Unsoeld and others were the real Everest heroes

Publisher of The OlympianNovember 17, 2013 

‘ America made (Jim) Whittaker the hero for being first (American to summit Mount Everest), even though the others achieved a far greater feat.”

Those are the words of Norman Dyhrenfurth, the man who organized the 1963 American expedition of some 21 climbers and scientists and 37 Sherpas that set out to accomplish what Sir Edmund Hillary had done 10 years before. At that time, only two other teams, both from Switzerland, had made it to the top of the world.

The “ others” included Willi Unsoeld, a founding faculty member at The Evergreen State College. Unsoeld and three other American climbers – Tom Hornbein, Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad – made mountaineering history by surviving a freezing night in the open at 28,000 feet without oxygen.

It became the highest-altitude bivouac in history.

Unsoeld and Hornbein had climbed the treacherous West Ridge. Their story is being told in a new documentary film, “ High and Hallowed: Everest 1963, ” which will be shown at The Washington Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Hornbein will be on stage to answer questions after the film.

I happen to know something about the 1963 expedition because a few years ago it was my pleasure to posthumously honor Jerstad at a Peninsula High School alumni recognition event. He was the second American to summit Everest, which means he’ s the answer to a trivia question.

Jim Whittaker was the first to top out on May 1, 1963, and Jerstad was scheduled to follow him from Camp Six at 26,000 feet. But after Whittaker descended, Jerstad had to abandon his assault due to a lack of bottled oxygen. Three weeks later, Jerstad would climb all the way back up with new partner Barry Bishop. They had planned to meet the team of Unsoeld and Hornbein – who were climbing the more difficult route from Tibet – at the summit in the early afternoon and then descend together.

At the top, they rested, hunched against the strong wind, and Lute took pictures with the film camera he carried – the first motion pictures ever taken on Everest’ s summit. They waited for Unsoeld and Hornbein and shouted for them, but at 4.15 p.m. with the sun going down, they began their descent.

They followed a precarious ridge that fell 12,000 feet on either side in the black of night. It took two hours to descend 300 feet. Unsoeld and Hornbein eventually caught up to Jerstad and Bishop and the two teams continued down together.

At 12.30 a.m. at more than 28,000 feet and out of oxygen, the four found “ an outcropping of rock on the snow of the ridge. They lay down on it and waited for morning.”

Unsoeld and his fellow climbers struggled to stay awake to keep their blood flowing. They huddled, hugged and shivered. Unsoeld lost nine toes to frostbite. Jerstad was left with numbness in his legs that would last for 20 years.

“ All we could do was lie there and shiver, ” Hornbein said in a tribute published in the Portland Oregonian newspaper. “ We were in it together, but each had his own struggle and couldn’ t ask for help from another.”

As the sun rose, they got up stiffly and headed down with extreme caution. They were walking on numb feet that could not feel where they were stepping.

Climbers call altitudes above 26,000 feet the “ death zone” because the lack of oxygen sends the body into rapid decline. Unsoeld and the others spent the night higher than where many climbers have died from exposure.

Dyhrenfurth said, “ Their accomplishment was something the American public never understood.”

Unsoeld and Jerstad both turned to the academic life after the 1963 expedition. But Jerstad never felt comfortable in a normal routine. He started an outdoor experiences company and was the first to raft down the Ganges River in 1978 (actor Robert Duvall was on that expedition).

Jerstad spent most of his time in India and Nepal working to conserve wildlife parks and forests, and introducing people with disabilities to wonders of nature.

He died on Oct. 31, 1998, taking his grandson, Marshall, to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal. He suffered a heart attack just 500 feet from the 18,192-foot summit of Mount Kalapatar, an easy climb known for its spectacular view of Everest.

Unsoeld died in an avalanche on Mount Rainier in 1979. Bishop died in a 1994 car accident in Idaho. Hornbein is now the lone survivor.

Since 1986, Evergeen’ s Unsoeld Seminar series has made a fitting memorial to the mountaineer’ s interests in the wilderness, philosophy and experiential education. This week’ s documentary promises to merge the values of both the college and the man.

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George Le Masurier may be reached at glemasurier@theolympian.com




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