R.I.P. Tom Hornbein: a Personal Remembrance

As 500 paying customers prepare to jumar up Everest in the next week or so, comes the sad news that legendary mountaineer Tom Hornbein died early this morning in his home in Estes Park, Colorado at the age of 92.

In 1963, Hornbein and partner Willi Unsoeld established a new route on Everest via the West Ridge. Then, after bivouacking at 8,500m, they came down the South Side. It was one of the greatest feats in mountaineering. Sixty years later, few have repeated their route up the West Ridge.

Dr. Hornbein

At that time, there was no such thing as a professional mountaineer. Climbers took time away from their day jobs to do their expeditions. Tom Hornbein headed the anesthesiology department at the University of Washington for many years.

Tom and Kathy Hornbein.

Tom and Kathy Hornbein. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


Embracing new people

I first met Tom and his wife Kathy in 1999. They and some friends were backpacking in the national park on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic. At the same time, I and my then-girlfriend Alexandra — now wife — were spending two months hiking by ourselves on Devon and Axel Heiberg Islands. We finished our trip at the same time as Tom’s party, and we bought a piece of their charter flight, which detoured to Axel Heiberg Island to pick us up.

A couple of months later, Alexandra and I moved to Banff, and Tom was invited to the Banff Mountain Film Festival that year. He dropped by our home to visit us. It was his birthday, and we surprised him with an apple pie. We became friends, and apple pie on his birthday became a kind of tradition.

It surprised us that a famous mountaineer would fold us into his circle, but it had little to do with us. That is the sort of person he was — open to the world and to new people, even in his late 60s. A couple of years later, he invited us to be part of his 70th birthday celebration, among family and close friends.

Tom Hornbein climbing

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


We kept in touch and saw him and his wife Kathy occasionally. He was unfailingly gracious, signing his emails “Love, Tom.” But the intensity and exactitude that allowed him to accomplish what he did on Everest — although we never saw that side of him — remained. For a time, he lent his name to a charitable foundation but soon discovered that he could not abide the charity organizer’s casual accounting practices, among other things. Though kind and loving, Tom was far from a pushover.

Photos: Jerry Kobalenko


A sweet gift

Whenever he visited friends, he came bearing a gift, always the same: a jar of his special chocolate sauce. It was delicious, and it became even more special when one of his kids designed a label to put on the jars. He told no one the recipe but promised that friends would receive it after he was gone — an original parting gift, and a great way to remember him.

About a year ago, I asked him his opinion about what Everest had become. But he was too much of a gentleman to say anything negative.

β€œHe was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Tom Hornbein portrait

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. One of Canada’s premier arctic travelers, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and has just finished a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada and in 2022, he received the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Medal for services to exploration.