An American ascent |

An American ascent

NEPAL - MARCH 01: The first American team makes the ascent of Mount Everest in 1963. Mount Everest, Nepal. (Barry C. Bishop/National Geographic/Getty Images)
National Geographic/Getty Images | National Geographic

If You Go

What: Author discussion and booksigning

Who: Broughton Coburn’s “The Vast Unknown: America’s First Ascent of Everest,” with special guest Vail resident Dick Pownall, member of the 1963 American Everest expedition

When: 6 p.m. Monday, May 20

Where: Bookworm in the Edwards Riverwalk

Cost: $10

Information: Coburn chronicles the first American team to summit Mount Everest in 1963.

America was losing in 1963. We weren’t used to it and we didn’t like it.

On May 15, 1963, we bounced back in a big way. As a team of Americans was ascending Mount Everest’s western ridge, U.S. astronaut Gordon Cooper flew over the mountain during the last Mercury space mission.

Broughton Coburn’s book is the story of the 1963 American Everest team that played a big part of putting some swagger back in America’s stride.

Coburn’s book reminds us what it means to believe in ourselves and each other.

“I was intrigued, to say the least, not necessarily to climb the mountain but to meet these people,” Coburn said. “These men of 1963 and their expedition have a story that needs to be retold. It may have been forgotten by some young people, and it shouldn’t be.”

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Joining Coburn at Monday’s Bookworm event is Vail resident Dick Pownall, a member of that 1963 Everest team. Heroes are hard to find, so you should go to The Bookworm and meet one.

Three of the surviving members of that 1963 team live in Colorado: Pownall, Al Auten and Tom Hornbein.

Coburn interviewed nine of the 21 members of the team who were still alive when he started the project. He scoured taped interviews, diaries and the expedition diaries the climbers did every day, where you learn some of the most amazing things.

Team member Dave Dingman, for example, tells the story of how, a few years later, some of those same team members put a spy camera on a Himalayan peak to spy into China.

That camera captured footage of the Chinese nuclear tests.

Changing times

The glow of victory in World War II was beginning to fade in 1963, and America’s place in the world was shaky, at best, Coburn said.

The Soviets had built the Berlin Wall, and were winning the “Space Race.” We feared more than just nuclear annihilation at the Soviets’ hand. The Soviets had put Sputnik into orbit, put nuclear missiles in Cuba and President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion to oust Fidel Castro was a fiasco. Americans were building backyard bomb shelters.

But Americans were about to regain some swagger.

As the team was ascending Everest’s western ridge on May 15, 1963, Cooper flew by the mountain during the final Mercury space mission.

It helped put America back on top, metaphorically and literally.

Less than one year later, Coburn was in middle school in Tacoma, Wash., his hometown. He and his classmates were summoned to the assembly hall where Willi Unsoeld told the impressionable youths all about being part of that first American team to summit Mt. Everest.

“He showed slides of men with poet beards and laser-like eyes, tagging the edge of the stratosphere,” Coburn said.

Coburn talks like that because he writes like that, making tales of death-defying ascents read like sonnets.

Hair-raising tales

Unsoeld showed slides and told the most hair-raising stories. As an exclamation point, Unsoeld hauled out a jar filled with formaldehyde containing nine human toes. His toes. The toes he lost to frostbite on that Everest assault.

After college, Coburn went to Nepal and Tibet for 21 years to work, some of that time in the Everest area.

Coburn has produced seven books as a writer and editor. Two of Coburn’s books made The New York Times best-sellers list. He also authored a young adult photo-biography of Sir Edmund Hillary, “Triumph on Everest,” for National Geographic Books. It was selected as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the National Council for Social Studies and the Children’s Book Council.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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