Fifty years ago, Tom Hornbein made history by being part of the team that put the first American on top of Everest.
Fifty years ago at the age of 32, Tom Hornbein (A&S’52), along with climbing partner Willi Unsoeld, became the first people to summit Everest by the dangerous and still rarely successfully summited West Ridge route. The two were among the team that put the first American on Everest on May 1, 1963.
“Once you’ve climbed Everest it’s like an albatross hanging around your neck,” Hornbein says, quoting words originally spoken by Unsoeld. “You’re never getting away from it, but it’s a good albatross.”
Hornbein grew up in St. Louis and first experienced the mountains when his parents sent him to summer camp near Estes Park, Colo. He was hooked and returned summer after summer. The Rockies drew him back again for college, and he entered the University of Colorado with his sights set on becoming a geologist. By the time he graduated, his passion had turned to medicine. He was accepted at Washington University and studied anesthesia with a focus on the effects of altitude on body function — a clear outgrowth of his passion for climbing.
His medical résumé is impressive in its own right. He became an anesthesiology professor at University of Washington in Seattle and one of the foremost leaders in high altitude medicine, even inventing a new type of oxygen mask that was used on his Everest expedition.
“He’s very tenacious,” says Bill Sumner, a longtime friend and climbing partner who was a graduate student at Washington University when Hornbein taught there. “I wouldn’t call him a bulldog, but to carry so many of those things to completion requires some real push and strong character.”
And yet the climber’s relationship with the world’s tallest peak hasn’t been simple. Hornbein says he appreciates the people and opportunities that have come into his life because of his accomplishment. But he has never returned to Everest, and the book he wrote about the expedition, Everest: The West Ridge, aims to strip out the heroic undertones included in other accounts.
Skipping over Everest, he says he’s most proud of the accomplishments of his six children and others close to him, and Longs Peak is the mountain that holds a special place in his heart. His most intimidating climb was on the peak’s east face, which he can see from his home in Estes Park, Colo.
Still, Everest has been an important piece in his life puzzle, Hornbein says.
“It has created a magic I’ve been able to share with a lot of other people,” he says.
Photos by Claudia Lopez (top) and Jim Herrington