Career Climber Physicist Will Siri ascended the Andes, crisscrossed Antarctica, and co-led the first U.S. expedition to summit Mt. Everest. And he was just doing his job. by Daniel Duane
Will Siri was a brilliant physicist with a brilliant formula: Science plus mountaineering equals well-funded adventure. A University of Chicago graduate who worked on the Manhattan Project before helping launch the field of nuclear medicine, Siri put his talents to use cultivating what he called his "genetic defect": a passion for climbing. It began when he moved West in 1943 to join the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley: "California was where the mountains were," the onetime Sierra Club president explained to the Club's Oral History Project in 1977. But soon Siri's career expanded into expeditions to the Andes, the South Pole, and Mt. Everest, where he could test his theories about the human body's reactions to altitude. It's great work if you can get it—and Siri got it.
Will Siri climbs 20,981-foot Huandoy in Peru's Cordillera Blanca in 1953.
Siri had his first taste of big overseas mountains when he hooked up with a research mission to the Peruvian Andes in 1950. While carrying out studies on red-blood-cell production, which increases at high altitude, he found time to hire an Indian guide and bag some big peaks. No sooner had he returned to California than Siri enlisted Dr. John Lawrence, inventor of the "atom smasher," to help with fundraising for a second Peruvian expedition to further research the physiology of blood-cell production. Not so coincidentally, the parameters Siri set for his new study "meant we had to go to substantially higher altitudes. The subjects for the study would have to be climbers, and so vocation and avocation fitted together very nicely."
Siri did manage to summit a few mountains, but this 1953 trip to the Cordillera Blanca was marred by the sudden and shocking death of a team member named Oscar Cook, a strong climber who fell inexplicably ill at 16,000 feet—"inexplicably" because high-altitude pulmonary edema, the likely culprit, wasn't yet understood.
Siri worked next on launching the first major U.S. Himalayan expedition in 1954. What a thrill it must've been: Nepal, the forbidden kingdom, had just opened its borders, and Sir Edmund Hillary made the first ascent of Mt. Everest during Siri's fundraising period, giving the whole endeavor the ring of genuine exploration. "Himalayan mountaineering at that time was a novelty," Siri recounts, "and very few people understood it in this country." So, once again, the trip—for the first ascent of 27,765-foot Makalu—was sold partly on the strength of "physiological research on high-altitude stress." Siri landed a grant from the National Science Foundation and transportation from the U.S. Air Force on its weekly "embassy run," which went from California to New Delhi, dropping off diplomatic staff in various capitals.
Studying the effects of altitude—on himself—Siri spent four days in the decompression chamber at his lab.
The entire team was composed of Sierra Club members, all of them Californian—indeed it was dubbed the "California Himalayan Expedition to Makalu." And the account in the Sierra Club Bulletin resonates with the echoes of great voyages from the Age of Exploration—think of La Pérouse touring the world with his scientific instruments, or Darwin collecting samples in unknown lands. Team member Richard Houston writes of the preparation for the "vital project," requiring specialized equipment "for the biological collections, ecological studies, and mapping."
As far as Siri was concerned, one of the trip's most delightful features was "the effort to find the mountain. One could see it from India, but the only maps that existed at that time were the Survey of India maps, and these were exercises in fantasy." The overland journey took nearly a month, and Siri recalls with evident relish how he and the other climbers, at the trip's beginning, insisted on carrying their own gear in huge packs, despite the plentiful supply of porters. Of the bemused Sherpas, he quips that "with the wisdom of the East, they realized that we would settle down in time and learn." It took less than a week, Siri says, "to shed 50 pounds of the 75 we were carrying and to let the Sherpas blow up our air mattresses and erect our tents."
Siri's team wasn't successful on Makalu—obstacles included a lack of food, no bottled oxygen, and an early monsoon—but he did have the good fortune of meeting Hillary himself. Poking around the mountain at the same time, Hillary fell into a crevasse and was extricated with help from Siri's group.
Only three years later, the two men were reunited in a still more remote spot: the South Pole, during Siri's 1957–58 biophysics expedition to the Antarctic. This time it was the Office of Naval Research that came up with most of the funding for Siri's next adventure—er, study of stress in extreme environments. His "International Physiological Expedition to Antarctica" included three other Americans and two Englishmen, one of whom was a high-altitude physiologist who had been with Hillary on Everest. Siri seems thrilled from the get-go, describing in an article for the American Alpine Journal how "in half a day the Air Force Globemaster had flown across one of the most inhospitable of oceans and into a totally different world." As the cavernous plane circles for a delicate landing, he can't resist noting that he straps himself into a seat "next to the drums of fuel for Sir Edmund Hillary's unscheduled push to the South Pole." Globemasters have suffered 16 engine failures that year alone, and as the plane begins its approach, Siri writes, "We fervently hoped this landing would not be one to deprive Sir Edmund of his gasoline."
