Tom Hornbein: Mountaineer and Anesthesiologist Who Climbed Into History

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Tom Hornbein, who blazed a new trail up Everest, dies at 92”:

Thomas F. Hornbein, a mountaineer and anesthesiologist who climbed into history, step by icy step, when he and his friend Willi Unsoeld scaled Mount Everest in 1963 — pioneering a route up the treacherous West Ridge before surviving a night at 28,000 feet without sleeping bags or a tent — died at his home in Estes Park, Col.

Dr. Hornbein, who continued to do roped climbs into his mid-80s, was 92 and had leukemia.

To many mountaineers, Dr. Hornbein and Unsoeld’s assault on the West Ridge was one of the great feats of Himalayan climbing, a remarkable technical achievement and a triumph of daring and endurance.

The climbers had reached the summit by climbing a few thousand feet of previously uncharted ground, continuing upward knowing that because of the steep terrain — and their own limited gear — they would be unable to turn back. The only way off the mountain, they figured, was over the top and down the other side.

t the time, their ascent was overshadowed by news coverage of Jim Whittaker, a fellow member of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition, who had planted the American flag on the summit on May 1 while becoming the country’s first climber to ascend the world’s tallest mountain. Whittaker had taken the South Col, following a route that New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, had forged a decade earlier while becoming the first to ever scale the peak.

Dr. Hornbein and Unsoeld completed their own climb on May 22, three weeks after Whittaker, becoming the first to reach the summit from the West Ridge. By going up one side of the mountain and coming down another, they were believed to be the first to traverse not just Everest, but any of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.

Their ascent “ushered in the modern era of mountaineering,” the American Alpine Club said in a tribute, “and set the standard for future generations. … This audacious feat has perhaps yet to find an equal in the annals of Himalayan climbing.”

Dr. Hornbein returned home to chronicle his ascent in a book, “Everest: The West Ridge” (1965), which was hailed as a classic by climbers and writers including his friend Jon Krakauer.

“Not only did Hornbein play a crucial role in one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the history of mountaineering,” Krakauer wrote in the foreword to the book’s 50th anniversary edition, “his account of the feat is one of the finest things ever written about this peculiar, hazardous, and uncommonly engaging pursuit.”

Yet Dr. Hornbein also sought to put Everest behind him. He never returned to the mountain, likening the summit to “an albatross” that was “hung around your neck forever.” Instead he turned his attention to medicine, chairing the anesthesiology department at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and conducting research on high-altitude breathing and physiology.

That work married medicine and mountaineering, although he said he spent years trying to separate the two, fearing that he would be tagged as little more than “the doc who climbed Everest.”

By his late 60s, he had changed his mind, writing in an updated edition to his Everest book that he now understood “that mountains and medicine are warp and weft of the same cloth,” with both pursuits underpinned by elements of risk and uncertainty.

‘We wanted more uncertainty’

In part, it was his appetite for risk that prompted Dr. Hornbein to join the American Everest expedition at age 32, after serving as a Navy doctor in San Diego.

He had fallen in love with climbing as a boy, scampering up poles, trees and then mountains at a summer camp in Colorado, and had previously climbed with an expedition to Masherbrum, a peak in Pakistan where his team’s struggles with bottled oxygen had led him to develop a new single-valve oxygen mask, which he and his colleagues used on Everest.

His background in medicine, coupled with an outspokenness about his preferred climbing routes and techniques, made him an unusual presence on the 20-member team. “Hornbein came across as both nerdy and supremely confident,” journalist Grayson Schaffer wrote in a 2013 article for Outside magazine, “the type to disconnect his oxygen at 27,000 feet while writing a letter home to examine hypoxia’s effect on his handwriting.”

At the start of the expedition, team leader Norman Dyhrenfurth advocated for an ascent up the South Col, believing that it was the best way to get an American on the summit. Dr. Hornbein questioned that approach, as did team members such as Unsoeld, a 36-year-old Peace Corps official and fellow veteran of the Masherbrum expedition.

“We wanted more uncertainty in our diet,” Dr. Hornbein recalled in an interview with Climbing magazine. “If getting to the summit was the only goal, then you would choose the route most likely to get you there, which the team also achieved. But there was a subset of us who had a dream to pursue the West Ridge — we wanted an adventure where the outcome was truly in doubt.”

A compromise was struck, with the West Ridge climbers getting the go-ahead only after Whittaker reached the summit.

Dr. Hornbein and Unsoeld headed up the mountain, making it about 2,000 feet from the top before pitching their tent alongside a steep gully, later named the Hornbein Couloir. (“They should have called it ‘Hornbein’s avalanche trap,’” he joked.) The next morning, they rose early to make their final ascent, with a plan to meet at the summit with two colleagues, Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, who were taking the South Col route.

Dr. Hornbein and Unsoeld were delayed when it turned out they needed to scale a 60-foot wall of crumbling limestone. They reached the peak only around 6:15 p.m. and, by the time they linked up with Jerstad and Bishop, it was after dark. Unable to find their way back to camp, they were forced to bivouac for the night, huddling under their parkas in subzero temperatures at an altitude known as “the death zone,” where an extended stay can prove lethal.

“The night was overpoweringly empty. … Mostly there was nothing,” Dr. Hornbein wrote in his book. “We hung suspended in a timeless void. … Intense cold penetrated, carrying with it the realization that each of us was completely alone. Nothing Willi could do for me or I for him. No team now, just each of us, imprisoned with his own discomfort, his own thoughts, his own will to survive. … Nothing to plan, nothing to push for, nothing to do but shiver and wait for the sun to rise.”

When it did, they continued down the slope, stumbling into camp at 10:30 p.m. Unsoeld lost nine toes to frostbite while Bishop lost all 10, along with parts of two fingers.

Dr. Hornbein suffered no lasting injuries. He was the last surviving member of what he described as “the little quartet who shivered the night out on Everest”: Unsoeld died in an avalanche while climbing Mount Rainier in 1979, Bishop died in a car crash in 1994, and Jerstad died after a heart attack while trekking up Kala Patthar, a relatively small summit overlooking Everest, in 1998.

Only five expeditions have scaled the Hornbein Couloir ever since Dr. Hornbein and Unsoeld inaugurated the route 60 years ago this month.

“In looking back,” he told the New York Times last year, “while clearly we were committed and determined, we were also lucky as hell.”

Geology and medicine

Dr. Hornbein studied geology at the University of Colorado, where he climbed nearby peaks in the Rockies and began teaching mountain rescue and first aid classes, developing an interest in medicine. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and graduated in 1956 from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The next year, he joined an Alaskan expedition up Denali, then known as Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak.

By the time he climbed Everest, Dr. Hornbein was married to Gene Swartz, a fellow Colorado student who shared his interest in mountaineering. They divorced after 15 years, and in 1971 he married Kathryn Mikesell, a pediatrician.

Dr. Hornbein joined the University of Washington School of Medicine in 1963 and retired as a professor emeritus in 2002. A few years later he moved to Estes Park, where he could walk from his backyard into Rocky Mountain National Park. He had been enchanted by the region since boyhood, and summited mountains including Longs Peak, which he reconquered at age 65 after recovering from a hip replacement.

“It was an incredible thrill,” he told the Baltimore Sun, recalling how it took four years of work to get back on the mountain after his surgery.

“My friends ask, ‘Don’t you ever grow up?’ I say, ‘Why?’”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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