“If America could put a man on the moon, certainly we could put a man on top of our own earth,” Broughton Coburn said, describing the United States’ “space craze” in the 1960s during his presentation in Gaylord Hall on Feb. 28. Coburn, a mountaineer, writer, and conservationist, gave a thought-provoking talk titled after his book, “The Vast Unknown: America’s First Ascent of Everest.”
A Jackson, Wyo. native, Coburn is well known at CC for teaching in 2010 and 2011. He will be co-teaching the class “Himalayan Odyssey” in Nepal this June with Mark Smith. The students who will participate in the Nepal course were part of the audience last Thursday.
“Coburn has lived in the Himalayas for 20 of the past 35 years, writing, filmmaking, and overseeing development and environmental conservation efforts for the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, and other agencies,” Ryan Hammes, Director of Outdoor Education, said in his introduction. “He has written or edited six books, including the New York Times bestseller, ‘Everest: Mountain Without Mercy.’”
Coburn has also won several literary and educational awards and co-authored a collaboration piece with well-known mountaineer and Sherpa Jamling Tenzing Norgay entitled, “Touching My Father’s Soul: A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest.”
His presentation last week centered on his newest book, “The Vast Unknown,” which tells the story of the first Americans to climb Mount Everest in 1963. It’s an expedition that has fascinated him since adolescence. The book will be released this April on the 50th anniversary of the expedition.
Coburn told the audience how Swiss-American Norman Dyhrenfurth spearheaded the effort to put an American expedition on the Everest summit after attempting the mountain unsuccessfully with a Swiss team. His words were accompanied by a stunning photographic slideshow.
“The team arrived in Kathmandu… [and] found a radical kind of innocence that arguably would change in the coming decades,” Coburn said.
Coburn described the adventure in detail. The team used 900 porters to carry 27 tons of supplies to base camp. Six Americans made it the summit. One perished in an icefall. Jim Whittaker became the first American to make it to the top.
Some members succeeded in climbing the formidable West Face, a route that 14 people have climbed successfully and 14 people have died trying to climb, giving it a 1:1 death rate. Two members of the American team reached the summit via this western route at 6:15 p.m. with no idea how to descend. The route they chose to descend was incredibly dangerous and involved a bivouac, a camp without shelter, at incredibly high altitude.
“They were virtually assured of dying, but they survived,” Coburn said.
Seven members of that expedition are still alive today.
“It was a very comprehensive presentation on the story of the American ascent, with interesting information about the Sherpas’ involvement and the relationships of the team members,” said junior Dominique Saks, who will be going on “The Himalayan Odyssey” in Nepal this summer.
Coburn also discussed his process of learning about the expedition and writing “The Vast Unknown” during his presentation. He was 12 or 13, he said, when Willie Unsold, a well-known member of the expedition, came to his school and showed the class his amputated toes.
“Everyone else wanted to run the other way, but I wanted to hear more,” Coburn said.
When reflecting on his writing, he explained how he wanted to share the seldom-told stories of a unique and groundbreaking expedition with the world.
Over 600 people climbed Mount Everest last spring, an incredible increase from previous years.
“[Now] there are fixed ropes all the way up the mountain. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other… the brotherhood of the rope has been compromised,” Coburn said. “Now you don’t have to know how to climb to do Everest.”
Coburn wrote about the expedition because he believes what the members accomplished was genuinely good.
“Nowadays, in light of changing ethics in Himalayan mountaineering, it is especially important that we tag back to the ethics that these gentlemen provided us,” Coburn said.
Said Hammes, “Students are very lucky to have opportunities to have such wonderful instructors to co-teach the Himalayan Odyssey course, allowing [them] to explore the natural world and other cultures far beyond the Pikes Peak region.”