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Into The Vast Unknown: The First American Ascent of Mount Everest

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 30, 2022 3:05 am

Into The Vast Unknown: The First American Ascent of Mount Everest

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 30, 2022 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Brot Coleman tells the harrowing story of the time America reached the highest peak in the world not once, but twice, on their first expedition to it in 1963.

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This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people.

To search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app, to the Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast. Up next, a story about a 29,000 32-foot-tall mountain in Nepal and the ragtag group of men from across the United States who decided to climb it during one of the most transformative years in our nation's history, 1963. Here to tell the story is Brat Obern, author of The Vast Unknown. Let's get into the story.

I was in the seventh grade in middle school in Tacoma, Washington, when the students in our class were summoned to the assembly hall to listen to a guest speaker. And in walked a man with a grizzled beard and laser-like eyes. And he looked at all of us, reached down, opened a zipper of his Kelty frame pack, and pulled out a bottle and passed it around the room.

It contained his nine blackened toes that had been amputated in the capital city of Nepal. And we were horrified and delighted. And at that point, I was hooked. The man was Willy Unsold. And it turned out that Willy Unsold had led a life of charity because he was rescued in 1949 after making an attempt on a peak in India by some missionaries. And they turned him on to a life of service. So I really wanted to follow in Willy Unsold's footsteps. I joined the Peace Corps. I was assigned to Nepal.

And I learned about the American Everest expedition of 1963. The United States was really in a time of tremendous uncertainty. The Cuban Missile Crisis was underway where the Soviets were attempting to deliver nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba.

The civil rights movement was ramping up. And in 1958, just a few years earlier, the Soviets had launched a basketball-sized satellite named Sputnik. And the beep, beep, beep of Sputnik became something of a soundtrack for the suspicion that our adversaries, the Soviets, were going to take the high road and claim supremacy in the space race.

So America was behind the eight ball. And it inspired President John F. Kennedy in his famous moon speech in Houston in 1960 to declare that the United States would place a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?

Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other thing.

Not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. And in that speech, he invoked the great British climber, George Mallory, who was lost on Everest, headed for the summit. Many years ago, the great British explorer, George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked, why did he want to climb it? He said, because it is there.

Well, space is there. And we're going to climb it. It was Mallory's spirit of reaching into the vast unknown that inspired Kennedy and the Americans to want to take on a task as daunting and uncertain as climbing Mount Everest. In 1949, India became independent from Britain. And so the British were trying to maintain some kind of colonial presence around the world. They'd lost India, but maybe they could capture Everest. The British and the Swiss had long had a proprietary interest in mountains of the world. The British were the primary climbers in the Alps of Switzerland and Italy, and they were guided by the Swiss. So the Swiss were also quite interested in reaching the top. And in fact, in 1952, a year before the British, the Swiss were able to stage two expeditions to the mountain.

They came very close to the summit, but they didn't reach it. And so an opportunity opened up for the British in 1953. Now, one gentleman who was on the Swiss expedition in 1952, he was tweaked by this achievement of the British.

He had long assumed that the Swiss would make it to the top. He was a Swiss Austrian himself. His name was Norman Direnferth. Except that Norman Direnferth's parents, who were great explorers and mappers and climbers of the Himalayas in the early 1900s, they were concerned about the development of Nazism in Europe.

Norman's mother, Hetty, was half Jewish. So when Norman was a teenager in 1938, he and his mother emigrated to the United States. And while Norman was in the U.S., he dreamed that perhaps Americans, the people of his new country, could stage an expedition to Everest.

And you're listening to Brock Coburn tell the story of the ragtag group of men from across this country who decided to climb Mount Everest. When we come back, more of this remarkable story on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. A place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

Go to to learn more. And we continue with Our American Stories and the story of the first American ascent of the world's highest mountain, Mount Everest. When we last left off, Brock Coburn, author of The Vast Unknown, was telling us about the state of the world in 1963. We were in the midst of the Cold War and tensions were high. However, there was a growing desire to explore the vast unknown. One place that was unknown to Americans was space, the other the summit of Everest. And one European immigrant to this great country had a desire to change that. His name was Norman Derenforth.