As part of a study of red-blood-cell stimulation at high altitudes, Siri (with pipe) conducts a test on fellow climber James Lester at 17,700-foot Everest Base Camp.
Siri's Antarctic research proposals, it turns out, were unusually well conceived, in that they required him to collect urine and blood samples at various remote field stations, visiting a great deal of the frozen continent along the way. "Probably one of the oddest messages broadcast across the Antarctic," Siri says, "was one I sent out before we were scheduled to meet one of the field teams about 500 miles away . . . ‘Do not urinate four hours before our arrival.' . . . For the rest of our stay in the Antarctic, we were met with a good deal of earthy humor. People weren't sure just who the message was directed to. There were some tense moments, apparently, in some quarters."
Flying out to the South Pole, Siri entered the U.S. Amundsen-Scott Station to find Hillary, having successfully completed that push via tractors, relaxing in the mess hall. Siri describes the encounter like this:
"Hello, Ed," I said, greeting him with somewhat deliberate familiarity. "Glad to see you again." The look of puzzlement gave way to a broad friendly grin as I hastened to add, "Remember, Will Siri. We crossed paths, fumbling about the Barun Valley in 1954."
Siri was a man who not only had grand experiences but also enjoyed the hell out of them, and enjoyed the hell out of telling stories. He even got mileage out of the fact that Hillary, from whom Siri wanted to take blood and urine samples, was squeamish at the sight of a needle. "He's a very courageous man," Siri recalls, "who has no hesitancy to risk his life in all kinds of adventures, except for one, and that's having his veins punctured."
In remembering the Antarctic, Siri bubbles over with fond memories, like the time he flew out to Admiral Byrd's long-abandoned Little America 1. Climbing down a hole in the ice to the deeply buried base, he found everything "suffused with a purple glow through the 20 feet of snow and ice," and he brought back a quarter-century-old frozen turkey and "discovered that a 25-pound turkey does not cook well or very fast over a Primus stove." Siri also had some close calls, related with his flair for understatement, such as when an airplane engine went out, forcing an emergency landing on the heavily crevassed Ross Ice Shelf. Because of whiteout conditions, Siri's pilot could hardly tell where the ground was, much less what it looked like, so he "simply put the plane in a slow descent and quietly sat there in the cockpit smoking a cigar until we hit something. When we hit something, we knew we . . . had landed."
The mild-mannered mountaineer is shown back at the lab.
Antarctica provoked a strong poetic response in Siri's writings: "Erebus rose from the sea in undulating folds of ice," he wrote. "The mountain seemed disturbingly familiar, as though I had seen it many times before." The trip's highlight came when Siri and a few others talked the Air Force into flying them and their provisions to a wholly unexplored region of the Polar Plateau, 500 miles from the base, "because it might give us an opportunity to find some evidence of physiological stress." After a rough landing on the ice, at 10,000 feet above sea level, the plane flew off, and Siri found himself in a world "absolutely indescribable—flat and white all the way around the horizon, with a moderate wind blowing as it continued to do for the next ten days." He especially seems to have enjoyed building a radar reflector to help the plane locate them for their flight home. Before leaving the base, he'd experimented with radio beacons and even dug some abandoned aircraft tires out of the snow and burned them, but neither technique showed much promise. So on the last morning, Siri grabbed a roll of window screening and some bamboo poles from the local trash heap.
"It was fascinating," he recalls, "trying to build this thing laid out on the ice with a strong wind blowing and dry powdery snow blowing all over everything. . . . But I finally managed to put it up, and it was a thing of beauty. . . . What was even more gratifying about the corner reflector was that it sang like a chorus from the wind blowing through it, all day long and all night, varying in pitch, but always softly and with complex harmonies. . . . All we could hear ordinarily was the whissssssh of the dry, sandlike snow blowing like a lot of wriggling white monsters across the plateau."
The radar reflector worked, and they were hugely relieved to see the plane. They'd brought food for 30 days, but even that wouldn't have given them time to walk out. "It was more than just an idle discussion," Siri says, "in which we agreed that if we had to, we would resort to cannibalism. Quite simply, whoever survives has the right to use whatever resources he has. There was no disagreement about that."
Siri's crowning achievement as a mountaineer was his role in the first U.S. expedition to Mt. Everest, in 1963. He was 44 years old by then, deeply immersed in the history of the world's tallest mountain, a genuine acquaintance of the man who'd made the first ascent, and a veteran trek planner. Involved from the start, Siri helped the expedition's leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, incorporate a nonprofit and form an advisory committee that included a senior vice president of Hughes Aircraft and the Los Angeles district attorney. They even got assistance from Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
Proposing research projects in sociology, psychology, physiology, glaciology, and geophysics, Siri raised funds from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, NASA, and other groups. "From the very outset, we pictured it as a major expedition, possibly the biggest joint mountaineering-scientific expedition to go into the Himalayas," Siri recalls. "Many of the members doubled as . . . scientists and climbers. The density of advanced degrees was pretty high."
