One of the last great old and bold mountaineers left a legacy we all can follow.
By Luis Benitez
As the saying goes, “There are old mountaineers, and there are bold mountaineers, but there are no old and bold mountaineers.” The premise is that those who dare to be legendary and take great risks rarely make it to an advanced age—mostly due to living a life too close to the edge.
Dr. Tom Hornbein will forever be the reason why that phrase no longer has merit.
To say Hornbein was an icon in the mountaineering world would be an understatement. He ticked off multiple first ascents around the world, created and improved on complex high-altitude oxygen systems for Himalayan climbers, and left behind a body of work on high altitude physiology that would prove instrumental in helping climbers understand how to keep themselves and their clients safe at altitude. Of course, he is best known for his boldest accomplishment, climbing the daunting West Ridge of Everest in 1963, pioneering a new route with partner Willi Unsoeld at a time when true high-altitude adventure in the Himalayas was perceived to be as exotic as attempting to walk on the moon (which would come six years later).
Hornbein was diminutive in stature, and it would have been easy to write off this Midwestern trained anesthesiologist. He was serving in the Navy at the time of his 1963 Everest climb and the request for his leave to join the trip went all the way up to President Kennedy. Furthermore, his work on the oxygen systems was an integral part of the effort to put the first American, Jim Whittaker, on the summit of Everest during that same expedition.
The story could end there, but Hornbein, in his ever present brash and forward attitude towards his belief in pushing hard, boldly suggested at the start of the expedition that they scrap “redoing the route that Hillary proved was possible” and focus all efforts towards a new route on Everest. After the rest of the team got through their laughter and looked over at the doctor, they realized he was dead serious. While Hornbein didn’t get the full measure of support for focusing on a new route, this is the part that makes the story even better.
…Hornbein, in his ever present brash and forward attitude towards his belief in pushing hard, boldly suggested at the start of the expedition that they scrap “redoing the route that Hillary proved was possible” and focus all efforts towards a new route on Everest.
The agreement was, once the summit was secured, then whatever remaining resources could be directed towards “Toms folly.” The line they chose would make any mountaineer quiver in fear—a direct line, weaving up the west shoulder of Everest, then to a steep and intimidating gulley (which would later come to be known as the Hornbein Couloir) that would connect with the summit.
Hornbein and Unsoeld threw themselves at the task, knowing that the clock was ticking for the expedition to pack up and go home. Bit by bit they reached higher and higher on the mountain. On summit day, after technical climbing above 26,000 feet that they knew they couldn’t reverse, it was clear that the only way to survive was to go “up and over.” Ascending a new route, and then descending down the route the rest of the team had taken. Reaching the summit at sunset, they knew it would be impossible to reach the high camp on the normal route before nightfall. To make matters worse, they bumped into Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, two climbers from their team who had reached the summit that day but were struggling to make it back to camp after the effort.
In an era when gear wasn’t to the standards of today, the four climbers spent the night out high on Everest. This move would cost a few of them toes and others fingertips to frostbite. Hornbein emerged unscathed and went on to write Everest; The West Ridge, which stands as a testament to the team, their Sherpas, and the overall adventure. In those pages, you can feel the optimism of what it meant to be an American in the 1960’s. The belief that anything was possible, and that striving towards a higher goal while representing your country was merit enough.
As a young climber, this book became my Bible. I read and re-read it more times than I can recall. I returned to it during Everest expeditions of my own, trying to understand the bravery and boldness required for such an undertaking.
IN THOSE PAGES, YOU CAN FEEL THE OPTIMISM OF WHAT IT MEANT TO BE AN AMERICAN IN THE 1960’S. THE BELIEF THAT ANYTHING WAS POSSIBLE, AND THAT STRIVING TOWARDS A HIGHER GOAL WHILE REPRESENTING YOUR COUNTRY WAS MERIT ENOUGH.
Hornbein moved from the Pacific Northwest to Estes Park, Colorado, later in life to return to the mountains that first captivated him as a 13-year-old boy. Getting to know him during this time was a true joy. It is said often, when you meet your heroes, they disappoint. My time with Tom couldn’t have been further from that. Always willing to offer advice, counsel, and simply his willingness to take a walk around the hills behind his home, what struck me the most was his insatiable curiosity for what was around the corner.
In an era where mountaineering has seemed to become more about Instagram feeds and likes, Hornbein’s example still shines through to a select few of the up-and-coming generation of climbers, who imbed the curiosity towards the cultures and the communities and the ecosystems through which they travel. To one of the last great old and bold mountaineers, thank you for showing us all that what’s inside of us, is stronger than what’s in our way.
Luis Benitez was the first director of the Outdoor Recreation Industry office for the State of Colorado and worked with VF Corporation, creating and leading a global government affairs function and restructuring and re-launching The VF Foundation. Throughout his career as a professional mountaineering guide, Luis has summited the top of the famed “Seven Summits” a cumulative 32 times, including six summits of Mount Everest.