Hornbein, Thomas (b. 1930)

  • By Joel Connelly
  • Posted 3/18/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10756

Tom Hornbein is known for one of mountaineering's epic achievements: the 1963 climb of Mount Everest's West Ridge with Willi Unsoeld (1926-1979), in which the two men traversed the 29,028-foot summit of the earth and spent a night exposed at 27,900 feet. He wrote a celebrated book, Everest: The West Ridge, reissued in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the climb. But Hornbein never returned to the Khumbu region of Nepal, explaining simply, "It was a once in a lifetime event. Life goes forward" (Interview, April 24, 2013). Mountains shaped Hornbein's life but, in the words of climber friend Bill Sumner, "He is far from a one-dimensional famous climber" (Interview, January 7, 2014). Hornbein spent his career as a physician and medical researcher, much of it in Seattle, where he joined the faculty of the University of Washington Medical School shortly after his historic climb and later served for 16 years as chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology. After retiring he moved with his wife Kathy to Estes Park, Colorado, within sight of Long's Peak where his climbing began nearly 70 years earlier.

Discovering Mountains

Tom Hornbein grew up in St. Louis. His parents -- his father was an advertising and public relations man at Famous-Barr in St. Louis, the first department store with air conditioning in America, and his mother was a homemaker -- were confronted with a scrawny little kid who loved to climb on rocks and trees. At the age of 13 they sent him off to Cheley Colorado Camps, the historic summer camp founded two decades earlier (and as of 2014 still introducing young people to the Rockies). The experience at Cheley began to shape him:

"I discovered mountains. It was the biggest, most pivotal event of my life. Mountains proceeded to direct everything I did in my life" (Interview, November 21, 2013).

And, he added, "I met a guy named Nick Clinch" (Interview, November 21, 2013). Clinch was three days older than Hornbein. The friendship began as kids doing grunt work (like cleaning toilets) at camp. Less than two decades later in 1960, they would be together in a party that made the first ascent of 25,566-foot Masherbrum, a peak of unusual beauty in the Karakoram.

Becoming a Doctor

When it came time for college, Hornbein headed for the hills, namely the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I spent every spare minute climbing, often cutting my classes and laboratories" (Interview, November 21, 2013). He was a geology major, but grew interested in medicine after being active in the Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue Group. He switched to pre-med after three years, and found that Washington University in St. Louis was willing to look at a student with, as he put it, "experience off the path." He developed, in medical school, a lifelong interest in humans' and animals' adaptation to altitude.

Hornbein had wanted to become a family doctor, but Washington University trained specialists. As a young anesthesiologist and student of the physiology of breathing, he acquired a mentor -- Dr. Albert Roos of Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Roos worked with Hornbein in a two-year National Institutes of Health fellowship. "He had a powerful effect," said Hornbein. "He mentored me in the joy, the discipline, and the passion of research" (Interview, November 21, 2013).

The 1960 expedition to Masherbrum "needed a climbing doctor." The climb introduced Hornbein to Willi Unsoeld and Dick Emerson, members of the future Everest expedition. The expedition had difficulty with its oxygen masks, prompting Hornbein to work at designing a new mask.

Getting to Everest

The first legend of Hornbein and high places was how he came to go on the 1963 Everest expedition. He was serving in the U.S. Navy when expedition leader Norman Dyhrenfurth asked him to join. The supervising admiral in San Diego was enthusiastic, but Washington, D.C., nixed the idea. Hornbein was needed, as it turned out, on the Mekong River in Vietnam.

As head of the Peace Corps in Nepal, Willi Unsoeld had met the agency's founder, Sargent Shriver. He intervened with Shriver. Reportedly, Shriver called his brother-in-law President John F. Kennedy, who then called Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Hornbein was in the operating room in San Diego when he was called to the phone. An admiral came on the line and said, "I understand you want to go climb Mount Everest" -- Hornbein replied in the affirmative -- "I've been instructed you may do so, but you're going to have to leave the navy" (Interview, November 21, 2013). The story sounded too good even for Hornbein, so when he met one of the principal players years later, "I asked Robert McNamara. He laughed and told me, 'That's exactly what happened'" (Interview, November 21, 2013).

The 1963 American Everest expedition had two quasi-conflicting objectives. The first was to put a man on the summit first claimed a decade earlier by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The South Col approach, already climbed by British and Swiss expeditions, beckoned. The second hope was to pioneer a new route. Hornbein had seen an aerial shot of Everest taken by the Indian Air Force. He studied the West Ridge, and saw a narrow couloir that offered a possible route to the summit. "The real climb would be the new route," Unsoeld's widow, former U.S. Representative Jolene Unsoeld (b. 1931), explained a half-century later (Interview, February 20, 2014).

