Mourning for mountaineering legend Tom Hornbein


Tom Hornbein did not live to see the 60th anniversary of his pioneering feat on Mount Everest. The legendary climber from the USA died yesterday at the age of 92. On 22 May 1963, Tom had written Everest history together with his compatriot Willi Unsoeld. On that day, the two reached the highest point on earth at 8,849 meters – after a groundbreaking ascent.

Bivouac at 8500 meters

They opened – with bottled oxygen – a new, difficult route that has been repeated only seven times to date. First Hornbein and Unsoeld climbed the West Ridge, then traversed into the upper section of North Face , in strong winds. Via a prominent gully, which has since been called “Hornbein Couloir”, the two climbed upwards, traversed back to the West Ridge and finally stood on the summit in the early evening of 22 May.

Hornbein and Unsoeld descended via the present normal route on the Nepalese south side of Everest. It was the first traverse of an eight-thousander. Below the summit, the two met their compatriots Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad, who had previously reached the highest point via the route of the first ascenders. At 8,500 meters, the four U.S. climbers survived a night without a tent. “The night was overwhelming empty. The black silhouette of the Lhotse Mountain was lurking there, half to see, half to assume, and below of us,” Hornbein wrote in his book “The West Ridge”: “In general there was nothing – simply nothing. We hung in a timeless gap, pained by an intensive cold air – and had the idea not to be able to do anything but to shiver and to wait for the sun arising.”

Hornbein Couloir reminds us of him forever

North Face of Mount Everest
Ascent route via West Ridge and Hornbein Couloir

Willi Unsoeld died in 1979 at the age of 52 in an avalanche on Mount Rainier, a four-thousand-meter peak in the United States. Tom Hornbein lived to be 40 years older. When I once asked the former doctor to classify the pioneering feat from the highest mountain on earth among the great achievements of alpinism, Hornbein declined in a friendly but firm manner. At his age, he preferred “to stay under the radar as often as possible,” Tom wrote me. He immortalized himself on Mount Everest – and the Hornbein Couloir will perpetuate the memory of this great mountaineer.

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