THE VAST UNKNOWN by Broughton Coburn


America's First Ascent of Everest
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A sweeping account of the first American visitors to Mount Everest’s peak.

Coburn (Nepali Aama: Life Lessons of a Himalayan Woman, 2000, etc.) delivers an atmospheric retelling of that monumental inaugural climb in May 1963, providing a companion to his stunning 1997 pictorial, Everest: Mountain Without Mercy. In the early 1960s, there was great pressure on these brave “hybrid scientist-adventurers” to boost American morale with a daring feat of collective strength after such a dark decade shrouded in war, a failed Cuban territorial invasion and Soviet space rivalries. A chance meeting between Willi Unsoeld, a grizzly mountain guide, and young Pacific Northwest climbers Barry Corbet and Jake Breitenbach while scaling Wyoming’s Grand Teton range in the early ’60s forged the beginnings of an American Everest team of climbing parties led by Norman Dyhrenfurth, a veteran Swiss-American mountaineer. Eventually, 21 hand-selected members of the expedition (glaciologists, radio operators, historians, cinematographers, etc., along with numerous ancillaries) ascended the mountain’s treacherous terrain, battling bone-crushing injuries, oxygen deprivation, weather extremes and “house-sized” blocks of ice collapsing in their paths. Though Corbet’s faith in the team’s success floundered, the steely determination of the other members kept hope alive. Culled from “Expedition Newsletters” and interviews with the seven surviving expedition members, Coburn’s unhurried, character-driven narrative pays scrupulous attention to the climb’s every detail and to Everest’s majestic natural history. The author’s contemporary coda features a visit with the nonagenarian Dyhrenfurth, who wryly comments that mountaineering on Everest has gone terribly modern and that simply “coughing up $50,000” can afford a reasonably fit person a secure, guided trek to the summit.

An exhilarating slice of American adventure-sporting history.

Pub Date: April 30th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-88714-6
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2013


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