Thursday, June 2, 2016

Luther Gerald Jerstad (1936-1998) & The First American Team to Climb Mount Everest

Luther Gerald Jerstad (1936-1998) & The First American Team to Climb Mount Everest

Many of you hopefully had the opportunity to attend the May “Our Town” presentation on Norway.  Especially when Douglas McDonnell spoke about Luther (Lute) Jerstad’s epic Mt. Everest climb in 1963 when he, Lute, and his climbing partner Barry Bishop became the second and third American climbers to reach the summit.  Jim Whittaker was the first American to reach the 29,028 foot summit with Sherpa guide, Nawang Gombu on May 1, 1963 only to be followed three weeks later when on May 22, 1963 Lute and Barry also reached the summit; all three American men, Whittaker, Jerstad and Bishop climbed the South Col.  The other two climbers on the team, Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbeam climbed the West Ridge arriving a few hours later than Bishop and Jerstad on that May 1, 1963 day.  (The South Col was also climbed by the British team in May, 1953 and the Swiss team in May 1956.)

The climb was remarkable for many reasons besides this being the first successful American attempt to reach the summit.  The group of mountaineers were lead by Norman Dyhrenfurth, a Swiss-American, mountaineer and film maker (his father was also a famous mountaineer and both his parents won a gold medal for alpinists in the 1936 Olympics).  

The entire climbing team that Dyhrenfurth assembled included Jake Breitenbach (who was crushed in an icefall at the head of Khumbu glacier just above Base Camp on March 23, 1963); Jim Whittaker; Willi Unsoeld; Lute; Barry; Tom Hornbeam; and Dave DIngman.  William Siri was the deputy team leader; Al Alden, radio operator, and Gil Roberts, team doctor with Nawang Gombu, experienced Nepalese Sherpa guide and climber.

Jerstad, Bishop, Hornbeam and Unsoeld were at Camp 5 at the South Col, the penultimate stop before the summit on April 30.  Whittaker and Gombu were higher up at Camp 6 and ready to make the final ascent.  The next day, May 1st, Whittaker and Gombu reached the top, planted an American flag, and took some pictures before running out of oxygen and forced due to strong winds and temperatures minus 30 degrees to start their return down the mountain.  When they finally arrived at Camp 5 Jerstad wrote “The physical nightmare they had been through was written on their faces.  Jim resembled an old man, 30 years older.  His face was heavily lined, his eyes were bloodshot, and his skin was blue.  I’ve never seen a man age so much in so few hours in my life.” 

But Whittaker’s success was damped by the news that there was no oxygen for the others to finish their ascent.  All six climbers had to return to Base Camp and restock their supplies as well as reconsider whether to terminate the climb, use a different route, or what.  Lute and some others simply wanted to reach the top of Mt. Everest.  Everyone had an opportunity to weigh in on a decision, to speak, to state their individual opinion, and then Dyhrenfurth made his decision based upon the ‘commitment to consensus’ and so it was decided that four climbers would try one last time to make it all the way to the top.

Lute and Barry would take the South Col and Hornbeam and Unsoeld would attempt to be the first climbers of any nationality to reach the top of Mt Everest using the passage from the West Ridge.  Today it also is known as West Ridge/Hornbein Couloir; it is a gap in the ut,out part of the north wall.)  

Finally on May 22nd, Jerstad and Bishop awoke at Camp 6 exhausted and physically beat but ready nonetheless to make the final attempt to reach the top.  It was slow, almost a crawl, one step at a time, but by 3:15 pm they were finally there.  At the top of Mt. Everest!  Unsold and Hornbeam were no where to be seen along the West Ridge.  Jerstad and Bishop had no idea what went wrong but they were running out of oxygen, totally exhausted and physically spent.  They had to start their descent.  They could wait no longer.

Fortunately though three hours late, Unsoeld and Hornbeam reached the summit.  With night rapidly approaching they too had to leave without being able to enjoy their accomplishment or the view.  They descended using Jerstad and Bishop’s tracks.  By 12:30 am all four met men were reunited at an unsheltered camp on an outcropping 28,200 feet up the mountain side.  No one had ever camped at that high altitude and with no protection and his relentless winds, it is amazing they didn’t die.  None had oxygen.  Finally for the first time during their time on the mountain the wind died down and the temperature rose.  They huddled together trying to keep warm and trying to sleep and build up their strength — five miles above sea level.  A miracle for sure!

