Author, climber recall first Mount Everest expedition |

Author, climber recall first Mount Everest expedition

Matt Stensland

— The spirit of adventure was alive in Library Hall on Tuesday night, as a visiting author detailed one of the most ambitious expeditions every undertaken by Americans.

About 200 people packed the hall to listen to Broughton Coburn, author of “The Vast Unknown,” which tells the stories of the first ascent of Mount Everest by Americans. Coburn used photographs, video and audio to help the audience visualize the journey.

The 21-member 1963 expedition team was composed of climbers, a psychologist, a sociologist and a glaciologist, who convened at the Seattle World’s Fair before going to an REI warehouse to pack more than 600 boxes of supplies and equipment.

Coburn said that, after boarding Pan Am Flight 1, the team was assisted by 900 porters for the hike to Mount Everest.

Coburn showed a photo of 37 sherpas who desperately needed the job and were eager to please. Sherpas would line out the climbers’ pajamas in their sleeping bags at night.

“The expedition was really dependent on their health and work,” Coburn said.

The climbers knew the most daunting part of the climb would be the Khumbu Icefall, Coburn said. Tragedy struck when one of the expedition members was crushed by 30 tons of ice, which left the team deciding what to do next.

They trekked on, but the team split, with the goal of doing something unique. They planned to summit from the West Ridge.

“They figured if they did it, they wouldn’t be able to downclimb but would be committed to coming down the other side,” Coburn said.

Jim Whittaker became the first American to ascend May 1, 1963. Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld followed via the West Ridge May 22.

Coburn then described a terrifying descent, with the men one night sitting down to die together. The weather was miraculously calm that night, and the men made it back to base camp with solidly frozen toes, Coburn said.

By the end of the expedition, the team had lost a combined 500 pounds of body weight.

At the end of Coburn’s presentation, the audience got to hear from Dick Pownall, one of the seven living members of the expedition team.

“It’s my hope that their legacy won’t be forgotten, for they were not interested in individual glory,” Coburn said. “They were really dedicated to the spirit of the right stuff.”

Pownall spoke about how the sherpas helped make the expedition possible. He called them the icefall doctors for the work they did in helping to mend the trail.

The presentation was attended by Steamboat resident Eric Meyer, who has twice summited Mount Everest.

“I have to say that tonight’s presentation was an outstanding historical synopsis of the expeditions, tactics, personalities and political factors that shaped the 1963 American first ascent of Everest,” Meyer said. “He captured the excitement and energy of the team, as well as the challenges and sorrows they experienced.”

Steamboat climber Kim Hess also attended. She attempted her first summit of Everest in the spring, and was temporarily trapped above the Khumbu Icefall at Camp 1 by an earthquake that claimed lives and ended the climbing season.

“Coburn did a wonderful job bringing us back to the year of 1963 and what the world was like at the time the first American Everest team assembled,” Hess said. “The spirit of those men most definitely was in the room, and shaking the hand of Dick Pownall was a very powerful moment for me. To have the opportunity to thank one of the men who had the courage to push the boundaries of the human body was an honor. It’s people like Pownall that have inspired me to chase my dream of climbing Mount Everest, and much like Pownall, we have both experienced tragedy and triumph on that mountain but have come out the other side stronger.”

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland

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