Dyhrenfurth felt obligated, given support for the expedition, to put a party on the summit using the South Col route, saying, as Hornbein recalled: "If we don't pull it off (doing the West Ridge alone) we might end up with nothing" (Interview, November 21, 2013). The Americans, without drama, resolved the matter as adults, according to Hornbein. The expedition's resources would first go to the established South Col route. He and Unsoeld held out hope for the West Ridge, seeking the route because it was unknown. "We weren't seeking risk, but -- to be truthful -- risk is uncertainty. The West Ridge was about maximizing uncertainty. The South Col was zero. Uncertainty maximizes challenge" (Interview, April 24, 2013).

Climbing the West Ridge

When expedition member Jim Whittaker (b. 1929) of Seattle summited via the South Col, becoming the first American to stand atop Everest, the West Ridge climbers had their chance. They experienced wild winds, and found the crux of the route to be what became formally known as Hornbein's Couloir -- informally "Hornbein's Avalanche Chute." In his book, Hornbein described the scene as he prepared for the final push:

"Completely alone: Range on range hazed westward. Beneath me clouds drifted over Lho La, chasing their shadows across the flat of the Rongbuk Glacier. I remembered afternoons of my childhood, when I watched the changing shapes of clouds against a deep blue sky, sensing elephants and horses and soft mountains.
"On this lonely ridge I was part of all I saw: A single, feeble heartbeat in the span of time, and space about me" (Everest: The West Ridge).

Hornbein and Unsoeld reached the summit late in the afternoon. As Unsoeld radioed Whittaker at base camp, "It's too damned tough to try to go back. It would be too dangerous" (Everest: The West Ridge). The men started down the South Col route. They soon caught up with Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, who had climbed that route earlier in the day. Darkness settled over the mountain known to Tibetans as Chomolongma, or "Goddess Mother of the Earth."

"All other mountains belong to the Earth, the Himalayas belong to the heavens," John Kenneth Galbraith wrote after his stint as U.S. Ambassador to India (A Life ...). He's right. Everest is up in the jet stream. The mountain is recognizable, even from afar, by the great plume of snow blowing off its summit.

Hornbein gives a simple explanation for his survival: "That night there was not any wind. Had there been, we would not be having this conversation" (Interviews, April 24 and November 21, 2013).

Telling the Story

Hornbein was largely unscarred, but has observed (sometimes in jest) that his mind was never quite the same after the night spent at 27,900 feet. Willi Unsoeld lost nine of his toes to frostbite. Unsoeld died 16 years later in an avalanche on Mount Rainier. "Tom continues the tradition, every year, of calling me on the anniversary of the [Everest] climb," said Jolene Unsoeld (Interview, February 20, 2014).

Rarely has a book aged as well as Everest: The West Ridge. For each edition, Hornbein wrote a new introduction, updating the lives and the passing of those on the 1963 climb. In those updates, he is clearly discussing treasured friendships.

Some mountaineering literature has, in years since, grown me-centric: Books have been used to expose conflicts and carry forward feuds. Willi Unsoeld has been put on a couch years after his death on Mount Rainier. Everest: The West Ridge is different, an account of teamwork and mutual support. Hornbein reflected, 50 years after his climb, "My experience was doing something I love to do. This was simply a bigger mountain to which was attached more notoriety. I wanted to show a small group of people working together, solving problems through daily interactions. I wanted to make it real" (Interview, April 24, 2013).

Professor, Mentor, Friend

With the climb over, Hornbein packed his family into a VW van and drove north to take a post as an assistant professor at the University of Washington Medical School. The phrase "Hornbein's Couloir" became famous among Himalayan climbers. Two other phrases took root in Hornbein's professional life. Together, they help sum up the man. The first is "Hornbein's theorem" and has to do with mentoring, namely that not only does a mentee learn from a mentor, but that the reverse is also true. The second is "Hornbein's Hot Sludge," referring to fudge made for friends.

"During his academic career, Dr. Hornbein served as mentor to many. Indeed, mentoring and teaching residents and medical students were his prized activities, in part because the learning was a two-way street," according to a profile in the Association of University Anesthesiologists newsletter ("Tom Hornbein"). Dr. Elliott Krane, a medical collaborator, said of Hornbein: "Tom is a legend in the mountain climbing community, yet I worked for him for five years before I came to know the story of his achievements" ("Tom Hornbein").

Hornbein became renowned, as well, for the quality of his friendship, in giving medical advice and, in Bill Sumner's words, "being there for life decisions" (Interview, January 7, 2014). Sumner, a physicist and climber, met Hornbein as a graduate student in 1966 attending a post-Everest lecture. Hornbein discussed medical aspects of the Everest climb. Jim Whittaker talked about the gear used.

