Updated on February 12, 2012
“I’m not an athlete, just stubborn.”–Tom Hornbein
Tom Hornbein might believe that, but I don’t. At 81, he’s still climbing. His living room in Estes Park looks out at Long’s Peak and the rest of the range that is the mammoth backdrop for Rocky Mountain National Park. Last summer he and a friend, with the help of two local “sherpas” (college students who carried their gear), spent two nights camped in a boulder field. They spent the days climbing the Keyhole Ridge of the park’s premiere 14-thousand foot peak. Does that sound like someone who’s not an athlete? Besides, there’s a lot to be said for “stubborn”.
Hornbein is one of those amazing men that when you find the emotional trigger, you can see the boy in the man. In his case, just mention mountains. His whole face lights up and with good reason.
He and his climbing partner, Willi Unsoeld, were the first to summit Everest via the West Ridge. It’s a very difficult climb and few people have tried it since. Part of the 1963 American expedition, Hornbein first met Gombu in Kathmandu. “He was just this little man who clearly knew what he was doing and and was so full of energy, helping create some order out of the chaos that we were so wonderfully establishing there.”
We spent about three hours with Hornbein a few days after New Years. It was one of the best interview experiences in my life. While he has a treasure of memories, he’s not a man who spends a lot of time looking back. He’s alive with ideas and opinions about books, psychology and medicine. I had a fascinating conversation with him about “doubt” that I’m still thinking about. He believes it’s at the center of everything. “Doubt is an essential part of risk taking. It’s that uncertainty that maximizes motivation. If you knew you were going to get to the top (Everest), why bother?” On his decision to try, with Unsoeld, to head up to the rooftop of the world on a totally untested route, to break trail where no human had ever walked? “The idea of the unknown and just going and trying something with a totally uncertain outcome, was just totally compelling to us.”
Hornbein was an unlikely man to make it to Everest. He was born in St. Louis. “I’d say the biggest pivotal event in my life was when I was 13 and my parents sent me from St. Louis where I climbed the house and trees, to here to discover mountains. All the rest of it has unfolded as a consequence of that. I’ve often wondered how my life might have turned out if they’d sent me to Lake Michigan.”