Hornbein & the Maytag Mask

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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Everest at 50: Still There

The feat was as arduous as it was audacious, a triumph

for a war-weary world. Fifty years ago this spring, Tenzing Norgay

— a Nepalese yak herder turned mountaineer — and Edmund Hillary,

a New Zealand beekeeper, became the first men to stand on the world’s

tallest peak. On Saturday, April 12, Princeton University will help

commemorate that golden anniversary by hosting "On Top Of The

World: An Everest Anniversary Conference." The day-long event

will feature lectures, panel discussions, memorabilia, slide shows,

and films of the world’s most formidable mountain and of the people

who have followed Norgay and Hillary to the roof of the world.

The conference will bring together climbers and commentators who are

themselves part of Everest legend and lore. Tom Hornbein was with

the first American expedition to successfully summit in 1963. Along

with climbing partner Willi Unsoeld, Hornbein was the first to climb

the mountain’s West Ridge — where a passage, the Hornbein Couloir,

still bears his name. In 1965, he published "Everest: The West

Ridge," an account of his ascent.

Ed Webster was one of a renowned group of four climbers who blazed

a new trail up the mountain’s Kangshung Face in 1988, climbing without

radios, oxygen, or the help of Sherpas. It was Webster’s third trip

to Everest, one he recounted in his "Snow in the Kingdom: My Storm

Years on Everest."

Ed Douglas — a writer, mountaineer, and editor of Britain’s Alpine

Club Journal — published the biography, "Tenzing: Hero of

Everest," last month. He is also the author of a biography of

Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to summit Everest without supplemental

oxygen, and of "Chomolungma Sings the Blues," a chronicle

of Everest’s commercialization. ("Chomolungma" is the mountain’s

Tibetan name and means "mother goddess of the world.")

Maurice Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College and one

of the country’s preeminent historians of the 1960s, is now working

on the history of mountaineering.

And Princeton resident and alumnus David Robertson is also former

president of the Friends of the Princeton University Library. (The

Friends are hosting the Princeton event, with sponsorship from the

university’s Council for the Humanities, the geosciences department,

as well as the National Geographic Society.) Robertson is not only

a biographer of George Mallory, the British climber who in the 1920s

famously explained Everest’s lure by saying "because it’s there,"

but also his son-in-law, having married the second of Mallory’s two

daughters. His wife-to-be was seven when her father disappeared during

his third summit attempt.

Fifty years ago, Norgay and Hillary descended from Everest to a lifetime

of celebrity. Norgay, who died in 1986, was a revered figure among

Asians, having overcome poverty with skill and endurance. Hillary’s

ascent was a bracing coup for Britain on the eve of Queen Elizabeth

II’s coronation — and (now Sir) Hillary, who is still alive, has

devoted many years to improving living conditions for the indigenous

Sherpas, Tibetan Buddhists who migrated centuries ago to Nepal and

who often accompany climbers in the Himalayas.

Since Norgay and Hillary broke the summit barrier, more than 1,600

others have reached the peak. Thousands more have tried — and

at least 175 have died, a sad tally that may grow next month when

hundreds more attempt to commemorate the golden anniversary with their

own Everest climb.

In the 50 years since that first summit, the sport of mountaineering

has been transformed, both at Everest and worldwide. Hornbein —

who will kick off this week’s conference with a 9 a.m. lecture on

"Everest Then and Now: The Maturation of the Mountain" —

admits to being ambivalent about the mountain and sport he has done

so much to publicize.

Now 72 and a long-time resident of Seattle, Hornbein

continues to teach at the University of Washington School of Medicine

where he spent decades as a practicing anesthesiologist. He also continues

to do high-altitude research — and climb with friends and family

in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and in Rocky Mountain National Park.

"To the extent that I’ve helped make mountaineering more

visible, I don’t know if that’s a contribution or not," he says

in a phone interview from his home. "The mountains just keep getting

more crowded."

They also keep attracting hordes of novices who don’t have the skills

or dedication of climbers like Norgay and Hillary. Robertson will

moderate a panel presentation and discussion on "The Changing

Face of Mount Everest" with Douglas, Isserman, and Webster as

presenters and panel members. Now 87, Robertson recalls that when

he was climbing — in the 1930s — expeditions were sponsored

by national alpine clubs and geographical societies.

"The committees held strict physical exams to try to ensure the

climbing party would be not only strong but safe," Robertson says.

"Nowadays, there’s nothing like that kind of review." Many

more people are now climbing with inadequate experience, equipment,

and weather sense, he adds. "I’ve been alarmed for a good many

years by the growing number of accidents."

Money, not skill or safety, now often determines who has a shot at

the summit, says Webster, talking by phone from his home in Maine.

Commercialization was first introduced on Everest in 1985 when eminent

climber David Breashears — who later returned to film the spectacular

IMAX movie "Everest" — guided Texas multimillionaire Dick

Bass to the top.

The new tradition of large guided tours, complete with affluent "clients"

and dozens of gear-toting Sherpas, got harsh notoriety in 1996, when

eight members of guided expeditions died in a storm on the upper reaches

of the mountain — partly as the result of the bottleneck caused

by so many people trying to summit in one day, who didn’t have the

ability to maneuver when the storm hit. They accounted for more than

half of the 15 people who died on Everest in 1996, the mountain’s

deadliest year. The disaster was chronicled by journalist Jon Krakauer,

a tour client on assignment for Outside Magazine, in his riveting

1997 best-seller "Into Thin Air."

