Department

Life According To... Tom Hornbein

It's been more than four decades since Tom Hornbein tackled the previously unclimbed west ridge of Mt. Everest and made mountaineering history. Here, the Estes Park resident, scientific adviser for CU's Altitude Research Center, and retired physician ruminates on his love of mountains, the perils of high altitude, and the night he bivouacked at 28,000 feet on Everest.

October 2009

My parents sent me from Missouri to camp here in Colorado when I was 13. That's when I first met mountains. Before that I'd been climbing trees and houses. I discovered that this was way better than that.

People look at climbers as exceptional athletes. As an athlete, I'm just average—so much of performing on the mountain has to do with what's in your head. Drive, persistence, behavior, and commitment matter more than athletic ability.

What is it about mountains? There's just a whole flux of feelings impelled by everything from the sheer immensity of the mountains to the delicate touch of alpine avens on green ledges on sheer walls. One can feel exhilarated, humbled, and tiny—just blown away by the beauty of a delicate pool where waters flow down. Also: tired, grubby, and downright scared.

People's reasons for climbing are very different: For some, there's an element of fame and fortune; for others it's just adventure, testing yourself. Then there's the subset who are like addicts: If they're not right out there on the edge of survival or the adrenaline isn't surging, then they're not living.

When we were on Everest we were just out having an adventure. Yeah, it was nice to climb the highest mountain on Earth, but it was more important to go out and do something where you didn't know what the outcome was going to be. That's what adventure is about.

Lack of oxygen impairs judgment, no doubt. People will say the fact that we decided to push it and go on to the top [of Everest] so late in the day is a good sign that our judgment was impaired. Even I would have trouble convincing any critical thinker that all of our marbles were functioning when we were up there.

It wasn't the longest night of my whole life, but it was a long night. You just sort of sit there and shiver. We curled up on our pack frames. We didn't talk. I don't know that we slept either. It was a mysterious night. I felt sort of tucked into the middle of vast space. There was heat lightning out across some far-off peaks. There's a huge sense of isolation and aloneness, even though you're just a few feet from other people. Everybody is nestled into his own thoughts, just trying to get through the night. But I don't recall spending time being afraid. I didn't think about dying.

When you're up there at a high elevation you just do what you gotta do. In a way it has nothing to do with altitude. I sort of see it like there are people who are survivors, and then there are those who are not.

If you don't listen to yourself, you can get yourself into real trouble. You need to have a sense of strength and your own character and know why you're out there.

Even people who are being guided up Everest, they are self-testing—they don't know that they can do it. It's a protected adventure, but it's the same sense of adventure and uncertainty.

Everest is very close to a threshold. Some can handle it; others can't.

Given how mountains have defined my life, professionally as well as spiritually—and that Estes Park is where I first connected with them—maybe it's not so surprising that I've kept coming back to Colorado. It's part of my philosophy that about every decade, life needs stirring up: new adventure and new uncertainty.