Jake Norton: The Everest West Ridge

It’s an incredible story of vision, of heroism, of tenacity – of really having a dream and seeing it through.”
– Jake Norton, on Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld’s 1963 West Ridge summit

Jake Norton & Tom Hornbein
Jake Norton & Tom Hornbein
Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

In the spring of 2012, Jake Norton, Charley Mace, Brent Bishop and Dave Morton attempted to re-trace and re-tell the story of the historic 1963 West Ridge summit of Mount Everest by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld.

Wanting to stay true to the pioneering spirit of Hornbein & Unsoeld, the four attempted the West Ridge in an alpine style with no sherpa support.

The group’s route started through the Khumba Ice Fall, then proceeded to Advanced Base Camp at 21,300 ft.

The planned route then headed straight up the West Ridge headwall.  However, the incredibly dry year with little snow resulted in attempting the climb through cement-like ice, or as Norton described it, “bulletproof blue ice.”  Each time they pushed higher, it got worse.

After two months on Everest and horrific weather conditions, the four called it quits.  “The mountain was definitely saying no,” recalled Norton.

A step back in time to 1963

Jake Norton presentation
Jake Norton presentation Photo: Greg K. Hull © Chasing Light Media

Jake Norton recently presented “Higher Than Everest: The West Ridge and Other Peaks of Challenge21” at the American Mountain Museum in Golden, Colorado.

Starting with a step back in time 49 years, Jake told the story of Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld’s 1963 West Ridge summit.

Calling their exhibition, “one of the most impressive ascents of Mt Everest to this day,” Norton detailed the extremely challenging route and Hornbein & Unsoeld’s desire to try the unknown and risk failure rather than summiting via the standard route – which at that time had only been successfully summited 10 times.

While Hornbein & Unsoeld were successful – the upper part of the north wall on the route is now named the Hornbein Couloir – most of those attempting the route since 1963 have not been.  According to Norton:

  • Of the 59 attempts of all variations of West Ridge routes in the last 49 years, there have been 21 successful summits & 23 deaths
  • For those attempts via the Hornbein Couloir, there have been 9 summits & 12 deaths

While Norton spoke, Tom Hornbein listened – as an attendee of the presentation.

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