All four suffered frostbite, Bishop and Unsoeld the most severe, losing toes, finger tips, and so forth.  But they had made history - along with Whittaker and Gombu, the first American team to reach the summit of Mt Everest!

Before we discuss Lute’s time in the Gig Harbor community let’s share a little bit of personal information on the team leader and the five major climbers in this first American ascent to the top of Mt Everest.

A few highlights of the leader and climbers:

Norman Gunter Dyhrenfurth (1918 -  Present)
Emigrated to US 1937.  Founder of Motion Picture Division of Department of Theatre Arts, UCLA.  Fulbright scholar in Italy.  Chief technical advisor to Clint Eastwood’s 1975 “The Eiger Sanction.  Second unit director 1982 “Five Days One Summer” starring Sean Connery.  1963 the entire team received the Hubbard Award presented by President John F. Kennedy. 1988 received Tenzing Norway Award from The Explorers Club.

James W. Whittaker (1929 - Present)
1999 issued his autobiography A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond.  First full time employee of REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.).  CEO in 1960.  Chairperson of Board of Magellan Navigation makers of hand-held GPS units.  Owner of mountaineering company.  1965 guided Sen. Robert Kennedy up an unconquered Mount Kennedy in Canada named after his brother JFK.  1978 first American to reach peak of K2, highest point of Karakoram range on border of China-Pakistan, 2nd only to Mt. Everest.  1990 led the Mt. Everest International Peace Climb.

Nawang Gombe (1935 - 2011)
Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer.  Jim Whittaker’s team partner on Everest.  Was trained to be a monk at Rongbuk Monastery, but fled after a year of service with a friend to Khumbu where the first western visitors were beginning to explore the southern approaches to Everest.  He was the first man to climb Everest twice, once with the Americans 1963 and once with the Indian Expedition.  Awarded the Tenzing Norway Lifetime Achievement Award in the field of Indian mountaineering by President APJ Adul Kalam.  Devoted later life to Sherpa community, raising funds and as President of Sherpa Buddhist Association.

Barry Chapman Bishop (1932-1994)
Mountaineer, scientist, photographer, scholar.  Worked for National Geographic Society 1959-1994.  Fascinated with climbing from very early age, going CO Mountaineer Club age 9 or 10.  Guiding expeditions in Rockies & Tetons by age 12.  Climber McKinley 1951; in 1952 climbed 7 classic mountains in Europe.  At Sir Edmund Hillary’s invitation he joined Himalayan Scientific & Mountaineering Expedition 1960-61 as official glaciologist & climatologist. In 1980 finished 460 page PhD dissertation Karnali Under Stress published 1990 by University of Chicago Committee on Geographical Studies.

Thomas Frederic Hornbein (1930 - Present) 
1998 published Everest:  The West Ridge.  His papers are housed in UC San Diego Library - Special Collections & Archives.  Professor and Chairman of Department of of Anesthesiology at University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle WA 1878-1993; still actively teaching in 2002; moving to Estes Park, CO in 2006 where he presently resides.  He and his wife regularly climb in the CO Rockies.

Willi Unsoeld (1926-1979)
Alma Mater: OSU, UC Berkeley, UW, Seattle.  Known as Father of Experiential Education.  Served in Peace Corps; Outward Bound; one of the founding faculty at Evergreen State College, Olympia WA where he first conceived Outdoor Education Program.  Member of Nepal Studies Group, Yale University

And now we come to the final climber, Luther (Lute) Gerald Jerstad (1936-1998), the main subject of today’s blog.

Lute was born in Broken, Sterns County, Minnesota and at age 12 or 13 (depending on what you read) moved to Gig Harbor, Washington with his school teacher parents.  His father, Alf, taught bookkeeping and typing as well as being an assistant coach in 1949 and Freshman Class advisor in 1953 at Peninsula High School.  His mother, Frida, also taught at Peninsula High School and was a mathematics teacher as well as the advisor to the school newspaper “Outlook” in 1949; in 1953 Director of the Junior Class play.  I wasn’t able to find the other year books.  

