Tom Hornbein has just passed away at the age of 92, in the middle of the high season of the siege of Everest, barely two weeks away from celebrating the 60th anniversary of one of the most daring ascents to the roof of the planet in the history of mountaineering. Our society has changed so much in these six decades that Everest now accommodates the unimaginable, the conventional, business, hunting selfies, the tails of the absurd and also a certain sadness. With Hornbein goes that type of curious, brave, rebellious human being, never a sheep, someone who has nothing to do with those who now huddle together clinging to a rope like children tied to their mother’s hand. They do not even want to imagine what it could be to seek an unknown path to the very top: safety above all, they proclaim, but Hornbein could answer that safety in the mountains requires autonomy, experience, and the mastery necessary to imagine challenges. that stand out from the banal. Yet always graceful, Hornbein never criticized the drift of events on the roof of the planet. He passed by, did what he wanted, and drew his bow: he continued climbing and walking all his life but never joined any great expedition again. In fact, he used to refer to his time on Everest as “one more adventure to add to the many adventures I’ve had over the years on different mountains.” Climbing a tree or the roof of a house were his first great adventures, those that time does not erase because they remain engraved in the DNA.
But what did Tom Hornbein do to be missed already? He was a great doctor, teacher and researcher (notably in high altitude physiology) and lived by and for medicine. Go ahead. Afterwards, he always liked to climb. He wasn’t looking for glory, or brands, or anything else that he wasn’t enjoying. To dry. And for the latter he needed to face himself, his fears and his enormous curiosity. That’s why he didn’t like the known paths, that’s why he gave up on becoming the first American to reach the top of Everest. If others had already done it, what difference did it make to be the first or the fourth? The interesting thing was there, before his nose and his gaze turned again and again towards the obvious and majestic western ridge of the mountain, virgin, silhouetted against the sky, a picture that seduced him enough to say: if it’s there, How not to go take a look? On May 22, 1963, Hornbein and Willy Unsoeld left their tent located at 8,300 meters sucking on bottled oxygen (then it was believed that the human being would not survive without such help at the top) but in perfect alpine style, as if they had escaped from school to go see what the hill was hiding behind their houses. Hornbein was guided by a blurry photograph showing a snow channel to avoid the last bits of rock. The image had seduced him as much as the mountains that he discovered as a child in Estes Park (Colorado): more than an image it was an internal earthquake, the feeling that life did not have to be routine. What he saw was a necessity: adventure. If Hornbein made his medical career in Seattle, upon retirement he returned to Estes Park, where he died on May 6. He kept walking, walking his dirt paths, and a decade ago, at 80 years old, he ran away from home, climbed a modest wall and spent the night stuffed into his bag. Just to contemplate the stars for a long time and remembering, perhaps, how his friend Unsoeld lost her toes to take care of her own. Yes, both climbers reached the top of Everest where no one had ever done it (and practically no one has done it again) and signed the first journey of an eight-thousander, knowing that the prize had an implicit toll: passing the night in the open, without artificial oxygen, at 8,530 meters. Throughout the night, Unsoeld gripped his friend’s feet, massaged them, thrust them against his belly, bringing his fingers back to life. Can anyone forget that gesture? Every year, until Willy Unsoeld disappeared in a snow avalanche on Mount Rainier, the two called each other on the phone on the anniversary of his summit of Everest. When Unsoeld was no longer around, starting in 1979, Hornbein perpetuated the custom by calling his widow every May 22, and every March 4, the date of his friend’s death.
From his experience on Everest, Tom Hornbein wrote a book (Everest: The West Ridge) in which it is not about narrating a feat but rather analyzing an inner journey. It was his way of thanking literature for what he had given him so much: knowledge and the desire to go out into the mountains. Without books, he opined, there would be a great void in the education of those who pursue dreams. In his understanding, the creativity of writers, photographers or filmmakers has always been crucial for the message to be perpetuated in the mountaineering community. He too became a hero, in spite of himself, to numerous generations of climbers. “I never wanted to be known as the doctor who climbed Everest, and Willi also resented the label and used to humorously describe the feeling of it: it’s like having an albatross fluttering around your neck. There is no way to get rid of it,” Hornbein would explain in the Denver Post.
These days, 500 customers and at least as many Sherpas wait anxiously on the south slope of Everest for a window of good weather to stampede to the top. There have never been so many candidates assembled. Most will never have heard of Tom Hornbein nor will they know that he was happy on Everest 60 years ago because he was just looking to have fun.
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