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Cast of Characters

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Twenty-one climbers and scientists took part in the 1963 Everest expedition. Here are the major players mentioned in our sneak peek of The Vast Unknown. Click here to read that sneak peek.


Jim Whittaker (b. 1929)First American to summit Everest

A climbing powerhouse, Whittaker was in charge of expedition equipment planning, and he summited Everest with Sherpa Nawang Gombu on May 1, 1963. Whittaker also made the first American ascent of K2 in 1978, and led the successful Mt. Everest International Peace Climb in 1990. He was the first full-time employee of REI and was the company’s CEO in the 1960s. His son, Leif, has followed in Whittaker’s legendary footsteps and climbed Everest twice.

Click here to read an interview with Jim Whittaker.

Barry Bishop (1932–1994)South Col summit team


A polar researcher and photographer, Bishop summited Everest with Lute Jerstad on May 22, 1963. A forced bivouac at 27,450 feet resulted in the loss of all his toes and the tips of his little fingers. Prior to summiting Everest, Bishop joined Sir Edmund Hillary on a scientific expedition to the Himalayas in 1961 and 1962. Then, Bishop and team made the first ascent of Ama Dablam, which was also the first winter ascent in the Himalayas.

Lute Jerstad (1936–1998)South Col summit team


An actor, teacher, and veteran Mt. Rainier guide, Jerstad summited Everest on May 22, 1963, with Barry Bishop, and was the fi rst to carry a video camera to the top of the world. After returning to the States, he earned a doctorate in drama and taught at the University of Oregon and Lewis & Clark College. Later, he formed Lute Jerstad Adventures, specializing in trips to India and Nepal. He died of a heart attack on Mt. Kala Patar in Nepal.

Willi Unsoeld (1926–1979)West Ridge summit team


A legend among mountaineers, Tetons guide, “metaphysician,” and ace raconteur, Unsoeld summited via the West Ridge on May 22, 1963, with Tom Hornbein. Due to a high bivouac on the descent, Unsoeld lost nine toes to frostbite—and proudly kept them in a jar of formaldehyde. He went on to become Nepal’s Peace Corps director, speaker for Outward Bound, and assistant professor in philosophy and religion at Oregon State. He died in an avalanche during a winter climb of Mt. Rainier.

Tom Hornbein (b. 1930)West Ridge summit team


An anesthesiologist and researcher of human performance at high altitude, Hornbein summited on May 22, 1963, with Willi Unsoeld via the West Ridge. He designed the oxygen masks used for the Everest expedition after having difficulty with his mask during an ascent of Masherbrum in the Karakorum in 1960. He went on to become chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He lives in Estes Park, Colorado.

Click here to read an interview with Tom Hornbein.

Norman Dyhrenfurth (b. 1918)Expedition leader


A Swiss-American climber, expedition leader, cameraman, and director, Dyhrenfurth conceived, won funding for, organized, and f lmed the historic 1963 American expedition to Mt. Everest. He was the dean of UCLA’s fi lm school in the 1950s, led several other Himalayan expeditions (including the 1952 Swiss Expedition which reached 28,199 feet), and produced a number of mountaineering films. Today, Dyhrenfurth lives in Salzburg, Austria.