Let's get back to the story. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of Everest is just getting to the base of the mountain. There are no roads in eastern Nepal, so getting there required an 18-day trek up and down a vertical equivalent of Everest itself just to get to base camp.

And once they arrived at base camp, the daunting challenge that presented itself right away is the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, which is a moving river of apartment house-sized blocks of ice that can collapse and crush climbers in a second. And in fact, by 1953, after Tenzing Norgay and Ed Hillary climbed to the top, twice as many climbers had died on the mountain as had reached the top. But Norman Derenforth, now an American, had been on Everest in 1952 and he really had a grasp of the challenges that they would face.

He had been high on the mountain. He knew it was possible to reach the top. And he knew it would be especially possible for young, tough, strong Americans to be able to reach it as well. Norman knew that opportunity, excellence, perseverance and success were really at the heart of the American dream.

Perhaps there could be a core of people who were driven to climb mountains just as they were in Europe. And so he turned to the Tetons of Wyoming and there he ran into a core of college students, really, who were exemplified by the young men Barry Corbett and Jake Breitenbach. These were Dartmouth students who every summer used to drive their battered 1949 Hudson across the U.S. before the freeways were installed and knock off new routes up the peaks in the Tetons.

And Norman knew that these guys were at least the beginning of forming a team consisting of the right stuff. In fact, Barry and Jake in particular were referred to as SABs, or Supremely Able-Bodied. And there were other Tetons climbers. Dick Emerson, a sociologist, was a guide during the summers in the Tetons.

Willie Unsold. So he recruited these gentlemen and he also went out to the Pacific Northwest where one of the legends, Jim Whitaker, known as Big Jim Whitaker, had climbed Mount Rainier more than a hundred times. And he and his twin brother were recruited to the expedition. They also suggested that a Sherpa who was a nephew of Tenzing Norgay, named Naungombu, also be included on the expedition.

He had carried heavy loads to very high elevation. And Norman knew that he would need some science to go along with the expedition. The National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. in particular, would want to learn more about the glaciology of the mountain. So they took on a geologist named Maynard Miller and they took on Jim Lester, a psychologist from Southern California.

Barry Bishop of the National Geographic Society would be the media connection. And Lute Jurstad, a hotshot guide and climber from Oregon, would definitely be a strong climber for the expedition. Lute used to surprise his guided clients on Mount Rainier when they reached the summit of the 14,000-foot peak.

He would open up his rucksack and pull out an entire watermelon. But experience alone isn't quite enough for a mountain as big and as far away and distant and isolated as Everest. So he was also looking for some character attributes, such as maturity and ability to respond to extremely difficult situations.

And a willingness to face risk because there was a likelihood that one or more of the members of his team would not return. His biggest challenge at that point was convincing sponsors and the government of the U.S. into endorsing and hopefully funding an expedition to the mountain. Why would anyone in America really care about Everest?

Everest was a geological oddity. It was a long way from anywhere that mattered to Americans. And it had little to offer sponsors who were looking for productive applications in technology or defense. Now in Europe, politics was closely entwined with athletics, not like in the U.S. And the Soviets had budgeted very large amounts to their athletic teams to essentially show that communism was the best form of government. But Americans were left with very little support.

When Norman Derenforth approached the U.S. government and tried to get a meeting with President Kennedy, they rebuffed him. In a sense, America was a little bit afraid. Failure would be a big embarrassment. It would be an embarrassment not only in the context of athletics and climbing relative to Europe and the rest of the world, but in an era when we were striving to solve our domestic problems, it was considered to be dangerous.