Sadly, Webster says, the 1996 tragedy born of hubris

and poor judgment only increased the mountain’s allure for commercial

climbers. "Even more people showed up on Everest the year after,"

he says, adding that many of the climbers wanted to prove that they’re

more skilled than the people who died. "Better — or luckier,

I suppose."

The ethics of what Webster calls "large siege-style expeditions"

are very different from those of small, independent parties —

like Mallory and his climbing companion Sandy Irvine, Norgay and Hillary,

Hornbein and Unsoeld, Webster and his colleagues — "that can

move lightly and quickly up the mountain, but with much more risk."

And the mindset of dedicated mountaineers is totally different from

that of guided clients: Climbers assume all the risk, equipment load,

and climbing strategy, while "clients want to buy into a trip

with the least amount of hassle and organization," says Webster.

At age 47, with a wife and baby daughter, his mountain activities

are no more extreme than seasonal cross-country skiing. "They

want to hand someone a check and show up in Katmandu," he says.

In addition to presenting an afternoon slide show at the conference,

Webster will give the morning’s "Small is Beautiful in the Himalayas"

presentation, extolling the virtue of climbing in small groups.

Webster’s most sublime moment on Everest came at dawn on summit day.

The sun rose behind him, casting the mountain’s immense, pyramidal

shadow clear to the horizon.

"It’s a totally spectacular sight," he says. "The alpine

glow with the mountains bathed in pinkish gold by the rising sun —

that’s a sight you never forget."

That memorable moment was also Webster’s most harrowing: Removing

his bulky outer mittens to photograph the Himalayan dawn, Webster

snapped eight shots in two minutes — wearing only his inner liner

gloves, at 27,000 feet, in 30 degrees below zero. Those two minutes

were all it took for frostbite to set in, and Webster ended up

losing eight of his fingertips.

"These were rather," he says wryly, "costly photographs."

(Ironically, his 1988 expedition was sponsored by Kodak.) They will

be among the slides he’ll show at the conference.

Along with the potentially lethal threat of altitude

sickness, Everest climbers face other quandaries. The climbing boom

has generated a looming environmental crisis as the populated portions

of the Himalayas get deforested. And countries including Nepal and

China — which share Everest’s real estate — charge exorbitant

fees for climbing permits. Climbers who go to China have the ethical

dilemma of financially supporting China’s brutal subjugation

of Tibet.

"Most mountaineers feel that they can do more good by going to

Tibet, talking to Tibetans, and promoting their cause once they get

home," Webster says. But with Tibetan hillsides littered with

rubble that once were monasteries, "it’s a terrible heartache

to see how much of Tibet has been destroyed."

Journalist Krakauer in "Into Thin Air" wrote that "attempting

to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act — a triumph

of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider

it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument."

Yet there is no sign that the number of people willing to succumb

to that desire is abating.

What will the next 50 years on Everest hold? "People will always

be dreaming up new ways to attempt Everest," Webster says. "A

very small group of mountaineers will try to think of ways to climb

Everest in an even `purer’ style." Fifty years on, the mountain

still has an unclimbed ridge aptly named Fantasy Ridge, a part of

the Kangshung Face that Webster describes as "phenomenally difficult

and dangerous." Or a passionately committed mountaineer will perhaps

attempt a solo ascent up an untried route without oxygen.

And despite the best efforts of hardcore purists, "commercialization

is pretty much here to stay — and that’s unfortunate, in my view,"

Webster adds. "Even if you do a climb that’s as pure as the one

we did, the chances of getting to the summit and having it all to

yourself nowadays are pretty small." But then, the chances of

most of us even considering a shot at standing in the boot prints

of Norgay and Hillary are smaller still.

On Top of the World: An Everest Anniversary Conference,

Princeton University Library, Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall,

609-258-3174. Day-long conference to commemorate the first successful

Everest ascent. Free. Saturday, April 12, 9 a.m.

Schedule at www.princeton.edu/~rbsc/friends/everest.html.

Afternoon session begins at 1:30 p.m. with "My Storm Years

on Everest: Climbing the Kangshung Face" by Ed Webster. Reception

at 3:30 p.m. in Firestone Library’s main exhibition gallery. Films

begin at 7:30 p.m.

Top Of Page
Hornbein & the Maytag Mask

The Everest ascent made by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund

Hillary in 1953 captured the world’s imagination — and helped

transform the sport of mountaineering. Several innovations have been


When George Mallory’s frozen body was discovered in 1999 at 27,000

feet, he was still clothed in the wools and tweeds he’d worn to attempt

the summit in 1924. Today’s climbers are swathed in insulated Gore-Tex

and use zinc-plated carabiners and chrome ice axes.

Tom Hornbein — who was a part of the first American team to summit

Everest and who is taking part in the Friends of the Princeton University

Library commemorative conference — also contributed a technological

innovation. Dividing his time between anesthesiology and mountaineering,

Hornbein was giving a lecture about one of his climbs at the University

of Washington where he practiced — and where Fred Maytag, the

owner of Maytag Company and an adverturer in his own right, was recuperating

from cancer surgery. Hornbein befriended the businessman and described

the problems he kept having with oxygen masks at high altitude.

Hornbein showed Maytag a design for a mask to be made out of rubber

that would be easier to de-ice and have simpler, more effective valves.

Maytag sent Hornbein’s ideas to his company’s design department, and

the result was the Maytag mask. Three months after Maytag died, Hornbein

and his team began their Everest trek — and Hornbein was wearing

the mask during his trailblazing summit.

That same mask was worn by filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears,

who has summitted Everest several times and filmed the "Everest"

IMAX film released in 1998. "Breashears wore my mask in 1997,"

Hornbein says, "so it’s now climbed the mountain twice."

— Phyllis Maguir

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