Author Brot Coburn speaks to Vail audiences about his newest Everest book, ‘The Vast Unknown’ |

Author Brot Coburn speaks to Vail audiences about his newest Everest book, ‘The Vast Unknown’

Melanie Wong
Mountaineer Jon Kedrowski witnessed firsthand some of the damage caused by the spring earthquake and avalanche. He'll be speaking with author Brot Coburn and mountaineer Dick Pownall at Wednesday's book event.
Jon Kedrowski | Special to the Daily |


What: The Vast Unknown.

Where: Vail Public Library, 292 W. Meadow Drive, Vail.

When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23.

Cost: Free.

More information: Call 970-479-2187, or visit

VAIL — Few Americans can speak with more authority on the Himalayas and the history of Everest than writer Brot Coburn, and this Wednesday, he brings the story of the first American expedition up Mount Everest to the Vail Valley.

Coburn, a speaker, humanitarian and author of three books about Mount Everest, will be presenting his latest book, “The Vast Unknown: America’s First Ascent of Everest,” which chronicles the first American expedition to Mount Everest in 1963. Local Dick Pownall, who was a member of that expedition, and mountaineer Jon Kedrowski will also be on hand to help bring the story to life.

A story of Everest

“The Vast Unknown” is set in the midst of the Cold War, against the backdrop of the space race with the Soviet Union and the civil rights movement. The British and Swiss had summited Everest, but the Soviets, Chinese and Americans had not, and the peak would become another proving ground for dominance between the East and West. In this atmosphere, the American mountaineers set out to restore their country’s confidence and hope, hatching an audacious plan that pitted them directly against the Chinese team.

Coburn has spent years living in the Himalayas, and he’s worked for two decades with World Bank, World Wildlife Fund and other agencies in the region. However, this third book is one that goes all the way back to the genesis of Coburn’s love affair with the region.

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“My first exposure to that 1963 expedition was through my middle school. One afternoon, I was summoned along with other students in Tacoma, Washington, to the assembly hall where Willi Unsoeld was speaking. He was a member of that first American expedition,” Coburn said. “He showed us these images of men with laser-like eyes and rugged hands, and I was fascinated by that. Even at that age, I was hooked on wanting to learn more about who these men were and understand what was driving them.”

Kedrowski said he’s excited to hear both Pownall and Coburn speak in Vail.

“I read Coburn’s first book in high school, and that’s what inspired me to climb,” he said. “Both he and Dick are people that I’ve looked up to in the mountaineering world for a long time.”

Earthquake relief

Of course, it’s difficult to talk about Everest without mentioning the earthquake that hit the region on April 25. Following the presentation, Coburn, Pownall and Kedrowski will discuss about how Everest was back then, and what it is like now, given the commercialization of the mountain and the recent earthquake and subsequent Everest avalanche.

Kedrowski had arrived at the Mount Everest Base Camp two days prior and experienced this tragedy firsthand. He’ll talk about the science behind the quake and the avalanche and share his personal experience. Attendees will be asking how they can help with relief efforts, and the event will address that, too.

Members of local nonprofit Sherpa Foundation will be present to answer questions about how people can help Nepal in the future. In addition, Kedrowski will be selling some of his mountain photography prints, with half the proceeds going to relief foundations. He’ll also be drumming up interest for a trip to Nepal next spring that will climb to Mount Everest Base Camp and then participate in rebuilding efforts on the way down.

Coburn, who visited Nepal in June, said he saw most people with their basic needs met, and many had relocated or started to rebuild. What Nepalese people told him was needed, however, was the return of trekkers and tourists.

“Many people have asked me and others, ‘Should we go to Nepal?’ The answer is pretty universally, ‘Yes, by all means,’” Coburn said. “It’s safe as it ever was, and the people want you to come and need the economic recovery. We heard that even in very severely earthquake impacted areas — ‘Tell trekkers to come.’”

He remembered visiting one village that had been completely flattened by the earthquake. To his surprise, the village representative asked him to send more tourists.

“I said, ‘But your own homes are destroyed. You have no buildings,’” Coburn said. “He replied, ‘Well, tell them to bring their own tents, and we can feed them and show them around. If they want to help us rebuild, they can, but they don’t have to. We just want them to come.’”

Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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