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An Unsung Hero from Everest, 1963

Broughton Coburn tells the story of mountain climber, Barry Corbet.

The Vast Unknown by Broughton CoburnBroughton Coburn is the author of New York Times bestselling Everest: Mountain Without Mercy. His new book, The Vast Unknown, is a chronicle of the iconic first American expedition to Mt. Everest in May 1963 and combines riveting adventure, a perceptive analysis of its dark and terrifying historical context, and revelations about a secret mission that followed.

An Unsung Hero from Everest, 1963 by Broughton Coburn

Broughton Coburn grew up in the Pacific Northwest, climbing and ski racing (and sometimes studying) before he went off to Harvard, “mainly to do some more climbing and ski racing,” he says. He took with him the ski racing gear he had purchased in Jim Whittaker’s brother Lou’s ski shop, in Tacoma Washington. It was while standing in Lou’s shop—Whittaker’s Chalet—that he learned that “Big Jim” had reached Everest’s summit.

And it was a year after that moment, while in middle school in 1964, that Coburn and his classmates were summoned to the school’s assembly hall. They were told they would hear from a grizzled-looking man who hailed from Olympia, and who had recently climbed Mt. Everest. The man was northwest legend and self-described “metaphysician” Willi Unsoeld, who proceeded to show slides of men with poet beards and laser-like eyes climbing up to tag what appeared to be the edge of the stratosphere.

From that point, Coburn was galvanized, and after college he took off for the Himalaya of Nepal—where he forged a 20-year career in conservation, development and writing. He had long wanted to write a tribute to Willi Unsoeld, Jim Whittaker, Tom Hornbein, and the great climbers of the early 1950s and ‘60s who had inspired him. And it was while researching The Vast Unknown: America’s First Ascent of Everest that he encountered stories of a true renaissance man, someone who had traversed the realm of the physical, and become a spiritual being. His name was Barry Corbet, and this is his story.
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In the summer of 1955, two young climbers drove a battered 1948 Hudson from Dartmouth College to the Tetons of Wyoming. Within a week, they climbed some of the most difficult routes in the range. Barry Corbet was solid and angular, yet gentle and graceful. His buddy Jake Breitenbach was all sinewy muscle, topped with a mischievous shock of Dennis the Menace blond hair. They skied as they climbed: dazzling in all ways. Together, they were known as “SABs.” Supremely Able Bodied.

Not surprisingly, in 1961 Norman Dyhrenfurth, leader of America’s first official expedition to Mt. Everest, selected them for the team. But on the second day of climbing, in the Khumbu Icefall, Jake was killed by a collapsing wall of ice. Corbet forged on — climbing not without Jake, he said, but for Jake, and for the collective spirit of their 20-man team.

On May 21, 1963, Corbet led the way into the Hornbein Couloir, on Everest’s unclimbed West Ridge. Reaching Camp 5 West, at 27,250 feet, he deposited a load of oxygen and supplies on a miniscule ledge for Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld. The oxygen was sufficient for only two. Before descending, Corbet insisted that Hornbein and Unsoeld, his elders, carry onward.

After Everest, a modeling agency recruited Corbet for an advertising campaign, and he appeared on the back covers of national magazines. His day job was equally glamorous: with Roger Brown and Everest leader Dyhrenfurth, Corbet shot innovative ski films titled Yoo Hoo, I’m a Bird (for an airline company), Ski the Outer Limits, and The Moebius Flip.

But while filming from a helicopter near Aspen, Corbet’s life was abruptly transformed. Dyhrenfurth, shooting from the ground, watched as the helicopter slammed into a slope. Corbet was thrown through the Plexiglas bubble. He was paralyzed from the waist down.

A month later, Barry Corbet rolled his wheelchair out into the daylight. Rather than dwell in a funk, he resumed making films — this time for the Craig, a leading rehabilitation hospital in Denver. He also worked to reclaim his athletic, outdoor life, becoming a self-described “Super Crip”– careening around cities and suburbs in his wheelchair with a combination of finesse and unruly abandon. He perfected what he called “ballistic transfers,” in which he could move from a wheelchair to a car or bed in a single explosive, yet fluid motion. And during the 1970s, a time when paraplegics simply didn’t kayak, Corbet perfected an Eskimo roll.

Gradually, Corbet learned that there were no brilliant stars in the universe of Super Crip — only friends, colleagues and fellow experimenters. The spirit of collaboration and perseverance that carried the ’63 team up Everest could be employed, he saw, in overcoming small, everyday obstacles. To reach individual goals, one had to rely upon others.

Corbet soon wheeled into the role of advocate for the disabled. His spirit of self-reliance — and the observation that active disabled people were cheaper to care for than bed-ridden ones — expedited enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the late 1990s Corbet took the helm of a sleepy trade journal called New Mobility, and he injected it with soul and with guts. His irreverent, intelligent writing — including articles titled Handicapitalism and Freak Love — set a tone that anchors this award-winning, magazine today.

Corbet’s success as Super Crip, and kayaker, was not kind to his rotator cuffs. “I’m running out of limbs,” he said in the early 2000s when he began to lose the use of his arms. No longer Supremely Able Bodied, he pointed out that, “in truth, we should all be described as ‘TABs’, or Temporarily Able Bodied. The day will come when all of you are like me.”

In 2004, doctors diagnosed Corbet with inoperable, metastatic bladder cancer. He approached the final adventure with no regrets and no complaints. On the 38th anniversary of his first ascent (with ten others) of Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson, his family gathered.

One of Corbet’s closest friends and allies was also present, and the man took his hand during Corbet’s final moments.

“You made it, Barry — you made it,” he said quietly when Corbet’s breathing stopped.

The man was Tom Hornbein. Hornbein had gratefully received the load Corbet had carried to the high camp on Everest’s West Ridge. Now, he was belaying Corbet up that final pitch.

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