America had more to lose than it had to gain. But Norman and these other young idealistic climbers knew a place like Everest was a venue where they could project their dreams. Gradually, they overcame that resistance and they realized that, of course, if America could place a man on the moon by the end of the decade, why shouldn't they be able to put a human on top of the world's highest point? And it was at the National Geographic Society that they decided to take on this project. Of course, they knew that one of the key outputs from their point of view would be media, photographs, movies, and so on. Norman Derenforth was a filmmaker. He'd had a television program and he was a director of one of the film schools at the University of Southern California. And he jumped at the possibility of being able to document this expedition for the Americans. And we've been listening to Brot Coburn, author of The Vast Unknown. And by the way, what a story he's telling.

As Norman Derenforth was assembling this team, he knew that experience wasn't enough. He was looking, he said, for maturity, the ability to confront catastrophe, and the appetite for risk. And then hoping for an endorsement from either a corporate sponsor or a government sponsor, the National Geographic Society stepped up.

What was the upside? Media, folks. Great stories, great pictures, and great film. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of America's first team to scale Mount Everest, here on Our American Stories. . And we continue with Our American Stories and the story of the first American ascent of Mount Everest. When we last left off, Brot Coburn, author of The Vast Unknown, was telling us about the creation of Norman Derenforth's team that he put together to climb the mountain consisting of climbers from the Tetons and Pacific.

Let's pick up where Brot left off. Norman had his hands full in trying to manage this odd collection of characters who had come together in a single unified goal. Because of all the funding that was at stake, Norman had essentially guaranteed the National Geographic Society that they would deliver the summit. And the easiest way to deliver Mount Everest, in a sense, was to climb it by the route that had already been climbed by the British and the Swiss.

But some tensions began to develop. There was a faction consisting mainly of climbers from the Tetons who wondered if it might just be possible to pull off a new route on Everest, something that would impress even the great European climbers or the Swiss. It just might be possible to forge a new route up the west ridge of Everest. Many of the other members of the expedition in Norman felt that applying too much attention to this new route on the west ridge could jeopardize their chance of bringing home the summit. And one of the big problems that they recognized was that if the west ridge of Everest could be climbed, they all knew that those climbers would not be able to descend by the same route for various technical reasons and the shape of the rock that they would be descending. Those climbers would have to descend by the standard south coal route. In other words, they would have to descend by a route they had never seen. And so Norman decided after a lot of discussion and bickering that they would climb the easy route up Mount Everest, if you want to call it that. And if there was time and supplies and material and supplemental oxygen remaining after that climb, then the west ridge faction would have a shot by their daring new route. Now, here they are at base camp facing the daunting Khumbu Icefall. And they didn't have exactly a plan because there were so many variables at that point, which climbers would be strong, which would be sick or suffering from altitude sickness.

What would the weather conditions bring them? There was a lot of uncertainty, but Norman Derenforth assigned Big Jim Whittaker and Ngawang Gombu to be the first party to climb the mountain via the standard south coal route. On the second day of climbing, Jake Breitenbach and Dick Pownell and Gil Roberts and Ashirpa were climbing through the Khumbu Icefall. And Jake ascended a vertical sheet of ice on the far side of a crevasse.

And as he was approaching the top, the whole face of this glacier broke off and collapsed. Jake was crushed beneath 30 tons of ice. So the team returned to base camp and they asked the question, should they continue with the climb? And it was Jake's best friend, Barry Corbett, who said, Why would we not climb when that is exactly what Jake had dedicated his life to?

We'll climb the mountain not without Jake, but for Jake. So they decided to continue. And on May 1st, 1963, Big Jim Whittaker and Ngawang Gombu were able to plant the flag of the United States on the summit of Everest. But it wasn't what they found on the summit that was interesting. It's what they didn't find. They were half expecting to find the bust of Chairman Mao that the Chinese said they had left on the summit three years earlier in 1960. But the climb that the Chinese claim of Everest in 1960 has been disputed.

