What draws a person to the mountains? In the book Four Against Everest, Woodrow Wilson Sayre said, “Men climb mountains because they are not satisfied to exist, they want to live—climbing the heights is one way.” For those who do not feel the allure of stepping on the edge, it cannot be explained. It is a force that fails to be described in words. However, it is understood and shared by many. It has the capability to realize impossible feats from ordinary men. For Sayre, the lure of standing on top of the world was just too much to resist.
In light of the changing culture of Everest, many seem to think that the mountaineering spirit that was alive in Woodrow Wilson Sayre during his 1962 expedition to the North Face has been lost to the years. His story is one that has been revisited many times, both by those bearing praise and those bearing criticism. The expedition brought together four men to make an unlikely team: Sayre—a Tufts University philosophy professor and grandson of President Woodrow Wilson, Roger Hart—a college athlete, Norman Hansen—a Boston lawyer, and Hans Peter Duttle—a Swiss schoolteacher.
As a privately funded stealth expedition and only the 13th attempt at the mountain, some called the four climbers mad and horribly unprepared, while others called them admirable. Sayre attained an approximate altitude of 25,500 feet on May 30th, 1962 before a series of accidents and terrible weather turned the party around. Without reaching the summit, the Sayre expedition was easily overshadowed by the successful American expedition of the following year when Jim Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest. However, it is worth admiring Sayre’s push to make it as far as he did. Unlike the 1963 American expedition, Sayre’s party attempted the mountain without any sponsorship money, without porters and without supplemental oxygen. Many fail to understand the magnitude of climbing not only without oxygen, but also without a support team. Sayre and his companions climbed a total elevation gain far greater than conventional ascents in order to relay their supplies and climb without porters. Their survival could almost be called a miracle. After countless falls, three days without food, monsoons, and no support system, Sayre’s team survived while most other teams would have never returned.
All members of the expedition except for Duttle have since passed on, yet their legacy remains alive in Four Against Everest and Sayre’s home movies, which he only shared with a select few. Among the carefully calculated packs that the climbers carried were five cameras, including a Bolex movie camera and 1,500 feet of Kodachrome film in hopes of capturing the North Col in all its glory, in color, for the first time in history.
Though a university professor and an amateur alpinist, Sayer was a strong believer in the pursuit of adventure. Though he and his expedition often fall under criticism, many people seeking more from everyday life have seen Sayre as a hero. Many of those who appreciate true fearlessness and true spirit of adventure have looked towards the Sayer expedition for inspiration to achieve the impossible, and climb the unclimbable. Through his footage, we can see what Sayre saw as he looked up at the North Col, the all-consuming presence of Everest—the temptation of the ultimate test of the human experience and the lure of the ultimate reward.
When you have walked the feather edge of danger with someone, when you have held his life at the end of a rope in your hand, and he has later held yours, you have an almost impregnable foundation for a friendship. For the deepest friendships spring from sharing failure as well as success, danger as well as safety. – Woody Sayre