Hall of Mountaineering Excellence

Files from Tom Hornbein for the April 9, 2011 Induction of Tom and Willie in Golden, Colorado.

Nick Clinch

Our Honoree’s climbing began on trees and houses in St. Louis, Missouri. Panicking, his alarmed parents unwittingly sent him at age 13 to Cheley Camps in Rocky Mountain National Park, not knowing it was a dangerous repository of the mountaineering bug, where he contracted a virulent and permanent case.

Surviving his initiation of extensive scrambling and unroped rock climbing, he decided to feed the disease by majoring in geology at the University of Colorado. Blessed with the physical and mental attributes of a chimpanzee, he rapidly shot to the forefront of Colorado rock climbing, making many first ascents such as Zumie’s Thumb on Longs Peak. His great ability together with a lack of discretion resulted in numerous new routes such as the horrendous climb to Chasm View known as Hornbein’s Crack which is short for Hornbein’s Cracked Up. But he did show a modicum of prudence. Anticipating he might need its services, he was one of the early founders of the Rocky Mountain Rescue group in Boulder.

He then went to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a rather extreme way to learn more advanced first aid. Reinforced with this knowledge, he headed for more distant mountains, with an attempt in 1957 on Mt Huntington in Alaska. This led to his going to Masherbrum, 25,600 feet, in the Karakoram, where out on the steep snowy southeast face he demonstrated his skill at belaying. When the leader unexpectedly fell, Tom stopped him by grabbing the climbing rope with one hand and the fixed line with other. It was 160 feet from drop to stop and the only give in the belay was in his disarticulated shoulders. Although he was one of the strongest members of the party, Tom did not reach the summit because, as doctor, he had to descend with a sick climber.

After this practice climb, he went to Everest where, unable to figure out the regular route, he and Willi Unsoeld did their own thing by climbing up an avalanche chute now fittingly called the Hornbein Couloir and then, belatedly realizing that they could not retreat, went over the top and down the regular route, pausing on the way to set the record for the highest bivouac in the world at 28,000 feet. I might add that a Kelty pack he strong-armed off an innocent passerby and that went over the mountain is now here in the museum. Tangible evidence of his occasional ruthlessness.

Since Everest he has done four more expeditions in Asia including one in 1985 to Ulugh Muztagh, the highest peak in the remote Eastern Kun Lun Range of northern Tibet, where he demonstrated another side of his character. It was a joint Chinese American expedition. Five Chinese reached the summit. On the descent they fell, and the Americans gave up their summit chance to help rescue them. When the injured climbers reached base camp, Tom took care of them through a long night. Watching him, the Chinese interpreter said, “I think Americans must be the kindest people in the world.” And he is still climbing, going up Devil’s Tower several years ago.

Even more amazing, he has had a full life despite all the mountain diversions. After medical school, he went back for residency training as an anesthesiologist. Then he did two years as an NIH supported research fellow, followed by a stint as a doctor in the Navy. After his military service, he joined the faculty of the University of Washington School of Medicine, ending up as chair of the Department of Anesthesiology, and making it one of the outstanding departments in the country. His research focused on something that is of critical interest to everyone—breathing. He was involved in over a hundred journal articles and book chapters and served on numerous editorial boards and NIH committees. Among other things, he improved the oxygen masks used on Everest to get rid of an icing problem.

Today he is still actively involved in high altitude research and is on the board of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado in Denver. He also serves on the Advisory Board of this Museum.

Now that I have finished reading his press release, I want to tell you a little known story that reveals what our honoree is really like. It happened on Masherbrum over 50 years ago. Willi Unsoeld and George Bell made the first ascent on July 6th. Two days later a second rope of two reached the summit. After a fire in the tent at Camp 7, they got a late start, 7.30 am, and did not reach the top until 6.15. They did not linger. On the descent the rappel rope jammed on a flake and they could only retrieve a piece of it.

They returned to Camp 7, safe but exhausted, 24 hours after they had left. There, Dick Emerson was waiting and pumped them with food and water. But they could not rest. The good weather would not last, so with heavy loads the three climbers started down the upper part of the southeast face to Camp 6, which they did not reach until 11.00 pm.

They woke up late the next morning, and when they looked out of their tent, the weather was turning bad. By the time they got up and dressed it was approaching noon, the weather had closed in completely, and it was starting to snow. They knew that the slopes between Camps 6 and 5 were swept by slides during storms. Earlier four climbers had been caught in one and were lucky to stop themselves just before going over an ice cliff. And they could not wait it out at 6. They had to get down before snow accumulated on that face. Like it or not, they were in a race.

The three climbers tied into a rope, put on their heavy packs and began to stagger down the mountain. They could barely see a hundred feet. Suddenly they heard the faint notes of a harmonica, and below them were the dim forms of Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein rising through the white gloom.

Tom and Willi had been at Camp 5 in support. They saw the weather turning and decided to go to the help of the descending climbers. They knew the hazards of being up on that slope in those conditions. They had both been in the previous avalanche. They easily could have justified waiting at Camp 5, but no, up they went, exposing themselves twice to the same hazard that had almost killed them before.

They took the packs of the two exhausted climbers, put them on their rope, and the five climbers started down, Tom in front, Willi in the rear. They needed more than just strength and courage. To go from Camp 5 to 6, one had to do a slightly ascending traverse across the face and then go up. Not only did this increase the time exposure to avalanche danger, there was only one reasonable way across that face through the ice cliffs and crevasses. The snow wands were down, the visibility was almost non-existent and the traverse had to be found. On their way up Willi and Tom had estimated the number of rope lengths to descend before traversing.

