Written by Vapur Pro Team member, Jake Norton.
When I was 12, my father and I climbed Mount Rainier in Washington. After our climb, we visited my great uncle, Roe Duke Watson, in Seattle. Sensing that I wanted to understand more about this “game” of climbing, Duke disappeared into his office and shortly emerged with a worn and tattered old book, its pages dog-eared and cover scuffed. On the cover was a simple, yet remarkably inspirational, photograph of two climbers silhouetted against a whale-backed ridge and about to disappear into the vast immensity of a Himalayan peak. The photo – and the climb it depicted – is one of the most iconic in all of climbing, showing Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld on the West Ridge of Everest.
Mount Everest is a magical place from a myriad of perspectives. While much aligned in the popular press today (and much of that being deserved), there still is a great deal to be impressed and inspired by on the mountain. From its sheer height and challenge to the wellspring of motivation it touches in its climbers, from the friendships forged on its slopes to the sunrises and sunsets viewed from its shoulders, Everest has a lot to offer to those willing to accept. For me, however, the greatest inspiration emanating from the highest point on earth comes from the past, from the ascents made decades ago and the people and personalities who made them.
In my brief time on Everest – seven expeditions since 1999 – I’ve been fortunate to brush with those historic climbs. I was a researcher and photographer on the Mallory and Irvine expeditions of 1999, 2001, and 2004. And, last spring, climbing for Eddie Bauer, I was able to follow some of the footsteps of Hornbein and Unsoeld.
Spring 2012 was a tough season on Everest, following a uniquely dry winter that left the upper mountain icy, scoured, and raining rock. My teammates – David Morton, Brent Bishop, and Charley Mace – and I worked hard, but were relentlessly pushed back by the route, the conditions, and our choice of climbing style. We didn’t make it too far on the mountain, but we were able to brush with history, to follow some of those inspirational footsteps of Hornbein and Unsoeld. While unsuccessful from a summit standpoint, Spring 2012 stands as one of my top expeditions of all time.
It was exactly fifty years ago today – May 22, 1963 – that Tom and Willi emerged from their tiny tent at 27,300 feet in the Hornbein Couloir on Everest’s North Face. From there, they climbed through difficult terrain – 5.6 crumbling rock, steep snow, and ice – and reached the summit at 6:15pm. They completed a new route on the mountain, and then descended the Southeast Ridge, making the first-ever traverse of Everest. Oh, and they spent the night out in an open bivouac at 28,000 feet to top it off.
To me, though, the most incredible part of their ascent was not the climb itself – although that was phenomenal. Instead, it was the perspective they climbed with and maintained after the climb was done. Tom and Willi were not after praise and pedestals (although they received plenty of both). Instead, they were after the pure essence of climbing: they chose the West Ridge because it presented deep uncertainty. No step was guaranteed on that route, the risk quotient was high, and that’s exactly how they wanted it. The climb to them was about far more than that little patch of snow on top of the world; it was about embracing the uncertainty which is, as Tom says, an “essential seasoning of life.”
For the past year, David Morton and I have been working with our co-director and editor, Jim Aikman, on a film telling the story of Everest in 1963 and the groundbreaking ascent of the West Ridge. We put the final touches on it last week, and High And Hallowed: Everest 1963 will make its world premiere at MountainFilm in Telluride this Friday.
In his book “Another Roadside Attraction”, Tom Robbins wrote that “history is a discipline of aggregate bias.” That may well be true – and I know where my bias stands: the West Ridge in 1963 was perhaps the greatest climb in Himalayan history, and one to inspire for decades to come.
So, on this day, let’s fill our Vapur bottles and tip them back in honor of Tom and Willi and all those who made their ascent possible.