Excelsior!

Americans on Everest

by James Ramsey Ullman
Lippincott, 492 pp., $8.95

Four Against Everest

by Woodrow Wilson Sayre
Prentice Hall, 322 pp., $5.95

When Hillary got down from the summit of Everest in 1953 he announced the victory in classic style: “We knocked the bastard off,” he said. Unromantic, disrespectful, and aggressive in a practical way, his statement was not only typical of the tone of modern climbing, it was also essential to it. The few remaining big peaks and vertical faces which are the present goals of mountaineers are too difficult, too technical, and very much too serious to allow room for what the boys in the business used to call “The Spirit of the Hills.” Mountain mysticism—the belief that slogging up a route or seeing a nice view from the top will promote a Vision of Truth—is a luxury for which there is precious little time on the hard climbs. (When a young English mountaineering mystic went onto the Eiger Wand two years ago, his partner was killed and he himself was saved only by the efforts of two of the toughest realists in British climbing). Romanticism will never get you up a really serious mountain, and mysticism may well be the death of you. What counts is physical skill, power and stamina, good organization, and a driving desire to get the job done. The psychologists call the best climbers “highly motivated”; among climbers themselves the approving trade name is “hard men.”

The American Everest Expedition 1963 included some very hard men indeed. It was also, as you would expect, immensely well organized. But it did the job: four climbers reached the summit by the traditional South Col route; two others, Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein, pioneered a brand new route by the West Ridge, reached the summit by it, and then traversed on down to the South Col—a major triple achievement in the Himalaya. Four of them also spent a night out without bivouac equipment at more than 28,000 feet, another Himalayan first which no one, I imagine, will be in a rush to repeat. Early on, the expedition’s official scribe, James Ramsey Ullman, remarks that “the raising of money for an Everest expedition proved only slightly less difficult than, say, soliciting funds for a statue of Karl Marx on the White House lawn.” As it turned out, the members of the expedition had their brilliant success and finished on the White House lawn, with President Kennedy giving them a medal.

They also raised a vast sum of money. The American expedition was the most expensive (it cost, in all, over $400,000), the best equipped (they had, for example, eleven walkie-talkies), and the largest Himalayan show ever mounted; twenty American climbers—including, heaven help us, a psychologist and a sociologist—more than two football squads of high altitude Sherpas, and 900 porters. As someone wrote to me afterward: “With all that lot, they could have run a super highway up the thing.” Had it failed it would have been, I suppose, another joke at the expense of the American passion for over-organization and over-equipment …

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Letters

Mountains September 24, 1964