50 Years Later with Jim Whittaker and Tom Hornbein
On the day you summited, Edmund Hillary predicted the team would turn back due to a fierce storm, but you and Sherpa Nawang Gombu pushed on. Why?
That came from my guiding experience on Mt. Rainier. A fierce storm would be battering the hut, so I’d cancel the climb, but sometimes it cleared and my clients would be disappointed. After that, I decided no matter the weather, I would start them out, and this proved to be fruitful. When I was up at 27,500 feet with Gombu in a tent, being hammered like you wouldn’t believe, I thought of the years of preparation, of losing Jake [expedition member Jake Breitenbach, a Tetons guide, died crossing the Khumbu Icefall on March 23, 1963], and of the whole team hoping we made it. We had to take a chance.
You told Gombu to go first to the summit, but he wouldn’t, and you summited together.
There was a great debate about who got to the summit first with Hillary and Tenzing, and I felt it clouded the fact they had both climbed the mountain. So we walked side by side and reached the summit together.
What were your thoughts when you learned about Hornbein and Unsoeld’s success?
We didn’t hear from them initially, and that was terrifying. It wasn’t until the next morning that we learned they were bivouacked. Of course, I was delighted when they made it. The West Ridge was an incredible climb—a real coup de grâce.
What is your greatest lasting memory?
Norman Dyhrenfurth doesn’t get a lot of recognition, but he had the idea, raised the money, and led one hell of an expedition. I also remember coming off the mountain from the death zone, where nothing lives, to find the team stopped ahead of me. “Look at that, Jim,” they said. And you know what it was? It was a beautiful blade of emerald-green grass.
What inspired you to attempt the West Ridge?
We wanted more uncertainty in our diet. If getting to the summit was the only goal, then you would choose the route most likely to get you there, which the team also achieved. But there was a subset of us who had a dream to pursue the West Ridge—we wanted an adventure where the outcome was truly in doubt.
Tell me about the dynamics of the expedition, where two teams had different objectives.
It was unique with two teams competing for resources. All credit to Dyhrenfurth in choosing the teams he did and making the decisions he did. Unlike Hunt’s expedition on the first ascent of Everest, we were all involved in making decisions. It was definitely a more precious aspect of the experience for me— all of us working together. [John Hunt, a British Army Brigadier and mountaineer, led a military-style assault on Everest, with Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay becoming the first to summit the peak on May 29, 1953.]
Your teammates referred to what is now called the Hornbein Couloir as Hornbein’s Avalanche Trap.
It’s nice to have a little piece of real estate named after me. It’s a thin line of snow going up the North Face, but we couldn’t see much until we reached the West Shoulder. I thought it would be the best way to get as high as possible before we might run into trouble. We had a tremendous storm a few days prior, which wreaked havoc on Camp 4W. But perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, as it scoured the couloir of unstable snow, making for nearideal conditions.
How would you like this expedition to be remembered?
You either summit, or you don’t. This is not unique. The unique thing here is that the expedition happened at all. It was Dyhrenfurth’s dream. He secured sponsorship, formed a team, planned the expedition— and it was a success.