Americans on Everest

Jim Whittaker waves the American flag while standing atop the summit of Mount Everest on May 1, 1963.

Fifty years ago, on May 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American to stand atop Mount Everest. Three weeks later, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, members of the same expedition, reached the world’s highest summit via a new, more dangerous route on the peak’s west side.

This seems like a monumental feat now, but at the time it wasn’t really celebrated.

“In the United States there was absolutely no interest in mountain climbing among the general public,” said Nick Clinch, who led two American expeditions to the Himalayas in the early 1960s. “Even worse, a lot of people viewed it negatively.”

My, how times change. Last weekend, four surviving members of the 1963 Everest expedition reunited for an American Alpine Club fundraiser in Richmond. In attendance were Whittaker, 84; Hornbein, 82; expedition leader Norm Dyhrenfurth, 94; and Dave Dingman, 76.

“When they were talking about a reunion three years ago, I thought, ‘Who the hell cares about that?’ I figured we’d just get together for some beers,” said Dingman, the expedition doctor. “It’s turned into this big event, and I’m glad it has.”

I was fortunate to attend Saturday’s banquet at the Craneway Pavilion and speak with Whittaker and Hornbein about their memories of the climb. Look for my story in Thursday’s paper — and thanks to the AAC for hosting such a cool event.