In 1963, Norman Dyhrenfurth, a German-born climber raised in Austria, Switzerland, and later, the U.S., led the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest by an American team. He passed away last week in Salzburg, Austria, at the age of 99.
Born in 1918, the son of two climbers with experience in the Himalaya (for many years his mother, Hettie Dyhrenfurth, held the record for highest climb ever by a woman), Dyhrenfurth was climbing the high peaks of Austrian Alps as a child. His family emigrated to the U.S. from Switzerland in flight from the Nazi regime in the 1930s and Dyhrenfurth continued his budding alpine career, scaling the Tetons in Wyoming, the Chugach Range in Alaska, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. For a time, the square-jawed Dyhrenfurth worked as a mountaineering instructor. He later served in the U.S. Army, before teaching film at UCLA.
In 1952, Dyhrenfurth was the cameraman for a failed Everest summit bid by Swiss climber Raymond Lambert, who nearly beat Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to Everest’s roof; Lambert turned back a mere 800 feet from the summit.
A decade later Dyhrenfurth organized a massive team of climbers and porters to follow Hillary and Norgay’s route up the South Col. One member of the team was killed by an icefall and several more became desperately ill with altitude-related ailments, but Dyhrenfurth’s team pressed on. Finally, on May 1, 1963, Dyhrenfurth selected James Whittaker, a Washington-based climber, to take a final push for the summit with Sherpa Nawang Gombu. Whittaker scaled the peak in terrific winds and nearly out of bottled oxygen to become the first American to stand on the top of the world.
Dyhrenfurth himself never summited Everest, though he did make another push in 1971, which was ended after he suffered a thyroid ailment on the mountain.
Upon their return to the U.S., Dyhrenfurth’s 1963 team was celebrated by President John F. Kennedy, who presented them with the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal.
For many years, Dyhrenfurth continued to serve as a mountaineering cameraman. He helped film alpine climbing scenes for 1975’s Clint Eastwood-starred The Eiger Sanction and Five Days One Summer, a 1982 film starring Sean Connery.
Without Dyhrenfurth’s ability to plan and raise funds for the 1963 climb, it’s unknown when Americans would have first scaled Everest.
“Americans, when I first raised it, they said, ‘Well, Everest, it’s been done. Why do it again?’” Dyhrenfurth recalled in 2013 at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of his legendary siege of Everest. He spent two years planning and pulling together funds for the trip, at one point proposing the installation of a nuclear-powered weather station near the summit.
His team assembled, Dyhrenfurth struck out toward mountaineering immortality well aware of the risks of his long-planned Everest bid. “There is no guarantee we’ll make it,” he told reporters. “Anyone who does guarantee it is either a fool or a confidence man. We may fail.”
Instead, they climbed right into history.
Photo by AS Verlag