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Originally published February 25, 2011 at 9:14 PM | Page modified February 26, 2011 at 10:10 AM

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Restless Native

At 80, Everest legend stands tall

Tom Hornbein, legendary mountain climber and longtime head of the anesthesiology department at the University of Washington School of Medicine, will speak at an American Alpine Club confab Saturday. Fred Beckey, who claimed first ascents on a staggering list of peaks, will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award

Seattle Times staff columnist

"The night was overpoweringly empty ... Mostly there was nothing. We hung suspended in a timeless void ... Intense cold penetrated, carrying with it the realization that each of us was completely alone. No team now, just each of us, imprisoned with his own discomfort, his own thoughts, his own will to survive."

— Tom Hornbein, describing a legendary 1963 bivouac on Mount Everest with three climbing partners in "Everest: The West Ridge."

Almost a half-century later, the Everest memories are a little fuzzier around the edges. But the funny thing, Tom Hornbein will tell you, is that they come to visit more often these days — and stay a little longer.

Part of that, perhaps, is the function of retired life and free time: an idle mind drifts.

But it's also a matter of public demand. If your résumé includes little highlights like "first successful traverse of Mount Everest," people tend to shut off their phones and listen.

As they will Saturday night, when Hornbein, 80, who five years ago retired to Estes Park, Colo., returns to Seattle to speak at an American Alpine Club confab at Pier 66.

Hornbein's talk, billed as a "conversation" with Steve House, another accomplished Northwest climber of world renown, is part of a new effort by the Colorado-based club to increase its presence in the Northwest.

For the average Northwesterner, it's also one of a fleeting number of chances to rub shoulders with the region's aging, first-ascent generation of mountain climbers: bold, unassuming men who danced in the dragon's jaws and skipped back out.

Hornbein, the longtime head of the anesthesiology department at the University of Washington School of Medicine, isn't sure where his talk with House, 40, will go. But a couple of days in May, 48 years ago, are sure to come up.

The Hornbein/Unsoeld Everest climb, which came at the tail end of the 1963 expedition that made Seattle's Jim Whittaker the first American to stand atop the world's highest peak, has been largely lost in pop-culture history. But it stands as one of the most remarkable feats in mountaineering, then or now.

Attacking the unexplored, "unclimbable" West Ridge, Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld made a perilous ascent over loose snow and rock that few modern climbers, even with superior equipment, would attempt. The going was so slow and so dangerous, the climbers quickly realized descending via the same route was not an option.

The unavoidable prognosis: "Up and over, or die."

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So up they went, in the latest cutting-edge wool pants and reindeer-fur-lined boots. Finally arriving at the summit at 6:15 p.m., oxygen tanks running dry, they began descending in total darkness via the South Col route. They soon stumbled upon fellow expedition members Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad, who had summited earlier via the South Col.

The two teams hunkered down below the summit, surviving a night at 28,000 feet in the "Death Zone" and making their way to safety the next morning. Unsoeld later would lose nine toes to frostbite.

It was the stuff of legend — the first time anyone ever went up one side of a Himalayan peak and came down another, more or less in one piece.

But to men hardened on the glaciers of Rainier and schooled on the stone of the Leavenworth crags, Everest at the time was just another climbing problem to be solved — same deal, bigger scale.

"For me, it was just going out and having the same sort of adventure you might have in the Cascades," Hornbein insists. "Trying something that hadn't been done before."

Saturday's talk by Hornbein and House is likely to highlight the progression of climbing styles over their life spans — big-expedition to light-and-fast. It also likely will veer into philosophy.

"We'll talk about commitment and risk, rewards, the costs, like the loss of lives, loss of marriages," says Hornbein, still an active climber. "The stuff of mountains as metaphors, and about our relationship to them and our relationship to our fellow man."

The event is part of a concerted Alpine Club effort to reach out to Northwest climbers, old and especially young.

The Colorado-based club came to the sobering realization its national membership of about 8,500 was a paltry blip in a country where as many as 5 million people call themselves climbers, says Seattle's Steve Swenson, the American Alpine Club's current president. The club is setting out to remake itself as a grass-roots organization: More Mountaineers, less Nat Geo.

Eddie Espinoza, the club's first full-time Northwest Coordinator, will be a community organizer of sorts, arranging climber meet-and-greets, working with community groups and injecting the club's voice into conservation and climbing-access discussions.

Saturday's gala, which at press time was essentially sold out, will raise money for that cause. But it also will be a grand reunion for the acclaimed climbers of Hornbein's era. Many are gone, some from accidents (Unsoeld died in a 1979 avalanche on Rainier), others from old age. The '63 Everest expedition has seven surviving American members of the original 19.

"It'll be 'old home' week," Hornbein says. "There will be a whole raft of really hard-core climbers of all generations in that room, from Fred Beckey on down."

Beckey, 88, is the Chuck Yeager of U.S. mountaineering — the ultimate example to climbing's Generation Next.

Beckey, who claimed first ascents on a staggering list of peaks, will receive a lifetime achievement award Saturday. If the Alpine Club is seeking rebirth, it's hard to imagine a better incubator than here, in his backyard.

It's a reminder of one of the coolest things about living in the Northwest, a climbing hotbed for three generations. Adventure is in the air here, belaying in our bloodstream. And from that, even the decidedly earthbound among us can claim a vicarious boost.

You just never know: That guy on the elliptical trainer, bus seat or alpine peak next to you might be the current Jim Whittaker, Tom Hornbein or Fred Beckey. Or the next one.

And in a world increasingly heavy on bluster and light on substance, that's gold.

Restless Native columnist Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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