn brought them new hope. Resuming their descent they came across teammate Dave Dingman, who had abandoned his own summit bid to search for his missing friends. Dingman and a Sherpa brought bottled oxygen for the team and then helped to safely lead them back down the mountain. Unsoeld and Bishop had suffered severe frostbite to their feet however and would need to be evacuated as quickly as possible. In the end, Unsoeld would lose nine of his toes and Bishop would lose all ten, plus the tips of his little fingers.

When it was over the expedition set a new standard for high altitude mountaineering. The U.S. team had put five climbers on the summit, more than any other before it. It also opened a new route along the West Ridge, which remains one of the greatest achievements in mountaineering history. The summit push marked the first time that two teams simultaneously approached the summit from different routes as well, something that others would do in the years that followed.

The five-minute video below was released by National Geographic following this important climb back in 1963. It spotlights some of the difficult conditions the American team faced while on Everest. Today, there are hundreds of successful summits each year on that mountain, but back then it remained an elusive and deadly challenge.

[Photo Credit: National Geographic]