Tom Hornbein: Mountaineer Who Discovered The West Ridge Route

Tom Hornbein is a mountaineering legend known for his remarkable ascend to the top of Mt. Everest (8,848 meters) from the West Ridge on 22 May 1963. Hornbein along with Willi Unsoeld summited the tallest peak in the world from the West Ridge and spent the night exposed to an altitude of 8,503 meters.

This daring mountaineer when standing beneath the shadow of the tallest peak in the world knew that just getting to the top of the world wasn’t enough for him and wanted more. In the 1963 expedition, Hornbein was sponsored to be the first American to reach the top of the highest snow-clad mountain in the world.

The strategy of the American expedition was clear, Tom Hornbein would scale via the South Ridge established and taken by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa for their first-ever summit to the top of the mountain on 29th May 1953.

This American expedition took place a decade after Edmund and Tenzing’s successful summit in 1953, prior to Hornbein’s expedition, only 6 mountaineers had successfully completed the scaling meanwhile 16 had lost their life on the treacherous slopes.

Still, even after understanding the threats while scaling the highest peak in the world, Tom Hornbein who was in the Himalayas created history as the first American climber to reach the top of Everest. He decided to add an additional objection to the expedition, scaling all the way to the top via an audacious new route, the West Ridge.

The West Ridgers

The West Ridgers - everest west ridge route
American climbers Tom Hornbein and Wili Unsoeld opened the Hornbein Corridor (in red on the photo), on the western ridge of the world’s highest peak.

Although Tom Hornbein’s sponsored expedition initially planned to scale all the way to the top of the mountain from the South Ridge, upon arrival at the Himlayas this daring mountaineer decided to take a brand new route engraving his name in history as the most fearless ascender on the deadly mountain.

Even though the objective was instant, it wasn’t taken lightly by the expedition team, Tom Hornbein and the team made several reconnaissance trips on the mountain and spent many days of deliberation and countless hours strategizing the safe route.

After successfully strategizing a plan that had potential, and adapting to the new objective farthest from what the expedition team had originally intended, this valiant expedition was dubbed as the ‘West Ridgers’.

Then the expedition team was divided into two parts, Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu scaled all the way to the top of the world from the Sout Col, making history as the first-ever American mountaineer to climb Mt. Everest.

Similarly, Tom Hornbein and his climbing partner, Willi Unsoeld, pushed for the summit from the West Ridge, three weeks after the first successful American expedition on the mountain. The West Ridgers successfully completed the scaling of Everest from the brand news audacious climbing route making a name in history as the first people to pioneer a new daring route on the mountain.

However, this valiant scaling came with a price, during the expedition from the west ridge, the expedition team lost mountaineer Jake Bretenbach when the ice call collapsed. Similarly, the West Ridgers had to face a ferocious windstorm that almost took out the whole team; further, the bivouac at the 8,500 meters cost Willi Unsoeld nine of his toes.

Still, the feat achieved by the West Rdigers still remains one the greatest achievements in the history of mountaineering. Remembering the epic adventure to the Himalayas, Hornbein also wrote the book ‘Everest: The West Ridge’ in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the most iconic feat in mountaineering history.

Tom Hornbein’s Early Life

Tom Hornbein's Mountaineering Career
Hornbein as a boy. [Photo] Hornbein collection
Born on 6th November 1930, Tom Hornbein grew up with his family in St. Louis. His father was an advertising and publication relation officer at Famous-Barr and his mother was a homemaker.

Horbein’s love for height was evident from his childhood, even as a scrawny little kid, he loved climbing high rocks and trees. When this legendary American mountaineer was 13 years old, he was sent to the Cheley Colorado Camps, a historic summer camp that introduces young people to the Rockies).

His passion started to take shape in the summer camp and following his fascination for the mountains, Tom Hornbein enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder where he earned a name as an active and skilled climber.

The American mountaineer spent most of his time in university climbing often skipping classes and laboratories. During the summer of his undergraduate years, Hornbein worked as the counselor for the same Cheley Colorado Camps where he went as a kid.

Tom Hornbein met Nick Clinch during his counseling period at the camp, Clinch later a key figurine in the American mountaineer’s life as he was the one who introduced Hornbein to the magnificent massifs of South Asia.

This legendary mountaineering was actually majoring in Geology at the University of Colorado and also helped to create the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group during his university years. After his participation in the mountain rescue group and understanding the first aid, Hornbein developed an interest in the medical field.

Thus, he later switched to the pre-med major and after finishing his undergraduate degree was accepted for the medical studies at the Washington University in St. Louis. During his medical years, he started exploring the literature on how humans adapt to the high altitude environment.

