Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld’s bold and visionary first ascent of the West Ridge of Mt. Everest, which has been called the greatest Himalayan climb in American mountaineering history.
During the 1963 AMEE expedition, climbers Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld completed the first successful ascent of the West Ridge route and the first-ever traverse of a high Himalayan peak. The first ascent of the West Ridge is still universally respected as one of the greatest achievements in the history of mountaineering. The route is a dangerous one that has presented an equal chance of death or success during the past 50 years. Including the West Ridge direct variation, it has been attempted more than 60 times with only 30 successful climbs yet 20 fatalities, including six French climbers who were killed in an avalanche while attempting the route in 1974. The Hornbein Couloir West Ridge route has only been successfully climbed six times, with the last successful expedition in 1989. In the decades since the first ascent, more
men have stood on the moon than have repeated the West Ridge route of Hornbein and Unsoeld.
“It’s hard to separate that sense of the unknown, the uncertainty, the adventure, from the core essence of why people climb,” David Morton says. “The West Ridge in particular was just one of the best examples in early Himalayan climbing of people trying something completely uncertain just for the adventure of it, and not really even caring about the summit as much as trying something bold.”
It’s easy to celebrate it and romanticize it, but there was a lot of danger back then,” Morton continues. “The stakes were high and when they did the West Ridge particularly, they were either going up and over and down, or they probably weren’t coming back.”
To honor the anniversary of this bold and visionary ascent, Eddie Bauer West Ridge team members Jake Norton, David Morton, Charley Mace, and Brent Bishop traveled to Everest and followed in the footsteps of Unsoeld and Hornbein’s route to within 150 vertical meters of the West Ridge. They spent 45 days battling the mountain but due to dry, wind-scoured terrain, excessive rockfall, and brutal climbing conditions that included bulletproof, ancient ice in the Hornbein Couloir, the West Ridge refused to be climbed in 2012. The West Ridge team was turned back and forced to abandon their climb, but their experience is a potent reminder of the magnitude of the first West Ridge ascent and the challenge that remains.
As our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the AMEE continues on the Live Your Adventure blog, we’ve compiled audio and video that encapsulates the enormity of what Hornbein and Unsoeld accomplished on that fateful May day in 1963.
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