RICHMOND -- Fifty years ago, the U.S. wasn't really into extreme sports such as mountaineering.
Which Norm Dyhrenfurth learned firsthand while trying to put together an expedition to climb Mount Everest.
"Americans, when I first raised it, they said, 'Well, Everest, it's been done. Why do it again?' " Dyhrenfurth said.
Last weekend, Dyhrenfurth joined three other surviving members of the successful 1963 U.S. expedition to the top of Everest for a reunion near San Francisco. The American Alpine Club organized the event honoring the 50th anniversary of their achievement, and some of the biggest names in American mountaineering turned out to hear stories told by Jim Whittaker, 84; Tom Hornbein, 82; Dave Dingman, 76; and Dyhrenfurth, 94.
Mount Everest had been climbed 10 years earlier, in 1953, by New Zealand's Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Four Swiss climbers reached the world's highest summit in 1956, followed by three Chinese in 1960.
So by 1963, the U.S. was already late to the party. But the Americans made up for it by placing five climbers on the summit. Three took the southeast ridge used by Hillary, and two pioneered a more dangerous route on the mountain's west ridge.
Whittaker became the first American to climb Mount Everest when he and Sherpa companion Nawang Gombu reached the 29,029-foot summit at 1 p.m. on May 1, 1963.
When Whittaker and Gombu left their tent for the final push to the top, it was 35 degrees below zero and winds gusted at 50 mph.
The duo reached the summit without supplemental oxygen -- the 13-pound cannister they were sharing ran out on the way -- and were also without water after their bottles froze.
"Norm put together a team that would work together to get somebody to the summit, and I got to do the slam dunk," Whittaker said. "I was fortunate as hell, and it was a real honor."
Whittaker went on to lead several Himalayan expeditions, including the first American ascent of K2, and became the first full-time employee (and eventually president and CEO) of outdoors retailer REI.
In 1990, he put together the Mount Everest International Peace Climb that resulted in climbers from the U.S., Russia and China summiting at the same time. The expedition also removed 2 tons of garbage from the Tibetan side of the mountain, some of which dated to British expeditions from the 1920s.
"I wish I had saved that stuff," Whittaker said. "I could've put it on eBay."
Three weeks after Whittaker planted an American flag on the summit, Willie Unsoeld and Hornbein got there via the west ridge, a route that involves more technical climbing and is more prone to avalanches.
At the time, Hornbein was viewed as (in his words) "a bit of a lunatic" for pushing a new route that stretched the team's resources. (The expedition was funded largely through scientific research grants.) Today, though, the climb stands as a milestone in American mountaineering.
"The '63 ascent of the west ridge really put American Himalayan climbing on the map," said Conrad Anker, one of America's leading mountaineers. "To this day, the route has only been repeated a handful of times, which speaks volumes as to how difficult it was."
What happened on the descent is just as legendary. Unsoeld and Hornbein summitted at 6:15 p.m. -- hours later than is considered safe -- and on their way down stumbled across team members Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad, who had reached the top by the traditional southern route.
The four men were stranded above 28,000 feet with no sleeping bags, tents or bottled oxygen. So they huddled together in the darkness. It was the highest bivouac in history, a distinction that held for many years.
"It was a big, empty, long night," Hornbein said. "And if the wind hadn't have died down, I wouldn't be here right now."
Unsoeld, who died in 1979, lost nine of his toes to frostbite. Hornbein escaped with all of his, only because he removed his boots and kept his feet pressed against Unsoeld's stomach.
The four men were feared dead until Dingman, the expedition doctor, found them staggering down the mountain the next morning and helped belay them to high camp.
"I went out looking for four dead people and found four friends," Dingman said.
The climbers were featured in a Life magazine cover story and honored by President John F. Kennedy in a ceremony at the White House Rose Garden. But their greatest achievement might be how they inspired future generations of American climbers.
"The expedition really didn't end when we came back and got the Hubbard Medals from JFK," Hornbein said. "It went on and on and on.
"I never realized how much the expedition would change our lives."