Tom Hornbein’s Mountaineering Career

Tom Hornbein's Mountaineering Career
Hornbein on the 1963 Everest expedition.

After completing his medical degree in 1956, Tom Hornbein immediately set out on the adventure to Alaska to attempt his first ascent on Mt. Huntington at 3,731 meters (12,241 feet) in 1957. The expedition was led by the American rock climber and mountaineer, Fred Becky, although the expedition team made it to the French Ridge due to the poor snow conditions they couldn’t push for the summit.

Prior to that, in 1951 the legendary mountaineer made his first ascent to Zumie’s Thumb and set out on the second ascend of the Ship Rock in New Mexico in the April of the following years. In the early 1950s, Hornbein made the first ascent of the Central Chimney of Twin Owls, it was only in 1960 that, Tom Hornbein, the American legendary mountaineer set foot on the South Asian mountain range.

His buddy from the summer camp, Nick Clinch invited Hornbein for the expedition on Masherbrum, formerly known as K1, at an elevation of 7,821 meters (25,659 feet). For the spectacular scaling of this unclimbed peak in the Karakoram range, the expedition team comprised Nick Clinch, George Bell (member of the 1953 American expedition on K2), Tom Hornbein, and 7 other capable members.

However, due to several incidents during the summit push where Horbein himself slipped at least 200 feet, the American mountaineer’s duties as a doctor kept him from scaling the summit during the expedition. George Bell and William Unsoueld made the first ascent on the mountain on 6th July and the expedition was followed by other members of the expedition team Nick Clinch and Captain Jawed Akhter two days later.

The Fateful Everest Expedition

The Fateful Everest Expedition by tom hornbein
Pictured are members of the fourth expedition to summit, Willi Unsoeld (left) and Tom Hornbein during the ascent.

After completing his fellowship with the National Institutes of Health in St. Louis, Tom Hornbein went to San Diego to fulfill his two-year service obligation with the U.S. Navy Force as an anesthesiologist.

During his time with the Navy, the American mountaineer was invited to participate in the American expedition of Mt. Everest in 1963 which would decide the first-ever American to climb the tallest peak in the world.

Due to his mountaineering expertise and previous climbing experience in South Asia, the legendary mountaineer was more than qualified for this expedition, and as they say, rest is the history.

Although the main objective of the expedition was to scale the mountain from the south side of the mountain following the Sout Col ridge, the West Rdigers had something else on their mind. Claiming victory as the first-ever American to ascend the tallest mountain in the world wasn’t enough for Hornbein, he wanted more that would make the American expedition stand out.

The legendary mountaineer had seen the aerial photographs of Everest taken by the Indian Air Force and had noticed the narrow couloir on the west side of the mountain that looked climbable. Even though there was natural tension among the expeditions that were separated into two parties, one taking the conventional south route meanwhile others pushing from the audacious west ridge.

But the good leadership held everyone together and the American expedition team turned out victorious on both routes creating history in the mountaineering world.

See also:

Tom Horbein’s Life After Everest

Tom Horbein’s Life After Everest

Tom Horbein, the legendary mountaineer who created history in the mountaineering world by successfully scaling the highest snow-clad peak in the world from the brand-new and audacious West Ridge on 22 May 1963, moved to Seattle after the expedition.

He worked as an assistant professor at the University of Washington Medical School in the Department of Anesthesiology and dedicated his years to caring for anesthesia patients. His significant contribution to the field paved the way for the Chairperson of the University of Washington Department in 1978.

However, he never forgot his love and passion for the snow-clad charming peaks, he actively took part in many expeditions even after his successful medical career. The American mountaineer was part of the 1985 expedition alongside his buddy Nick Clinch who made the first ascend of Ulugh Muztagh (6,973 meters).

Similarly, Horbein and Clinch made an attempt on the Chinese peak Kang Karpo (6,882 meters) in 1989. The legendary mountaineer also fulfilled his long-time dream by climbing the Casual Route on the Diamond of Long Peak in 1955.

After his retirement from the medical field in 2006, Tom Horbein and his wife, Kathy Mikesell Hornbein, moved to Estes Park, Colorado where he first fell in love with the mountains. The legendary mountaineer continued his climbing in the Colorado Rockies throughout his 70s as well as 80s.

Tom Horbein, was not only the greatest mountaineering legend to ever live but also a gifted researcher, and teacher. Living his life to the fullest, as one of the greatest mountaineers to ever live and continuing his devotion to mountaineering tills his 80s, this legendary mountaineer passed at his home in Estes Park, Colorado on 6th May 2023 at the age of 92.


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