Now Tom led the way, while Willi in the rear called out the numbers. One, two, three, four, five, six, TRAVERSE. Tom turned almost 90 degrees and started across through the near whiteout. Was this the right line? But after what seemed ages, they came into Camp 5 dead on. Thanks to the courage, strength, and navigational skill of Tom and Willi, everyone was safe. Behind them the slope began to slide.

I don’t know how impressed you are with this, but I am very impressed. I was one of the exhausted climbers. So once again, and in front of this distinguished audience, I want to thank you Tom -- and on behalf of the American Mountaineering Museum it is my high privilege to present to you this overweight token of your induction into the Hall of Mountaineering Excellence for accomplishments on and off the mountains.

The Tom and Jo Pony Show


Thank you, N and B AND FRIENDS

Special/Doc who climbed E

Cheley Camps

Masherbrum> Everest Tx setting stage

Priveleged re next award recipient,

Willi Unsoeld, my inseparable tent and ropemate




Jolene not here this evening,

She + Regon+ Krag ropemates

I play both


Jolene: If Willi had been here he would have sauntered up, stroking his chin, looking for all the world like an incompetent prospector and then he would have picked you up and taken you on a wilderness search to encounter your spiritual roots.

That’s Willi.


born Arcata, California in 1926.

Coos Bay, Oregon, high school in Eugene

BS physics OSU 1951,

BD theology at Oberlin Pacific School of Religion Berkeley 1954

PhD philosophy University of Washington 1958.


We were just a couple of students who climbed mountains together and fell in love. We met at the base of a mountain on an Oregon State College Mt. Club climb.

He used to say he was smitten because I was wearing G.I. mountain pants. In fact -- he lied. There was another student wearing red shorts. He went out with her first.

But I had an unerring eye for quality. He had the best mountain stove and he was the finest story-teller.

I persevered.

Willi had hitchhiked around the world and climbed in the Himalaya by the age of 23. He was bitten by the "Why?" of the world. Gave up physics and embarked on his quest. We were married [in 1951] and had 4 kids while he was in graduate school

Me: timing their every-other-year births so they’d be manageable during summers in the Tetons where Willi, guiding for Glen Exum, quickly established a reputation as a sort of ultimate guide and guru- an unforgettable experience. Any of you here?

Jolene: Teaching at OSU was all theory. Peace Corps in Nepal was all doing. Outward Bound helped identify some ways of changing people. The Evergreen State College provided the opportunity to apply it all the theories and the doing.


Jolene: Willi's attraction to climbing contained multiple strands: The raw beauty of the mountains and their connection to the sacred, to the indescribable awesomeness of the universe: the miracle of progression from the acorn to the oak -- the incredible puzzle of specific tissue differentiation in slow preparation for some ultimate function. A place where one confronts one's own fears and doubts on an individual level, but more importantly in the company and companionship of others with whom you have embarked on a shared experience, a shared challenge.

Willi was definitely an old school climber. Although he reluctantly acquiesced to the use of the fixed ropes and the solitary climbing that was the consequence, his heart lay with the companionship that comes from being roped to another climber as he was so often to Tom.

If you're going to climb mountains, especially climbing something unknown like the West Ridge, you have to accept that the outcome is never a foregone conclusion. Actually, you wouldn’t want it any other way. Risk, which of course includes the possibility of failure is an essential ingredient; the venture could take any number of paths, and whatever transpires is not within your hands alone. You are NOT in charge! We do not conquer mountains; rather mountains allow us to use them as a place for self-discovery.

And that's where he used nature -- the beauty and the risk of wilderness -- to provide that other dimension.

His approach to the beauty and hence the meaning was always keyed to the risk that is present in nature.

ME: In Willi’s guide book to life risk was an essential dietary constituent to life, at least to being really alive. Here’s his take on Outward Bound informed consent:


JOLENE: Willi was greatly fascinated with the mystery of mountaineering -- the simple question, "Will it go?"

That, the uncertainty, IS the fascination. In his teachings as a philosopher he was a disciple of Rudolph Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy” with its mysterium, tremendens et fascinosens. Willi loved to let the words flow from his mouth: REPEAT You have to find out. So you go a little farther. You never know, until finally you top out. Then you know.

“Oh yeah? How about getting down?" Big grin.

Willi’s final test of this wilderness experience, his final test of its efficacy, having been there, in the mountains, alone, in the midst of solitude, and this mystical feeling of the ultimacy, of joy the question he would ask was "Why not stay out there in the wilderness and just live in the lap of satori or whatever forever?

Willi’s answer to that was, "Because that's not where people are." The ultimate test for him of the legitimacy of the experience was, "how well it enables you to cope with the problems of mankind when you come back to the city."

And so he saw escape to wilderness as a renewal exercise leading to a process of alternation. You go there for your metaphysical fix your reassurance that the world makes sense. But with the reassurance that there's something behind it all and it's good, "you come back to where humans are, to where humans are messing things up, 'cause they tend to, and you come back with a new ability to relate to yourself and to your fellow humans and to help them relate to each other."

And that's the kind of alternation which Willi saw as a foundation for his approach to experiential education.


1976. Devi died on Nanda Devi

3 years later on Rainier Willi and Janie Diepenbrock.

Willi 52

32 years later, for me, he’s a never ending presence and guide: provocative charisma. Gift

Inseparable on Everest. Jealous wife?

We a bearable whole for our teammates, with Willi tempering my “fanatic” drive when necessary:


For me, a huge bit of the richness of this evening is to once again be tied in on the same rope with you, Willi, and with Jolene and with my own stalwart belayer sitting here hoping I will keep it all together. Just another of life’s challenges. Thank you all for sharing this moment with Willi and me.