50 Years on Everest: Looking Back
When first America stood on the top of the world—and where we've come since
By Phil Powers, AAC Executive Director—We often use the New Year to reflect on the year before and instill a new resolve for the year to come. For 2013, this year marks 50 years since Americans first stood atop our world’s highest peak. The climbs on Mount Everest in 1963 stand alone in climbing history and continue to inform our future.
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 Mount 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.
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.
Before 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. (REI), 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.
The American Alpine Club remains committed to mountain experiences by creating a positive relationship between use and conservation. It is only through coming together as a community that we will be successful in saving the places that have given us so much. In February, the American Alpine Club will host an evening in San Francisco to celebrate the last 50 years with the remaining living members of original 1963 American Everest Expedition. We welcome all to join us in celebrating these extraordinary men—and to decide how we will uphold their legacy during the next 50 years.
About The 50th Everest Anniversary Celebration:
Join the American Alpine Club for a special evening celebrating 50 years of Americans on Everest. Connect with living legends from the 1963 American Everest Expedition—and the generations of climbers who have been inspired since—during this rare reunion. This event is a fundraiser for the American Alpine Club and open to the public.
Original 1963 Expedition Team members planning to be in attendance:
When: February 22 – 23, 2013
Where: Craneway Pavilion, East Bay of San Francisco, CA
What: Gala dinner event with presentations by the 1963 Everest expedition team
For more information visit http://www.americanalpineclub.org/p/2013_annual_benefit_dinner_weekend
About Phil Powers
Phil Powers joined the American Alpine Club as executive director in May of 2005. His previous experience in the non-profit world includes service as vice president for institutional advancement at Naropa University and seventeen years with the National Outdoor Leadership School as chief mountaineering instructor and development/partnerships director. He remains an owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. Powers is author of Wilderness Mountaineering and Climbing: Expedition Planning. His essay, “The Importance of Pace”, was aired on NPR’s “This I Believe” in 2006. Powers has led dozens of expeditions to South America, Alaska and Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, including ascents of K2 and Gasherbrum II without supplemental oxygen. He made the first ascent of the Washburn Face on Denali, naming it in recognition of the impact longtime AAC member Bradford Washburn’s photos had in the planning and route research of many Alaska climbs. Powers also made the first ascent of Lukpilla Brakk’s Western Edge in Pakistan, and the first winter traverse of the Tetons’ Cathedral Peaks. He continues to be an active climber and skier. He lives with his wife and children in Denver, Colorado.
This story originally appeared on The American Alpine Club blog. The American Alpine Club is a nonprofit organization that provides benefits, knowledge, inspiration, and conservation for the climbing community. It's also one of the outdoor and environmental nonprofits that The Active Times supports.
All AAC members are immediately enrolled in $10,000 of rescue benefits. Every human-powered adventure, anywhere in the world, is covered as long as the participant is injured and past the trailhead. Learn more about AAC programs and member benefits at americanalpineclub.org or like The American Alpine Club on Facebook to help support its mission.