At 3:15 pm on 22nd May 1963, Luther ‘Lute’ Jerstad and his teammate Barry Bishop became the second and third Americans ever to reach the summit of Mount Everest, following an arduous journey that began alongside a formidable team of 17 other Americans, 32 Sherpas, and 909 porters carrying 27 tons of gear. Led by Swiss climber Norman Dyhrenfurth, this ambitious expedition pushed the climbers to their limits, and even at the summit their elation was short-lived: as darkness fell during their descent, Jerstad, Bishop, and two other climbers found themselves stranded at 28,000 feet. With temperatures plunging to deathly lows and oxygen supplies depleted, the group huddled together and somehow endured the highest bivouac in mountaineering history, defying the mountain’s lethal embrace. Jerstad recorded the perilous, months-long mission in his diary; he wrote this entry on the way up.
The Diary Entry
May 9, Base Camp. Just two more days. The tension is beginning to grow inside of us now. I hope the weather will give us a break. The old spirit is returning, and we really want that summit now. For the last 36 hours it has been snowing, but the atmosphere should clear once we get to higher ground.
We’ll probably start up in bad weather and pray that good conditions prevail at Camp 6. If nature turns against us, we are through and will toss in the towel. It’s a great feeling to realize that this tedious battle against the mountain is almost over—and a relief to know we will soon be able to forget animal-like survival. Man wasn’t meant to exist this way.
Sixteen Sherpas have returned to Camp 3 West. The weather has been uncomfortably poor, but the fellows are making headway up on the West Ridge. Barry and I will take only four Sherpas with us to the Col, and two of them will carry oxygen for us to Camp 6. I am taking a New Testament my family sent me. I thought of leaving it on the summit if we get that far, but I doubt if I will. It means more to me in my pocket.
Some of Lute Jerstad’s diary was later reprinted in Everest Diary, a book by John D. McCallum that was published in 1966. A fascinating retelling and worth getting hold of but I would rather have read the diary in its entirety. That book is now out of print but I found a second-hand copy quite easily.
On the website of the American Heritage Center I found audio of Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop discussing their achievement—a recording made in Nepal nine days after they reached the summit. Listen here.
In 1968, five years after the climb, Jerstad spent an hour speaking with Studs Terkel about the experience. He also read some of his diary entries. That discussion was originally broadcast on WFMT in Chicago and you can hear it all on their website.
Jerstad died of a heart attack in 1968, whilst hiking in Nepal with his grandson. His obituary in the New York Times can be found here.