Everest West Ridge, Everest, Tom Hornbein

The Passing of an American Icon – Tom Hornbein

Tom Hornbein balanced a larger than life persona, a climbing enthusiasm that persisted though his more than 90 amazing years, with an intellect and sense of humanity that was truly larger than life.

Looking down on the West Ridge from high on the West Ridge Direct route, with the incredible walk in the clouds first done by Hornbein and Unsoeld. Our Camp 4’s three tents just visible below us. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

More than famous in the climbing world for his remarkable ascent of the West Ridge on Everest, he was also an esteemed Doctor who helped more than a few climbers through their own personal medical challenges.

When we returned from the Kangshung Face and Ed Webster let me know, that after suffering horrific frostbite and a raft of surgeries, that he was in touch with Tom, we all knew he was in the best possible hands.

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How to be part of a big expedition, and succeed with your own small and much more adventurous plans. Tom’s Book on their West Ridge climb far overshadowed the first American ascent up the standard South Col Route.

Tom Hornbein: Everest West Ridge defined the possibilities of great mountaineering accomplishments. Far more than just a new route, it established a climb that also completed the first traverse of Everest, up the West Ridge and down the South Col route.

With greatly diminished resources and support behind them, Hornbein and Unsoeld’s ascent stands as one of the great Everest climbs of all time. And Hornbein was able to tell the tale with much of the expedition weight lifted, as there were other official accounts of the South Col climb.

And like some of the great climbing partnerships, like the Hillary/Tenzing, Habeler/Messner teams, Hornbein/Unsoeld’s was a mix of diverse skills and approach that together created a much stronger partnership, with the ability to deal with the wide range of challenges and emotional barriers to climbing at altitude for days on end.

When we were climbing up the West Ridge Direct route, it wasn’t until we reached the point where we joined their original climb, that we suddenly felt we too were walking in the snowy steps of greatness. The long traverse, with the Western CWM of Everest far below on the right, the mythical land of Tibet stretching out behind us, and the black summit pyramid looming above was the place where we truly felt the power and the draw of Everest.

Moving along the West Ridge towards the base of the summit pyramid. The West Ridge Direct follows the ridge, to reach the Hornbein Couloir you go left out onto the North Face, into the couloir and direct to the summit. Photo: Ed Webster

Tom gave our American Alpine Club New York chapter dinner talk – and what I really wanted to ask about was not Everest, but a notorious, little known, off-width crack that extends up the right side of the Diamond on Longs Peak and leads back up to Chasm view.

As the usual approach to Broadway and the Diamond climbs that became a seasonal necessity for us Colorado climbers, the leering, dripping gaping cleft we rappeled down looked far worse than any of the fine finger cracks that grace the heights of the Diamond.

Everest West Ridge, Everest, Tom Hornbein

Tom Hornbein, right, setting up his show for the New York, American Alpine Club dinner, the Union Club, New York City.

Tom, typically humble commented – “yes, not sure it gets done much anymore.”

In actuality, I’m not sure if virtually anyone ever repeated it.

Not dissimilar to the West Ridge, as team after team go out to ‘have a look’ and come back with their tail between their legs. Even that sense of adventure has now passed, with virtually no ascents and few attempts in the many years that have followed.

Tom’s amazing accomplishments, in climbing and life, his humility and his lifelong love of climbing, couple with a personality that inspired so many of us will be sorely missed.

He climbed the big mountain in style, and lived an even bigger life.

everest, North Face everest, north ridge everest. robert mads anderson
Everest, West Ridge on the right skyline, from the Pang La, Tibet. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson