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EverestHistory.com: Tom Hornbein


 

By the time Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld faced off with Everest’s unexplored West Ridge in 1963 only eight men in total had climbed Everest, all by the known South Col. route. It was also the first traverse as they ascended the West Ridge and descended the South Col.

 

Hornbein was born in 1930, in St. Louis, Mo.  A teenage interest in geology turned into an interest in mountains and the mountains became an interest in medicine for Hornbein. He studied geology at the University of Colorado until his curiosity about how the human body reacts to high altitude led him to study medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. Horbien went on to a distinguished career as an anesthesiologist. He served as chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle from 1978 to 1993. His life was a meld of mountains and medicine.

 

As part of a larger American expedition Hornbein and Unsoeld would reach the summit some days after Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest, and just hours after Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad reached the summit from the South Couloir. The four men regrouped as they descended.  At one point Hornbein and Unsoeld  rescued Bishop and Jerstad from a perilous fall into a crevasse. Weather then forced the four men to hunker down without shelter at 8,500 meters.

 

Their situation on the mountain was bleak and as Hornbein himself says there was little they could do but wait.

 

“The night was overpoweringly empty. The black silhouette of Lhotse lurked half-sensed, half-seen, still below. Mostly there was nothing. We hung suspended in a timeless void. Intense cold penetrated... nothing to do but shiver and wait for the sun to rise." — Tom Hornbein, 1963 bivouaced at 28,000 feet.

 

Remarkably the men greet the warming sun frostbitten but alive (during the night Unsoeld removed Hornbein’s boots and warmed his feet against his own belly). They continued their descent to base camp after being met by Dave Dingman, along with a Sherpa guide, who forfeited his own chance at the summit to search for his missing teammates and bring them an emergency oxygen supply. 

 

Seventy-two years old at the time of this writing Hornbein continues to teach and climb.




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