Sumner has experienced "life decisions" with the Hornbeins. Kathy Hornbein agreed to be pediatrician for Sumner's son Sasha ("She was just ... perfect") and Tom Hornbein was there for the birth: "Tom held my son before I did, he was there, in a surgical mask, handing me my baby" (Interview, January 7, 2014).

Thirteen years later, on Hornbein's 80th birthday, he was climbing with Sasha, showing the same care toward the young man as when he was minutes old. Bill Sumner wrote this poetic appreciation:

"Tom worked his way up a steep, sunny slab, his rope disappearing into the shadows below.
"'I'm there.'
"An anchored Tom pulled the rope tight against Sasha's waist.
"'Belay on, climb.'
"Sasha followed his gentle master, remembering as best he could, when to search high and left, and when to just smoothly step up.
"Everything depended on one foot. Sasha hesitated.
"'Try it. I will hold you if you fall.'
"Sasha moved his foot but was afraid.
"'I've got you.'
"Slowly, very slowly, Sasha stood up. His first grin was tiny, but with every meter it grew.
"Until Tom and Sasha shared a laughing, passionate embrace perched high on a little ledge" ("Tom Hornbein").

Continuing to Climb

Hornbein continued to climb with friends young and old. He organized a climb of The Tooth, above Snoqualmie Pass, to mark the 80th birthday of his attorney-climber friend Stimson Bullitt.

With development of the cell phone, Hornbein even found a way to share his mountain experiences with friends laboring at sea level. "My phone can ring and it will be Tom calling from somewhere in the mountains," said Jolene Unsoeld. "He will simply lift the phone into the air so I can hear the rush of the wind" (Interview, February 20, 2014).

Hornbein has helped at the end of life with climbing friends -- Pete Schoening, Barry Corbett, Charles Houston, Stim Bullitt -- giving personal medical advice and using connections at the top of the medical field. After Schoening's memorial service, surviving members of the 1953 American K-2 expedition gathered in Hornbein's kitchen.

"He is simply there for you: He never makes a big deal of it, but he offers medical advice and helps with the biggest and smallest of decisions, and gently cares," said Tina Bullitt of Hornbein's presence at the end of her husband's life (Interview, January 21, 2014).

Tom Hornbein had six children, five from his first marriage and one child from his second. He met his second wife, Kathy Mikesell Hornbein, in an operating room when she asked him a question about climbing Everest. Sumner said of Kathy Hornbein, "She's a damned fine doctor, really good with children" (Interview, January 7, 2014).

Hornbein continued teaching into his 70s. In 2006, after he retired, Tom and Kathy Hornbein moved to Estes Park, Colorado, where Tom first fell in love with mountains. Kathy played the viola and wrote; Tom learned to play the piano. Hornbein did not miss Seattle-area traffic, joking, "I can drive from Estes Park into Denver [70 miles away] faster than what at times it took me to get across Lake Washington" (Interview, November 21, 2013).

More important, the couple could take friends hiking out the back door. The backdrop to their new home was Long's Peak, a presence in Tom Hornbein's life for more than 70 years. With the 14,000-foot peak where his climbing life began "right out my window" (Interview, November 21, 2013), he could lift his legs unto the hills from the backyard of his home.

Sources: Thomas F. Hornbein, Everest: The West Ridge (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 2013); James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Books, 1964); John Kenneth Galbraith, A Life in Our Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981); Joel Connelly, "Everest: The West Ridge, A Climb into the Heavens," SeattlePI.com, April 26, 2013; Lisa Wise-Faberowski and W. Anthony Kofke, "Tom Hornbein: Just the Doc Who Climbed Everest?" Spring 2013 Newsletter, Association of University Anesthesiologists website accessed March 17, 2014 (http://www.aimlabstanford.org/aua/category/2013-spring-newsletter/); John Meyer, "Legendary Climber Hornbein Still a Mountain Man," The Denver Post, April 5, 2011 (http://www.denverpost.com/ci_17772098); Liz Drummond, "50 Years Later with Jim Whittaker and Tom Hornbein," Climbing, Spring 2013 (http://www.climbing.com/climber/50-years-later-with-jim-whittaker-and-tom-hornbein/); Joel Connelly interviews with Tom Hornbein, April 24, 2013 (via telephone), and November 21, 2013, Seattle, Bill Sumner, January 7, 2014, Seattle, Tina Bullitt, January 21, 2014, Seattle, and Jolene Unsoeld, February 21, 2014 (via telephone).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You