On May 1, 1963, the American Everest Expedition succeeded in placing the first American climber on the summit of Everest: Seattle native Jim Whittaker. The entire team was honored with the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, and Whittaker became a celebrity of the ’60s, as famous as astronaut John Glenn. Two other Americans, Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, summited via the South Col on the same expedition, and Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld summited via the bold, difficult (and rarely repeated) West Ridge.
In light of the historic expedition’s 50th anniversary, we’ve collected 50 facts about the expedition.
Since there was no airport at Lukla in 1963, the expedition began on foot: The trek to Base Camp from Kathmandu was 187 miles and took the group a month (Feb. 20, 1963-March 20, 1963).
Starting in Kathmandu, the trek involved a mass of almost 1,000 moving people:
19 American climbers
37 Sherpa, and
909 porters, carrying
27 tons of gear and supplies.
Only six people had ever stood on the summit before the American expedition – Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 and four Swiss climbers in 1956, Ernst Schmied, Juerg Marmet, Dolf Reist and Hans-Rudolf von Gunten.
When Jim Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu were a few feet below the summit on May 1, 1963, Whittaker yelled for Gombu to go to the summit first. Gombu yelled back, “You first, Big Jim.” The men walked to the summit together.
In an interview after the expedition, Gombu was asked what his first thought was on top of the world’s highest peak. He replied, “How…to…get down.”
Before the American Everest Expedition, Jim Whittaker had never been higher than 20,320 feet (the summit of Denali). Willi Unsoeld, who summited the West Ridge, had been on the first ascent of 25,660-foot Masherbrum in 1960.
Jim Whittaker was also the first full-time employee of REI, and at the time of the expedition, was the company’s sales manager. He would go on to become CEO of the company.
Breakfast on summit day, for Whittaker and Gombu, was one cup of hot Jell-O each.
On the day Whittaker and Gombu summited, Sir Edmund Hillary was camped at the base of nearby Taweche. He reportedly had looked up toward Everest and declared the weather “impossible.”
On the descent, just beneath Everest’s south summit, Whittaker answered what was believed to be the highest call of nature ever.
Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld summited via the then-unclimbed West Ridge on May 22, three weeks after Whittaker became the first American on the summit.
On the summit, Unsoeld recited over the radio a verse from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: “I have promises to keep/and miles to go before I sleep…”
Only three climbers have summited Everest via the West Ridge since Hornbein and Unsoeld in 1963.
The same day Hornbein and Unsoeld climbed the West Ridge, Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop summited via the South Col. The four met below the summit on the South Col route late in the day and descended until they couldn’t see anymore.
The morning of their summit attempt, Bishop and Jerstad made a mistake while changing out a stove fuel canister, and one of their stoves burst into flames, singeing their beards and eyebrows. They were two hours late leaving the high camp for the summit.
Lute Jerstad filmed the first motion pictures ever captured on the summit, on May 22.
As Jerstad was filming, Barry Bishop took still photos – knowing he might be confused at the high altitude, he had written on his parka a list of shots he wanted to get.
After meeting below the summit, Unsoeld, Hornbein, Bishop, and Jerstad climbed downward until they couldn’t continue, and stopped to huddle and bivy for the night. It was the highest bivy in the history of mountaineering, at 28,000 feet.
During the bivy, Unsoeld warmed Hornbein’s numb feet against his bare stomach. Hornbein offered to return the favor, but Unsoeld declined, thinking his feet were fine.
Dave Dingman abandoned his own summit attempt to find Unsoeld, Bishop, Hornbein, and Jerstad and get them safely down the mountain.
Because of the exposure during the 28,000-foot bivy, Unsoeld and Bishop were unable to walk from Base Camp to Kathmandu – they were transported by military helicopter, and Unsoeld’s frostbite cost him nine toes. Bishop lost all ten toes, and the tips of his pinky fingers.
The American Mount Everest Expedition was the first-ever simultaneous climb of Everest from two directions – the May 22 summits via the South Col and the West Ridge.
Of the American summiters, only Jim Whittaker and Hornbein are still alive. Bishop was killed in a car accident in 1994, and Unsoeld died in an avalanche on Mount Rainier in 1979. Lute Jerstad had a heart attack while climbing in Nepal in 1998.
Expedition leader Norman Dyhrenfurth wanted to keep it secret which team member was the first American to summit. Word leaked out six days later that it was Jim Whittaker.
Each oxygen bottle used (above 22,900 feet, Camp III) weighed 9.9 pounds empty and 12.9 pounds full.
Tom Hornbein, who had had trouble using Swiss oxygen masks on an expedition to Masherbrum, designed the team’s oxygen masks.
The oxygen masks were molded and manufactured by the Maytag Company of Newton, Iowa, makers of washing machines and other appliances, over two years – Fred Maytag, head of the company, had attended a talk Hornbein had given about his Masherbrum trip at Washington University in St. Louis, and became interested.
200 oxygen bottles were used on the ascent.
Nearly 28,000 feet of 16mm Ektachrome Commercial film (mostly in 100-foot and 400-foot rolls) was exposed in the shooting of footage for the documentary film of the expedition.
The film, Americans on Everest, was a National Geographic special airing in 1965. It was narrated by Orson Welles.
Psychologist James T. Lester Jr. collected the men’s dreams throughout the approach and summit attempts, approaching the men each morning at breakfast.
One of Dr. Lester’s statements about his research: “[It] is not that climbing insures a greater enjoyment of life, for climbers seem to have as much difficulty with that as any of us, but rather that many of the psychological qualities characterizing the man climbing a difficult mountain are qualities that could greatly enrich anyone’s daily life.”
Total budget for the expedition was $403,307.
In 2013 dollars, that’s $3,034,305.26.
The expedition rationed 10 tons of food, packed by Universal Services Inc. of Seattle.
The food was packed in 416 boxes, each 28 inches by 16 inches by 12 inches, and weighing an average of 63 pounds.
Each meal, packed into a ration for 19 team members, was an average weight of 20 pounds.
The members of the American Everest Expedition used Mount Rainier for a training ground because it had all the features of a big Himalayan peak (seracs, glaciers, icefalls, etc.), doing a practice run in September 1962.
The permit for the expedition cost $640.
All members of the expedition were asked to loan $500 (about $3,800 in 2013 dollars) to the expedition, to be repaid if it ever made any money.
Out of the 19 expedition team members, three were M.D.s, five were Ph.D.s, and five had master’s degrees (and three of those were working towards Ph.D.s).
All but four of the expedition members were married at the time, with a total of 26 children.
Jim Whittaker picked up a rock from the summit, which he took home and had set into a gold-banded ring.
Jim Whittaker’s twin brother, Lou, was part of the American Everest Expedition team until he made a difficult decision not to go, a few weeks before the team was due to leave for Kathmandu in February 1963.
Lou Whittaker’s replacement on the team, Jake Breitenbach, was killed on March 23, 1963, by an ice wall that collapsed in the Khumbu Icefall. It was the team’s second day out of Base Camp.
The remaining members of the ’63 expedition will gather in February 2013 at the American Alpine Club banquet in San Francisco: Jim Whittaker, Tom Hornbein, Norman Dyhrenfurth, Allen Auten, David Dingman, Maynard Miller, and Richard Pownall.