Norman Dyhrenfurth, 99, Dies; Led First U.S. Team to Reach Top of Everest

Indeed, Mr. Dyhrenfurth had failed several times. He was the cameraman for a 1952 Swiss expedition that saw Raymond Lambert, accompanied by Mr. Norgay, get within 800 feet of Everest’s summit. In 1955, he tried and failed to climb Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain, also in the Himalayas. And in 1958, he roamed that range in an unsuccessful search for signs of the mythical animal known as the yeti. (He was convinced it existed and was a species of large ape.)


Members of Mr. Dyhenfurth’s team move across Khumbu Glacier, at an altitude of about 18,500 feet.

Associated Press.

Mr. Dyhrenfurth’s breakthrough began in May 1960, when he was the cameraman for a Swiss-Austrian expedition to Dhaulagiri, a Himalayan massif that includes the world’s seventh-highest mountain.

The next month, he sought permission from Nepal’s government for an American expedition to climb Mount Everest. He received a permit in May 1961.

He recruited a team that, by the start of the climb in February 1963, had grown to 19 members, including climbers, scientists and photographers. They were supported by some 900 porters carrying about 26 tons of food, clothing, equipment and scientific instruments.

But a big disagreement arose, as a National Geographic article in 2012 recounted.

Two of the climbers — Thomas F. Hornbein, an anesthesiologist, and Willi Unsoeld, a Peace Corps director — argued that climbing in Mr. Hillary’s footsteps was too modest a goal, and urged trying a new but more dangerous route, the West Ridge.

Mr. Dyhrenfurth said that getting an American to the top was the priority, and that Mr. Hillary’s route, the South Col, was the more certain — if less adventurous — path. Mr. Whittaker sided with Mr. Dyhrenfurth.


Mr. Dyhrenfurth in 1963. He and his team of climbers came to represent the birth of mountaineering as a popular sport in the United States.

Barry C. Bishop/National Geographic, via

The climb was far from smooth. On March 23, an icefall buried and killed one climber, Jake Breitenbach. Mr. Dyhrenfurth, who was praised for his democratic and team-oriented leadership style, called a meeting at which the collective decision was made to continue the expedition.

As the team approached the so-called Death Zone, a region of thin air above 25,000 feet, one climber suffered pulmonary edema, another a blood clot.

Mr. Dyhrenfurth decided that Mr. Whittaker and a Sherpa guide, Nawang Gombu, would make the first assault on the summit, while two other climbers — Luther G. Jerstad, a college drama teacher, and Barry C. Bishop, a National Geographic Society cameraman — would make the second.


Luther G. Jerstad approaching the top of Mount Everest.

Stumbling forward, and battling 60-mile-an-hour winds and a windchill factor of roughly minus 85 to minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Mr. Whittaker and Mr. Gombu staggered to the summit. They had run out of oxygen and spent only 20 minutes at the top before starting the treacherous journey back down.

Mr. Dyhrenfurth and another Sherpa, Ang Dawa, had stayed at the high camp. The next morning, all four returned to the base camp.


Norman G. Dyhrenfurth in 2013. He led the United States expedition to Mount Everest in 1963, which put six climbers on the summit and inspired generations of Americans.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The men had made a pact not to divulge which of them made it to the top first, but word got out, and soon there was a telegram from President Kennedy. The news — “Americans Reach Everest Summit” — made the front page of The New York Times.

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