Forever on Everest The last of four men who made history by staying overnight on Mount Everest recalls the event's exhilaration and agony - and its impact on mountaineering.

November 22, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

On a nightmarishly challenging day 35 years ago, four American mountaineers inspired a generation of climbers by ascending and surviving the night on Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain at 29,028 feet. Now, only one of the four is left.

On Oct. 31, while leading nine trekkers up Kala Pattar, an 18,192-foot mountain considered an easy walk-up with a breathtaking view of Everest, Luther G. Jerstad, 61, owner of a climbing and trekking business in Portland, Ore., died of a heart attack.

With his death, Dr. Thomas F. Hornbein, 68, of Bellevue, Wash., becomes the sole survivor of the quartet that made history May )) 22, 1963, by ascending Everest in pairs by different routes, meeting in pitch blackness and surviving the night at the world's highest bivouac.

"It's hard to articulate," says Hornbein from his Washington home, "but I'm reminded of when my dad died. There was an acceptance and then you feel a loss and a loneliness. We four were the little quartet who shivered the night out on Everest.

"For [Luther], what a place to go, what an exit," he adds. "But it was too soon, a decade or two too early. Lute didn't waste the days. He was able to follow his passion in the mountains. For all of us it is beginning to add up. From the 20 people on our 1963 team, nine are dead."

The first of the historic quartet to depart was Hornbein's Everest climbing partner, teacher and friend, William F. "Willi" Unsoeld, 51, of Seattle, who died in an avalanche while leading college students down Mount Rainier in a

winter storm in 1979. Then in 1994, Barry C. Bishop, 62, an explorer, photographer and geographer with the National Geographic Society, was killed in a car crash.

Those still alive from the historic expedition include James W. Whittaker, of Port Townsend, Wash., who became the first American to stand on the Everest summit on May 1, three weeks before the other four. He ascended with Sherpa Nawang Gombu.

Hornbein, former chairman of the department of anesthesiology at the University of Washington, still climbs for fun and does high-altitude research when not teaching.

"I still enjoy climbing, but I have to use my head now instead of my body," he says. "Getting to the top is less compelling than 35 years ago. What has never changed is the sheer joy of being out in the mountains with friends."

It's a sentiment that echoes his 1965 book, "Everest: The West Ridge," just reprinted in a third edition, in which Hornbein wrote: "Existence on a mountain is simple. Seldom in life does it come any simpler: survival, plus the striving toward a summit ...

"It is this simplicity that strips the veneer off civilization and makes that which is meaningful easier to come by - the pleasure of deep companionship, moments of uninhibited humor, the tasting of hardship, sorrow, beauty, joy."

In the historic 1963 climb, success was not guaranteed when the quartet started out in two teams, planning to meet on the summit.

Jerstad and Bishop were one duo. They climbed up the same South Col route that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used in the first ascent in 1953. Hornbein and Unsoeld ascended the unclimbed West Ridge, an impossible slope of no return, meaning they had to reach the summit or else.

At 3:30 p.m. that May day, Jerstad and Bishop became the second and third Americans on the summit. They waited an hour for their colleagues, but the lateness of the day forced them to begin the descent.

Hornbein and Unsoeld reached the summit at 6:15 p.m. as the day was dying. Not seeing the others, they stayed 20 minutes, then began descending the normal South Col route. They edged down, yelling for the others but hearing only silence.

Finally, near 10 p.m., they heard an answering shout and caught up with the other team. The four briefly continued the descent - Jerstad slipping once and being held from a drop into eternity by the others - but then deciding to stop. The long night out lasted from 12:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. Jerstad later recalled it this way:

"We bivouacked on Mount Everest at 28,000 feet with no tents, no sleeping bags, no food, no water and most important, no oxygen. I don't know how we survived. Maybe because the four of us were too dumb to know we were supposed to be dead. With a strong back and a weak mind, you can survive anything."

Besides making the first ascent of the West Ridge and the first traverse of Everest, the team had survived the highest bivouac in history. At dawn, the four resumed their descent, reached advance base camp at 10:30 p.m. May 23 and base camp the next day.

Frostbite took its toll. Bishop lost all his toes and the tops of two fingers. Unsoeld lost all his toes but one. Jerstad lost some feeling in his fingers and toes. Hornbein escaped with no lasting damage.

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