Norman Dyhrenfurth, 99, explorer and filmmaker

President John F. Kennedy presents the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to Mr. Dyhrenfurth in 1963.
William J. Smith/Associated Press/File
President John F. Kennedy presents the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to Mr. Dyhrenfurth in 1963.

NEW YORK — Norman G. Dyhrenfurth, an explorer and filmmaker who in 1963 led an expedition that reached the summit of Mount Everest, died Sept. 24 in Salzburg, Austria. He was 99.

A climber since his childhood in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, Mr. Dyhrenfurth was the financial and organizational catalyst behind the expedition that enabled James W. Whittaker to climb the 29,028-foot Everest and plant a flag on its summit on May 1, 1963. He was the first US citizen to do so.

Although Mr. Dyhrenfurth did not himself reach the summit, he was recognized as the director of the climb, a feat that was recognized on the cover of Life and National Geographic magazines and honored by President John F. Kennedy, who awarded the climbers a medal.


The summit had been scaled only twice before — by the New Zealand mountaineer and explorer Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay in 1953, and by a Swiss team in 1956.

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“There is no guarantee we’ll make it,” Mr. Dyhrenfurth said in preparing for the trip, which took 2½ years to plan and cost $326,000 (about $2.6 million today), partly financed by the National Geographic Society in Washington. “Anyone who does guarantee it is either a fool or a confidence man. We may fail.”

Indeed, Mr. Dyhrenfurth had failed several times. He was the cameraman for a 1952 Swiss expedition that saw Raymond Norbert, accompanied by Norgay, get within 800 feet of Everest’s summit. In 1955, he tried and failed to climb Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain, also in the Himalayas.

He received a permit for Everest from Nepal in 1961. He recruited a team that, by the start of the climb in February 1963, had grown to 19 members, including scientists and photographers. They were supported by some 900 porters carrying 26 tons of food, tools, and scientific instruments.

The climb was far from smooth. On March 23, an icefall killed one climber, Jake Breitenbach. Mr. Dyhrenfurth, who was praised for his democratic leadership style, called a meeting at which the collective decision was made to continue the expedition.


As the team approached the so-called Death Zone, a region of thin air above 25,000 feet, a climber suffered pulmonary edema, another a blood clot.

Mr. Dyhrenfurth decided that he and Whittaker would make the first assault on the summit, while two other climbers — Luther G. Jerstad, a college drama teacher, and Barry C. Bishop, a National Geographic Society cameraman — would make the second.

Stumbling forward, and battling 60-mile-per-hour winds and a windchill factor of roughly minus 85 to minus 90 degrees, Whittaker and a Sherpa guide, Nawang Gombu, staggered to the summit. They had run out of oxygen and spent only 20 minutes at the top before starting the treacherous journey back down.

Mr. Dyhrenfurth and another Sherpa, Ang Dawa, had stayed at the high camp. The next morning, all four returned to the base camp.

Two more men nearly died during a contentious effort to send two teams to the top of Everest at the same time. According to the plan, Thomas F. Hornbein, an anesthesiologist, and Willi Unsoeld, a Peace Corps director, were to take the West Ridge to the summit, where they would meet up with Jerstad and Bishop, who had taken the safer southern route.


But the timing was off — the West Ridge team had been forced to climb a 60-foot vertical wall of crumbling limestone to reach the summit — and the two teams reached one another only late in the day.

Forced to bivouac at 28,000 feet, they spent the night without food, water, or shelter. Unsoeld lost nine toes to frostbite; Bishop lost all 10, as well as the tips of his pinkie fingers. The climbers were eventually carried down the mountain by Sherpas, piggyback style, and helicoptered to hospitals.

Several of the men were still recovering from frostbite when Kennedy presented them with the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal on July 8, 1963.

A film Mr. Dyhrenfurth made of the climb, “Americans on Everest,” narrated by Orson Welles, opened the National Geographic Society’s 1965 television season.

Norman Gunther Dyhrenfurth was born in what is now Wroclaw, Poland to two accomplished Himalayan climbers, Günter and Hettie Dyhrenfurth. His father was also a geology professor. The family left for Austria in the 1920s and settled in Switzerland, where they became citizens. They immigrated to the United States in the 1930s.

Mr. Dyhrenfurth made money as a ski instructor and mountain guide and became known for climbing many mountains, including Mount St. Agnes in Alaska, the Teton Range in Wyoming, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

He served in the Army during World War II and became a US citizen. He taught film at the University of California Los Angeles and was a Fulbright scholar in Italy in 1953-54. He was later a technical adviser to movies about climbing, including “The Eiger Sanction” (1975), with Clint Eastwood.

At a reunion organized by the American Alpine Club in 2013, Mr. Dyhrenfurth recalled that some people had been skeptical when he first proposed the climb.

“Americans, when I first raised it, they said, ‘Well, Everest, it’s been done. Why do it again?’”

Material from the Washington Post was used in this obituary.