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.