They arrived at the summit at four o'clock in the morning in complete darkness and had no photographic evidence of their climb. And so whether they made it to the summit or not is still being disputed. But it underscores what was at stake geopolitically. But at least the Americans had made it. They'd reached the top. And so when Big Jim Whittaker and Ngawang Gombu returned to base camp, it was now the turn for the West Ridge contingent. Except many of the Sherpas and Porters had already run off down valley. And it wasn't clear whether there would be enough supplies to be able to support another try on the mountain. Norman and some of the others said, we've already reached the top, why do we have to do it again? But the West Ridge faction was persistent.

And they knew that it would put a gigantic feather in the cap of the United States if they could even make a serious attempt by that daunting new route. So in late May, with diminished supplies, a core of seven climbers and as many Sherpas took off, headed for the West Ridge of Everest. And they came up onto the west shoulder and they were able to establish Camp 4 West. And then they continued up to the base of the very steep part of the West Ridge and established a camp at 22,000 feet. And that evening, Willy Unsold walked out of the tent to look 10,000 feet down to the Rongbuk Glacier in Tibet. And over the other side of the ridge, 6,000 feet down to the western kum below him.

And he was wondering why the snow in front of him seemed so scoured. But they would find out that night when they were in their tents that they had pitched their tents in what is arguably one of the windiest places in the world. And near hurricane force winds that night elevated their tents and tumbled them 60 feet down slope.

And they came to rest perch just above the gigantic drop down to the Rongbuk Glacier in Tibet. They regathered themselves the next day and realized that continuing with their West Ridge attempt would be mistaken. But Tom Hornbein stayed up late that night calculating. And he calculated that if they reduced their summit team from three to only two members, and if they established only one higher camp rather than two, they just might be able to pull it off. And at the same time there was another American a hundred miles away, a hundred miles away almost directly straight up, who provided Tom with some inspiration. Astronaut Gordon Cooper of the final flight of the Mercury mission was orbiting the Earth and flew directly over the Himalayas that evening. Another American who was pushing his way into the vast unknown. And you've been listening to Brock Coburn tell a heck of a story about the first American team to scale Everest.

And they succeeded. It was that western slope. What would happen next when we return more of Brock Coburn on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories in the final portion of our story on the first American ascent of Mount Everest, as told by Brock Coburn, author of the fantastic book, The Vast Unknown.

Pick it up at your local bookstore, Amazon, or wherever you buy your books. When we last left off, Americans had finally planted their flag on the summit of Mount Everest by taking the so-called easy route. However, another group of climbers in the group wanted to do something truly unique, climb the unclimbed West Ridge of the mountain. Not all of them could do it, though, and some had to turn back. Let's return to the story.

Here again is Brock Coburn. The next day, the remaining team gathered their supplies and materials and took off actually skirting the north side of Everest into Tibet and found their way up what would be called the Hornbine Cool War. And Willie Unsold and Tom Hornbine established their high camp at 27,000 feet on a ledge that was only 18 inches wide.

And Barry Corbett and Dick Emerson and the Sherpas descended, leaving those two gentlemen alone. The next morning, Willie Unsold and Tom Hornbine found their way, after great difficulty and problems with their supplemental oxygen, up to the crest of the West Ridge. And there they looked across at the south summit of Everest and at the fifth highest peak, Lhotse, which was now below them in elevation. And they were able to find a route up to the summit of Everest.

And on May 22nd, they planted their flag on the top. It was nearly 6 p.m. and they turned and realized they would have to find their way down the southeast ridge, down a route they had never seen, with darkness fast approaching. But they saw something in the foreground that gave them a little bit of hope. There were footprints in the snow.

And in that windswept environment, any footprints would be covered over very quickly. So they realized that Lhot Jerstad from Oregon and Barry Bishop of the National Geographic Society must have come up to the summit sometime before them. And in fact, Lhot and Barry had timed their ascent in order to be able to try to intersect with Willie Unsold and Tom Hornbine.

