The Vast Unknown: America's First Ascent of Everest

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Overview

By the author of the New York Times bestselling Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, this chronicle of the iconic first American expedition to Mt. Everest in May 1963 – published to coincide with the climb's 50th anniversary­ – combines riveting adventure, a perceptive analysis of its dark and terrifying historical context, and revelations about a secret mission that followed. 
 
In the midst of the Cold War, against the backdrop of the ...

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Overview

By the author of the New York Times bestselling Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, this chronicle of the iconic first American expedition to Mt. Everest in May 1963 – published to coincide with the climb's 50th anniversary­ – combines riveting adventure, a perceptive analysis of its dark and terrifying historical context, and revelations about a secret mission that followed. 
 
In the midst of the Cold War, against the backdrop of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the space race with the Soviet Union, and the quagmire of the Vietnam War, a band of iconoclastic, independent-minded American mountaineers set off for Mt. Everest, aiming to restore America's confidence and optimism.  Their objective is to reach the summit while conducting scientific research, but which route will they take?  Might the Chinese, in a public relations coup, have reached the top ahead of them?  And what about another American team, led by the grandson of a President, that nearly bagged the peak in a bootleg attempt a year earlier?
 
The Vast Unknown is, on one level, a harrowing, character-driven account of the climb itself and its legendary team of alternately inspiring, troubled, and tragic climbers who suffered injuries, a near mutiny, and death on the mountain.  It is also an examination of the profound sway the expedition had over the American consciousness and sense of identity during a time when the country was floundering.  And it is an investigation of the expedition's little-known outcome: the selection of a team to plant a CIA surveillance device on the Himalayan peak of Nanda Devi, to spy into China where Defense Intelligence learned that nuclear missile testing was underway.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book is like a time capsule from the Cold War, showing how in 1963, a bunch of crazy American mountaineers embarked on a plan to ascend via the never-before-summited west ridge, while racing a Chinese group to the top." Sacramento Bee

"Coburn brings this exciting chapter of American mountaineering history to life." Library Journal

“A sweeping account of the first American visitors to Mount Everest’s peak….Coburn’s unhurried, character-driven narrative pays scrupulous attention to the climb’s every detail and to Everest’s majestic natural history….An exhilarating slice of American adventure-sporting history.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Gripping… Not just another book about mountain climbing, this is also a story of America in the early 1960s.” Booklist

“Broughton Coburn has written a book to renew our faith in what it means to believe in each other, and in ourselves. This is what it looked like when ordinary men of extraordinary courage and self-discipline worked through tragedy, dissent, and hardship not for individual glory but toward a common goal. When were we last this self-effacing, this optimistic, this outrageously can-do? A compulsively entertaining read.” – Alexandra Fuller, author of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Kirkus Reviews
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.
Library Journal
Coburn (Everest: Mountain Without Mercy) presents a compelling history of the expedition that reached Everest's summit almost ten years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's pioneering ascent. Coburn describes the motivation behind the expedition as a quest to realize the American Dream. Norman Dyhrenfurth assembled a team of excellent climbers and capable glaciologists, as well as scientists who conducted psychological and sociological research on the team (how human behavior is impacted by isolated conditions; the implications for long space missions). The Americans were ultimately successful, summitting six climbers and with two men completing the first traverse of Everest by a new route on the West Ridge. While fundraising for the expedition, Dyhrenfurth had proposed that a weather station could be installed on Everest's summit. The U.S. government wasn't interested in the weather but was interested in monitoring a Chinese nuclear test facility just north of the Himalayas. American Everest veterans Barry Bishop, Lute Jerstad, Dave Dingman, Barry Prather, and Barry Corbet participated in installing sensors on Nanda Devi (unsuccessfully) and later Nanda Kot, which provided invaluable data for years. VERDICT Coburn brings this exciting chapter of American mountaineering history to life and will satisfy readers of adventure and mountaineering literature.—Margaret Atwater-Singer, Univ. of Evansville Lib., IN
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307887146
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/30/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 344,625
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

BROUGHTON COBURN, author or editor of seven books, including two national bestsellers, has worked in environmental conservation and development projects in the Himalaya for more than two of the past three decades.  In addition he has directed projects for the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, and American Himalayan Foundation.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2013

    More than just a great read, it is also a history lesson. Th

    More than just a great read, it is also a history lesson. There are all points of view covered here, not just the struggle of the mountaineers up the mountain.
    What was accomplished in 1963 seems dated with the perspective of 2013 and numbers in the hundreds that reach the top, but Coburn does an excellent job here of explaining it all in a world context. There is a lot more here than just a bunch wanting to "bag a summit". Excellent read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2013

    great book

    An excellent new look at the 63 expedition. Makes me wish I could have climbed with Willie Unsoeld.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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