20-26 December 2013 #686

The West Ridge Story

Dhanvantari by Buddha Basnyat, MD

TALL MEMORY: Mountaineer and doctor Tom Hornbein is interviewed in February this year in California during the 50th anniversary celebration of the first American ascent of Mount Everest.
One of the movies screened recently at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival was High and Hallowed: Everest 1963. The documentary primarily deals with the stunning account of Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein, two members of an American team, who climbed Everest using a difficult new route - the West Ridge. What many in the audience did not know is that Hornbein, now 83, is also a well-known doctor.

Hornbein and Unsoeld’s successful climb of the West Ridge to reach the summit is truly a milestone in the annals of mountaineering. In fact Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, calls this feat the greatest Himalayan climb in US mountaineering history.

The 1963 expedition was the first attempt by the Americans to climb Everest. The team leader wanted to make sure they got to the top even if it meant using the South Col route that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary had used a decade ago to become the first climbers to the peak. Only after the team scaled Everest using the reliable South Col route, did they decide to take on the dangerously difficult West Ridge.

Hornbein and Unsoeld were super keen to climb the infamous route on the mountain’s west side. As soon as they heard that other members in their party had summited Everest, they were ready to go. What they did not realise is that the route they had picked, was almost impossible to conquer. But once committed and part way up the West Ridge, they discovered that there was no going back. The die had been cast. To this day, the West Ridge continues to be the ultimate man vs rock in Everest climbs.

The duo finally made it to the top by advancing through a couloir (a track, now called the Hornbein couloir) and reaching the summit at about 6.15 pm, a very late arrival time for safe descent. As Hillary famously said when asked if he believed George Mallory had scaled Sagarmatha before him, “It is important to safely descend the mountain to make it count.” In fact, most climber deaths on Everest occur on descent after having successfully ascended the mountain.

On descent, the American climbers had to make a bivouac (a very basic shelter) at about 8,000 m without tents, sleeping bag, or supplemental oxygen. An important reason why they survived the night and made history was because there was minimal wind on the mountain at the time. Obviously their relentless motivation to succeed helped tremendously.

Tom Hornbein went back to the US and became a professor and chairman of the department of anaesthesiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Among the many young American doctors he trained was Dr Tom Fell, who came to Shanta Bhawan Hospital in the 1980s. Fell trained young nurses to become anaesthesia assistants. In many far-flung districts where there are no anaesthesiologists, these assistants play a crucial role in administering anaesthesia to patients so that surgeons can perform the required surgery. The Nick Simons Institute in collaboration with Nepal’s Health Ministry has been working on this anaesthesia program for years.

After his Everest expedition, Hornbein never returned to Nepal. He says he cannot deal with the countless changes that have taken place here since 1963. Perhaps through his student Fell, he will be remembered not only for his West Ridge feat, but indirectly also for his contribution to medicine in Nepal.

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