But they were three hours ahead of them and had already descended. And so as Tom and Willie descended down the southeast ridge into darkness, they could no longer find their way. And randomly, hopelessly you might say, Willie Unsold started yodeling into the darkness as he was apt to do. And amazingly, shouts and yodels came back in return because Barry Bishop and Lhot Jerstad had also been benighted on the southeast ridge at about 27 and a half thousand feet just below them.

And so using yodel echolocation, Willie was able to guide himself and Tom down to where Lhot and Barry were huddled on the southeast ridge. And the four of them converged and sat down to die. As Lhot Jerstad later wrote, And as they stared into the darkness, they weren't aware of the American that was only a hundred miles away, a Jesuit priest in Kathmandu who was the headmaster of a private school there and also a well-known ham radio operator. He had been listening to the radio dispatches from base camp and when he learned that these four gentlemen were stranded on one of the highest bivouacs in history on the side of Mount Everest, he gathered together the priests of the school and they spent the night kneeling in prayer, praying that the winds on Everest would be calm. And miraculously, the winds on Everest were calm and they all lived and were safe. From base camp Barry Bishop and Willie Unsold had to be carried to a waiting helicopter at a village at 12,000 feet down valley. And as they stuffed Barry Bishop and Willie Unsold into the helicopter, the rest of the team gathered for a final team portrait.

The last portrait taken of the team when they were all together, all of them except Jake Breitenbach who was left on the mountain. The team walked the 18 days back to Kathmandu. They had lost an aggregate of 500 pounds of body weight during the expedition. And when they neared the edge of the Kathmandu valley, they were greeted by the US ambassador and his wife and ministers from the Nepal government who were thrilled that these Americans had reached the summit.

And when they returned to the US, they were honored in the rose garden of the White House by President John F. Kennedy, who awarded them all the National Geographic Hubbard Medal, which is normally given only to individuals, but in this case to all the members of the expedition, including five Sherpas who had also been brought to the US. Since 1963, the process of climbing Mount Everest has been completely transformed. More than 4,000 people have reached the summit as of 2021 in 6,000 individual ascents or climbs.

And it's become commercialized and helicopter assisted, business oriented enterprise really. Dr. David Schlem who started a clinic near the base of Mount Everest pointed out that nowadays it's as if those going to Everest don't really want to climb it. They want to have climbed it. The mountain has even become the venue for what one climber calls splat sports, parachuting, hang gliding, wingsuit diving, extreme skiing, snowboarding and so on.

So what did all this mean? What did Everest mean really for the Americans? The mountain became the venue where American climbers were called upon to exhibit some of our basic human values, diligence, persistence, teamwork and also compromise. But there was something more individual at stake also for these climbers. And that was friendship, a shared communion on the mountain, the brotherhood of the rope. And specifically it meant a lot for America as encapsulated by President John F. Kennedy, who was inspired to initiate a physical fitness craze that took over America that included 50 mile hikes. And so it appears that the meaning of the expedition has radiated outward in unexpected ways.

One climber said that the best journeys answer questions you didn't even think to ask. But maybe it comes down to spirit. That was really what united the members of the 63 expedition. A half century ago, this spirit, incarnated in a handful of tough men, coincided with the aspirations of a still young nation. From competing objectives and differing opinions, they forged compromises, while suspending personal desires for the sake of common goals. With supreme effort, fortified by dreams and bonded by cooperation, America and its mountaineers climbed to the hilltop that President Kennedy spoke of. And there, for at least a moment, they found greatness. And a terrific job on the editing and storytelling by Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to Brock Coburn, whose book The Vast Unknown is available at local bookstores at Amazon or wherever you buy your books. A terrific story about so many things, including the American spirit. The first group of Americans to scale Mount Everest here on Our American Story.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 14:46:53 / 2023-02-17 14:57:46 / 11

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