The Vast Unknown
America's First Ascent of Everest
By Broughton Coburn
(Crown, Hardcover, 9780307887146, 320pp.)
Publication Date: April 30, 2013
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By the author of the New York Times bestselling Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, this chronicle of the iconic first American expedition to Mt. Everest in May 1963 – published to coincide with the climb's 50th anniversary – combines riveting adventure, a perceptive analysis of its dark and terrifying historical context, and revelations about a secret mission that followed.
In the midst of the Cold War, against the backdrop of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the space race with the Soviet Union, and the quagmire of the Vietnam War, a band of iconoclastic, independent-minded American mountaineers set off for Mt. Everest, aiming to restore America's confidence and optimism. Their objective is to reach the summit while conducting scientific research, but which route will they take? Might the Chinese, in a public relations coup, have reached the top ahead of them? And what about another American team, led by the grandson of a President, that nearly bagged the peak in a bootleg attempt a year earlier?
The Vast Unknown is, on one level, a harrowing, character-driven account of the climb itself and its legendary team of alternately inspiring, troubled, and tragic climbers who suffered injuries, a near mutiny, and death on the mountain. It is also an examination of the profound sway the expedition had over the American consciousness and sense of identity during a time when the country was floundering. And it is an investigation of the expedition's little-known outcome: the selection of a team to plant a CIA surveillance device on the Himalayan peak of Nanda Devi, to spy into China where Defense Intelligence learned that nuclear missile testing was underway.
BROUGHTON COBURN, author or editor of seven books, including two national bestsellers, has worked in environmental conservation and development projects in the Himalaya for more than two of the past three decades. In addition he has directed projects for the World Bank, World Wildlife Fund, and American Himalayan Foundation.
"This book is like a time capsule from the Cold War, showing how in 1963, a bunch of crazy American mountaineers embarked on a plan to ascend via the never-before-summited west ridge, while racing a Chinese group to the top." – Sacramento Bee
"Coburn brings this exciting chapter of American mountaineering history to life." – Library Journal
“A sweeping account of the first American visitors to Mount Everest’s peak….Coburn’s unhurried, character-driven narrative pays scrupulous attention to the climb’s every detail and to Everest’s majestic natural history….An exhilarating slice of American adventure-sporting history.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Gripping… Not just another book about mountain climbing, this is also a story of America in the early 1960s.” –Booklist
“Broughton Coburn has written a book to renew our faith in what it means to believe in each other, and in ourselves. This is what it looked like when ordinary men of extraordinary courage and self-discipline worked through tragedy, dissent, and hardship not for individual glory but toward a common goal. When were we last this self-effacing, this optimistic, this outrageously can-do? A compulsively entertaining read.” – Alexandra Fuller, author of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness