The Denver Post
Like many mountaineers of his generation, Charley Mace was captivated by the photo on the cover of Tom Hornbein’s classic 1963 book, Everest: The West Ridge, inspiring him to an impressive career that has included ascents of Everest and three other 8,000-meter peaks.
Now the Golden resident hopes to follow in Hornbein’s footsteps on the West Ridge route that only three others have climbed since Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld did so 49 years ago on the first American Everest expedition. Others on the team include Golden’s Jake Norton and two Seattle climbers, Brent Bishop and Dave Morton. Bishop’s father, Barry, took the famous picture of Hornbein and Unsoeld on the West Ridge.
“All of us are students of the genre,” Mace said. “The West Ridge by Tom Hornbein is one of those things that a lot of people blame for getting me into climbing.”
Mace, who arrived at base camp two weeks ago, summited Everest via the South Col in 2001 while serving as a cameraman on an expedition featuring blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer. Mace also has climbed K2, Manaslu and Gasherbrum II.
Norton has been on Everest six times before, including three research expeditions, searching for evidence of George Mallory’s 1929 expedition. He has summited three times. This trip is different, however. This one seeks to pay homage to one of the greatest feats in American mountaineering history. It also will take the climbers away from the teeming throngs that are being guided up the South Col and Northeast Ridge routes. Above Camp 2 in the Western Cwm, the West Ridge climbers will be alone.
That’s both exciting and intimidating.
“It’s funny to talk about it because that’s the exact same scenario – but in a very different world – that drew Tom and Willi to it in ’63,” Norton said. “They didn’t want to go up a slog route, the standard route that had been climbed a whopping three times (then). They wanted to do something new.”
There was a debate on the 1963 expedition. Some on the team thought the top priority had to be getting the first American to the summit, even if it meant climbing the South Col route that Edmund Hillary pioneered 10 years earlier. Hornbein and Unsoeld saw more to be gained by attempting an unclimbed route.
In the end, the Americans achieved both. Jim Whittaker summited via the South Col on May 1. Hornbein and Unsoeld climbed the West Ridge on May 22.
“For all of us on the team, the excitement and the possibility of being pretty much away from it all, feeling the mountain to some degree as it was 50 years ago, is really exciting and enticing,” Norton said. “But at the same time, it carries with it a lot of risk and a lot of stepping off the map, to some degree. That’s certainly intimidating, as well.”
With much the same sentiment as Hornbein, Mace had no interest in climbing Everest by a route he’d already done.
“I don’t want to see the same movie again. I don’t want to go to the same restaurant again. I’d rather try a new restaurant or see a new movie,” Mace said.
“It will be a relief, when we get to Camp 2 on the normal route, to hang a left and head up to the shoulder on the West Ridge route – pretty much head off on our own, just the four of us. We’ll see the lights of the city of base camp below us, and maybe other folks walking up and down the Western Cwm, but it will be super cool, I think, to be on our own – as much as we can be – on Everest.”
Mace admits he’s “scared as hell” because their route is so committing.
“If something does go wrong, it will be up to us to get out of there,” Mace said. “We’re not on the South Col cattle route, where there’s hundreds of people at any camp on any given day, so if you drop your spoon you can find another. Or if you start to get altitude sickness, three guys or five guys can help you down.
“It’s much more technical climbing, and we’re much more out there, on our own, which is intriguing.”
Eddie Bauer sponsored the 1963 expedition, and now it’s sponsoring simultaneous separate expeditions to commemorate the heroics of Whittaker, Hornbein and Unsoeld – the West Ridge contingent and a South Col team that includes Whittaker’s son, Leif.
Norton, who can become the first man to reach the summit from all three ridges, is excited about standing where Bishop took his classic West Ridge shot.
“If that’s as far as we get but I get to look on that view that Barry Bishop captured in ’63 with my own eyes, I’ll be pretty happy with that,” Norton said. “I’d like to get a lot higher and a lot further, but I could live with that. The most important thing is coming back home.”