CORVALLIS, Ore. – Fifty years ago this spring, the first American mountaineers to scale the world’s tallest mountain accomplished that feat in a manner that still has the climbing world in awe today. The ascent of Mt. Everest by Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein is considered one of the greatest climbing achievements in history.
A graduate of Oregon State University, Unsoeld later served on the faculty of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Oregon State before taking a leave of absence to join the Peace Corps and embarking upon his historic trek.
It was a quest that would cost Unsoeld nine of his toes from frostbite, but cement his reputation as one of the country’s greatest climbers and give birth to a legacy of adventure-seeking that today still thrives at Oregon State University.
Josh Norris, director of the Adventure Leadership Institute for OSU’s Department of Recreational Sports, said that Unsoeld’s philosophy of life is as compelling to students today as tales of his climbing triumphs.
“When Willi was in his late 40s, he could out-climb just about anyone around even though he was missing almost all of his toes and had an artificial hip,” Norris said. “He was a strong personality and was most at home when he was in the outdoors, in touch with what he called ‘the sacred,’ or nature. His basic philosophy was that if you didn’t experience life to its fullest, you weren’t really living.”
That philosophy is what led to the Mt. Everest achievement. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to scale the world’s tallest peak in 1953, taking a southern route. In the subsequent decade, only one other successful climb took place, using that same route.
Ten years later, the National Geographic Society sponsored an ascent that resulted in dual attempts. Two American climbers would follow the southern route; Unsoeld and Hornbein opted to go for the western route, which was considered a near-impossible climb.
The difficulty of the route was not the only challenge; the climbers would have to carry all of their gear on their backs – no base camp, no porters, and no way back.
“They were totally going for broke,” said Norris, who has become a bit of a historian in researching OSU’s mountain climbing past. “They had no camp to retreat to, so they decided to traverse the peak. They had to make it to the top from the west and descend on a different route. That daredevil approach is why Willi joined the team – he didn’t want to try a route that someone else had already done.”
Scaling a 29,000-foot peak in the bitter cold, and carrying all of the necessary food, ropes, oxygen and other supplies on your back is almost beyond comprehension by today’s standards.
“Last year a group of climbers tried to recreate the Unsoeld-Hornbein climb,” Norris said, “and they did not succeed – even with modern equipment.”
After the successful ascent and summit on May 22, 1963, Unsoeld was hospitalized for weeks in Nepal. Oregon State president A.L. Strand sent a letter to faculty and staff seeking donations to help pay for his medical care; when he took leave from the university he lost his health insurance.
Eventually, Unsoeld returned to the United States and became a founding faculty member of Evergreen College in Washington. He died in 1979 at the age of 52, leading a group of Evergreen students on a climb of Mt. Rainier when he was buried in an avalanche.
Norris said that Unsoeld’s spirit has carried on at Oregon State. In 1988, OSU graduate Stacy Allison became the first American woman to scale Mt. Everest.
Today, the university’s Adventure Leadership Institute, which was founded in 1947 with undergraduate Unsoeld as a charter member, draws students to outdoor activities, Norris said. Some 9,500 annually participate in classes or outdoor activities, which include climbing, kayaking, hiking, cycling and other pursuits.
“It is more than just experiencing outdoor adventures,” Norris said, “the institute is about instilling the qualities of leadership and spirit that Willi Unsoeld personified.”
The OSU Adventure Club has some 200 dues-paying members who climb peaks throughout the Pacific Northwest, including Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, Smith Rocks, Mount Rainier, The Three Sisters and others. Climbing walls in Dixon Recreation Center draw some 28,000 visits a year.
Such activities are a draw for students, who are seeking meaningful experiences in college to supplement their classroom learning, Norris said.
“We have one 18-year-old freshman from the East Coast who came to OSU specifically because of the Adventure Leadership Institute,” he said. “Her latest goal is to climb Mount Jefferson in the winter, and at the same time, develop her leadership skills.
“That kind of spirit in students today would make Willi proud.”