"No one knew if Americans were yet ready to climb Everest," Siri writes later, "but we were determined that they would not fail, as we had on Makalu, for want of equipment, funds, and even food." In a manner reminiscent of the later Apollo missions, the 16-member team spent five days at UC Berkeley undergoing baseline physiological studies.
The largest group short of an army ever to enter the Himalayas, they marched into the mountains with 18 expedition climbers, 35 climbing Sherpas, and more than 900 porter Sherpas. They endured a smallpox outbreak that killed about 50 villagers along the way, a collapsing bridge that dumped porters into an icy river, and a falling wall of ice that killed American climber Jake Breitenbach. On the other hand, Siri apparently felt so fabulous during the approach that one of the team doctors deduced he must have been on Benzedrine.
From a historical standpoint, the Everest expedition's greatest achievement was the fact that part of the group pioneered a new route up the West Ridge while others followed Hillary's South Col route. Both objectives were accomplished, and Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein summited the West Ridge only hours after Barry Bishop and Luther Jerstad topped out from the other direction, and even met them on the way down—"one of the most astonishing feats in Himalayan mountaineering history," according to Siri.
To a climber reading his recollections, however, Siri is even more compelling when he discusses the psychological impact of the expedition on its members. He speaks with feeling of "the inhumanity of man to his fellow men at times when they think they have a lot at stake and they sense the threat of competition. There are few expeditions . . . that have returned with everyone enduring friends as a result of their adventure together. Expeditions tend, if anything, to generate enduring enmities."
Siri wasn't afraid to tell the truth of what he'd seen. "A person's first expedition to a major Himalayan peak," he says, "can be an overwhelming experience, especially for younger persons. The intense feelings of anticipation and uncertainty of success, the long, arduous effort on the mountain . . . and the cultural shock all combine to produce a profound impact. It often changes men's lives. For a year or more after returning from Makalu, seemingly trivial cues, like a bird sound similar to one I had heard in the Himalayas, would trigger a flood of intense memories, and it was only with some effort that I could bring myself back to the present. The urge to return was so overwhelming that it often dominated other things that I should have been doing at that moment. . . . The desire to catch the next plane back and rerun that magnificent experience was all but irresistible. It was like being in love, I guess, for the first time. It had that intensity and that long-sustained aftermath. I suppose an unrequited love—after all, we hadn't gotten to the summit of the mountain."
On Everest, Siri seems to have been spared "that almost pathologic post-expedition reaction." Having been through it before, on Makalu, "I could enjoy the trip," he says, "without the burden of the intense first-exposure emotional hang-ups." But he certainly saw those hang-ups in the others, particularly in the dissolution of the team. "That happened," he says, "the moment the last four men came down from the summit.
Psychologically, the whole expedition collapsed and was no longer a team. It was just a group of men, with no common cause for interaction except to get home, and each nursing possibly troubling thoughts about the preceding months. . . . At that point, the expedition lost all the coherence and meaning it once had. . . . Once we got back to the States, it was the same story; we all went our separate ways."
But hard reality can't dilute Siri's exalted descriptions of his Everest experience. In his introduction to Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge, the official account of the climb, Siri's prose soars: "Other mountains share with Everest a history of adventure, glory, and tragedy, but only Everest is the highest place on earth," he writes. "The primitive, often brutal struggle to reach its top is an irresistible challenge to our built-in need for adventure. But more than this, Everest became, with the first attempt to scale its ridges, a universal symbol of human courage and endurance; an ultimate test of man's body and spirit." Still, in his final lines on the subject, Siri refuses to cleave apart the darker and lighter sides of what he saw: "The country, the mountain, and the intense struggle," he writes, "leave deep, lasting marks—some scars that are hard to live with, and some that a man would never wish to lose."
Daniel Duane wrote "Lessons in Granite" on Yosemite climbing (March/April) and "Wild and Whitewashed" on the Lewis and Clark expedition (November/December 2004).
Sierra Club legends live on, thanks to the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library. More than 100
interviews span the Club's history, from the earliest conservation battles and High Trips to the Club's transformation into a national environmental organization. You can read them at the Bancroft, the Club's Colby Library, and various libraries nationwide. Plans are under way to post the transcripts online; you may also purchase copies. For more information, go to sierraclub.org/library/oral.asp.
First photo (Cordillera Blanca): photo by Allen Steck; used with permission
Second photo (decompression chamber): photo by Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; used with permission
Third photo (testing of red-blood-cell stimulation): photo by Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; used with permission
Fourth photo (Siri in his lab): photo by Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; used with permission