While attending Pacific Lutheran University, Lute played basketball all four years.  During this time, he and the team made two trips to Kansas City for the NAIA tournament.  And, in his senior year 1958, was voted the Inspirational Award.

But I did discover that Lute was very athletic and lettered in baseball, football and basketball while attending Peninsula High School.  It was while still in high school that he developed a love for climbing.  During his high school and college years, he climbed almost every major peak in the Cascades Range.  During this time, he also started guide climbers on Mt. Rainier during the summers; a great summer job!  During this period he made over 40 ascents of the 14,416 feet high mountain.  His love of climbing took him to Alaska where he scaled Mt. McKinley at 20,310 feet.

When Norman Dyhrenfurth started raising funds for an expedition to Mt. Everest, and putting a team together he became familiar with Lute’s climbing history.  Norman interviewed him, liked his resume, and asked the then 26 year old young man to join the team.  Jim Whittaker has said that he and Lute were considered the ice climbing experts on the team.  

After the team successful climb as the first American team to reach the summit, Lute is recorded as saying “Everest doesn’t interest  me any more.  I’ve already been there.  It’s done.  But there are other mountains and other challenges - I’ll be there.”

After the successful finish of the Mt. Everest climb, Lute returned to school earning his master’s degree at Washington State University, and in 1966 his doctorate from the University of Oregon in Asian culture, arts and anthropology.  I was hoping to include some information from the book he wrote, published by University of Washington in 1969 taken from his PhD dissertation.  Unfortunately the book is somewhere between New York and Gig Harbor.  However I was able to find this quotation  "The colorful and ancient Cham, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist dance-drama, has been noted by travelers in Tibet since the eighteenth century." "...Jerstad describes Mani-rimdu, the Nepalese form of Cham, as he observed it among the Sherpas of northeastern Nepal.".  Once Lute’s book arrives, it will be placed in the Resource Room at the Gig Harbor Harbor History Museum for those interested in learning more about Tibetan Sherpas (not all Sherpas are Tibetan), and their country as well as the festival of Mani-rimbu.    

He taught school at Franklin Pierce High School, Tacoma, Washington, was a professor for three years at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon where one of his classes was drama and theatre arts  and at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon where he also taught drama.

Perhaps some of the more telling things about Lute is how others saw him:

“Lute was a life artist.  He lived life right.  He gambled a lot and made some mistakes, but he was always on the go,” said Norman Dyhrenfurth, 80, of Salzburg, Austria, leader of the expedition that put five Americans on the summit of the world’s tallest mountain.”  ((

“Lute and I were considered the ice-climbing experts on the 20-man team.”   Whittaker said from is home in Port Townsend, Wash.  “He was scheduled for an assault on the summit right after I came down but had to give up because of lack of bottled oxygen.  He had to climb all the way back up again three weeks later.  He was a tough climber.  He wasn’t big at 5 feet 8, but it doesn’t matter how big you are in  climbing.  It matters how tight you’re wound, and Lute was wound pretty tight.”  (

“I remember Lute for his ebullience — his outgoing energy and joy.  We didn’t have a lot of contact after Everest, but whenever we met it was like we picked up right from where we left off.  He was a guy who lived life where adventure was part of his diet.”  (Hornbein -

Again Dyhrenfurth speaking “There is no question that it was the greatest accomplishment in Himalayan mountaineering.  The things they accomplished were absolutely incredible — traversing the highest mountain in the world and surviving a night in the open.  They spent the night higher than where eight climbers died in 1996.  Their accomplishment was something the American public never understood.  America made Whittaker the hero for being first, even though the others achieved a far greater feat.”  (

And Hornbeam again “All we could do was lie there and shiver.  We were in it together, but each had his own struggle and couldn’t ask for help from another.”  (

5 Audio recordings material in the Luther G. Jerstad papers are available from University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center (AHC) #02352.  The collection includes field notes, news clippings, tape recordings of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition.  Also included are manuscripts and printed materials about Jerstad’s climbing career in Alaska and Canada; Mount Everest and Tibetan drama.


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