Why the First American Ascent of Everest Mattered


everest 63 01 660This year marks 50 years since Americans first stood atop our world’s highest peak. Over the course of those 50 years, we have seen an explosion of interest in climbing and mountain exploration such that it is imperative to continually examine our relationship between the mountains we love and their conservation for future generations.

The conquest of Everest opened a new world of exploration to generations of Americans. Six years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s famous 1969 moon walk, Jim Whittaker touched down on the summit of Mt. Everest. Supported by 19 Americans, 32 Sherpas, and 909 porters carrying 27 tons of gear, and expedition leader Norman Dyhrenfurth, Whittaker’s footfall on the summit—with Sherpa partner Nawang Gombu—benefitted from the latest technology, years of scientific research, and incredible teamwork and sacrifice.

Days after Whittaker’s historic ascent, two other team members, Dr. Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, went on to complete the first traverse of Everest via a groundbreaking and difficult new route on the West Ridge. Together these men brought dreams of high mountains and outdoor recreation to the common citizen like nothing before in American history. Before 1963, mountaineering and alpinism was a pursuit largely dominated by Europeans and people with money. Gaining membership to institutions such as the Explorer’s Club, National Geographic Society, or even the American Alpine Club was as much about pedigree as it was about competency.

American Mt. Everest Expedition team at the White House Rose Garden with President John F. Kennedy, July 1963.

American Mt. Everest Expedition team at the White House Rose Garden with President John F. Kennedy, July 1963.

Whittaker, Hornbein, Unsoeld, and the rest of the 1963 Everest Team humanized mountaineering by proving that anyone could attain the world’s highest summit. They were all working men: Whittaker was a mountain guide, Hornbein a physician, Unsoeld a teacher. Climbing Everest did as much for outdoor participation as the moon landing did for stoking young people’s interest in the sciences — it inspired a whole generation to get outside. To this day I encounter climbers who were originally inspired by that expedition.

everest 63 04Before 1963 the concept of “outdoor industry” more likely produced visions of logging and natural resource extraction than camping equipment or kayaks. Today, the Outdoor Industry Association estimates that 140 million Americans make outdoor recreation a priority in their daily lives. The outdoor recreation economy is valued at roughly $646 billion and supports over 6 million American jobs. In fact, the first full-time employee of our country’s largest outdoor outfitter, Recreational Equipment Inc., should come as no surprise: Jim Whittaker.

Today we still struggle with the concept of accessibility to the outdoors — only now there are crowds. The situation on Everest comes under greater scrutiny with each year’s record attendance, lack of compassion for other climbers, and an unacceptable number of deaths attributable to human error. We’ve come a long way since these great men opened the doors for us 50 years ago, and now we must think critically about how we will shape the next 50. Conservation, education, community, and teamwork are the answers that remain central to the future of outdoor recreation.

Phil Powers is the executive director of the American Alpine Club. Photos courtesy American Alpine Club

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