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May 1 — Team Pays Tribute to First American Ascent of Everest
Posted on May 1, 2009

Everest Dispatch #39
May 1, 2009
Everest Basecamp

By Jake Norton

I probably shouldn’t have accepted the toast from Dave Hahn … after all, red wine with antibiotics to treat a deep-seated chest infection is perhaps not doctor recommended. But, how could I pass it up?

It was nearly 10 years ago that Dave and I and three others—Conrad Anker, Andy Politz, and Tap Richards—stood on a lonely patch of rock at nearly 27,000 feet on Everest’s North Face, each in stunned silence, for lying at our feet were the remains of a legend, a hero, a mystery: George Leigh Mallory. He and his climbing companion, Andrew Irvine, had disappeared 75 years before, virtually without a trace, some 800 feet below the summit.

Yup, this is definitely an anniversary worth toasting, antibiotics or not.

That day was, and is now, the most poignant day in my climbing career, far surpassing the fleeting moments I’ve spent on top of the world, or on top of other peaks around the world. Far removed from personal achievement, our discovery of Mallory was a collision with history, a step back in time, and a humbling, welcome reminder that our goals and accomplishments, successes, and failures in the mountains—and in life—are predicated on the efforts of remarkable people who came before. We are, as I wrote in Issue 1000 of Trail & Timberline Magazine, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Indeed, as I sit in my basecamp tent reflecting on May 1, 1999, I can’t help but think about my predecessors on this side of the mountain: May 1, 1963, when Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu (clad in Eddie Bauer down) struggled through deep snow and blasting winds to stand on the summit of Everest, Jim becoming the first American to reach the top. (Two years later, Gombu would reach the summit again on an Indian expedition, becoming the first person to reach the summit twice.)

Whittaker and Gombu’s ascent was made no less impressive by the tracks that came before: Hillary and Tenzin in 1953, the Swiss in 1956 and the oft-forgotten Swiss expedition of 1952, which put Raymond Lambert and Tenzin Norgay within 800 feet of the summit. And, of course, their tracks were only made possible by the reconnaissance expeditions of ’50 and ’51. And, those, in turn, were enabled by the efforts of the pioneering Everesters of the pre-World War II expeditions of 1938, ’36, ’35, ’33, ’24, ’22, and 1921. None of those would have happened without Sir Martin Conway, the Duke of Abruzzi, Fanny Bullock Workman, General Bruce, Sir Francis Younghusband, John Noel, and countless others who pushed the limits years before. And the tracks go back through the ages, each generation standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before.

To some, that may be demoralizing. To them, the idea that someone had climbed the route before takes something essential away from the enterprise today. For me, however, it is far from demoralizing, and rather is invigorating. To look around me high in the Western Cwm, and see hidden in the layers of snow the footsteps of Hillary and Tenzin, the toil of Whittaker and Gombu, the inspiration of those who came before, well, it inspires me to push on against the demon of the day, against the gnawing forces of inertia, lethargy, and the want of comfort, rest, food, and air. Seeing the giants in these hills, the things they accomplished and all they endured, pushes me onward, upward, and forward.

May 1, 1999, was an amazing day, a direct interaction with one of the many giants on whose shoulders we all stand. Tonight, perhaps another toast ….

Author: - Friday, May 1st, 2009

  1. Steve di Costanzo

    Hats off to Jim Whitaker as well…

  2. ben

    Jake, sorry to hear that you are ill. Your team mates seemed to say in an earlier blog that you know how to shake it off.

    I too was awed simply by reading about finding Mallory in 1999, enough to write a short story about it (“In search of George Mallory” – Swadley). That’s history; the land of giants indeed. Somewhere deep inside me and thousands of others are little sparks of wonder inspired by thoughts of Everest and the men and women who have climbed it.

    Whittaker and Gombu certainly deserve a toast. Besides, wine is good for you.

    These are exciting times. While we in the states are worried about our economy, illness and tensions, at least we can check in on this expedition and be transported to a far away land of real giants.

    Peace & best wishes – Ben

    I’ll check out the Bauer gear!

  3. alicenorton

    Great articles and perspectives! Thanks for letting us all tag along through the superb photos, videos and narratives. Keep strong and be safe! Alice

  4. reneelyse

    As I sit here, in my Land’s End shirt and Classic Elements jeans, I am truly inspired by your daring and bravery. And thank you, Eddie Bauer for making it possible for the rest of us to share in this adventure. Bon courage to all of you!

  5. davidmashburn

    Thanks for the reminder of Everest history. I never tire of these stories of adventure. The inspiration you glean from it and tenacity with which you press on gives me added resilience in these times. Be safe and climb well!

  6. T-Dawg

    Wow! Forty-six years since Jim Whittaker became the 1st American to summit the highest peak in the world. And it is so cool that the First Ascent Team is attempting the same feat with the same outfitter…Eddie Bauer. Peter, Ed, Melissa, Dave, and Seth you all are our heros. Conquer the mountain and come back safe!

  7. scream

    !@#$!!%!# !!!!! phenomenal images and comments every day but the tribute to Jim is icing – how cool for Peter to be sitting with the team in the same spot that Unkie Jim was at almost half a century ago ? ? ? thanx for sharing that with us all ….. keep it up …..see ya’ all safely back in Sun Valley !!!! Melissa – give Gerry a hug or two & slap Harvs around…. kim-bro

  8. doverpro

    Get well. Everyone needs to make it up and back!

  9. Dianne Roberts

    From Jim Whittaker

    Hey! It’s after May 1st. What’s taking so long!

    Seriously, it was so nice hearing from all of you and for taking your time on the mountain to remember our team’s 1963 adventure.Peter, you, Ed and Dave had me laughing and in tears. Melissa, .It was really touching

    Climb safe, enjoy the mountain and we can hardly wait to see you all back home.

    All the best,

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