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ON MAY 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In the 50 years since then, 478 Americans have stood at the highest point on earth, but perhaps no one else's life has been such a constant adventure in everything from politics to business to daring feats on foot and by sail.
Whittaker has managed to revisit the Everest base camp four more times since his historic expedition. The first, in 1990, he led a peace climb. "We took our enemies: two Chinese, two Soviets and two Americans, and we put them on the summit of summits, showing the world what could be done through friendship and cooperation," he says. "I went to 24,000, but I was 60 then, and I didn't need to go up."
He returned in 2003 and 2008, and in 2012 he nearly made it to base camp at age 83, "but I pooped out at 17,600 feet." His youngest son was on the same trip and made it to the summit for his second time last spring.
This March, Whittaker was much closer to sea level at the annual Explorers Club dinner in New York City. And when he appeared in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for an interview, the 6-foot-5 Washington State native was unmistakable. On top of a white turtleneck, he wore a perfect-fitting navy-blue ski sweater from the 1963 Everest expedition and, uncharacteristically for an octogenarian, a pair of scuffed black-and-white-checkered Vans sneakers. At 84, Whittaker still defies expectations.
So is that the 1963 summit sweater you're wearing?
I didn't wear it to the summit, but we wore it for photo shoots [on the mountain]. It's a sweater I'd located for the team. I was the equipment coordinator for the expedition because I was general manager of the sporting goods store REI. Later I became president and CEO.
It fits great. Does that mean you've been the same weight for 50 years?
Yeah. I weigh 205 now, and when I walked into the mountain, I weighed 205. It was a 185-mile hike from Kathmandu to the base of the mountain. That took us a month, with 27 tons of equipment carried by 907 porters. From there it took two and a half months to go from base camp to the summit. On the day I made the summit, I was 175, so I'd lost 30 pounds on the mountain.
How do you stay in shape?
I've got a cabin on the Pacific Coast where I cut wood and haul water. I skied this winter with my twin brother, Lou, in Sun Valley and with our two sons up in Banff. I had five sons -- three from my first marriage, and Dianne and I have two. We've been married 40 years now. Our son Leif has climbed Everest twice.
How many times have you been to the top of Everest?
Do you have any desire to be at the top again?
No, no, no, no -- once is enough. I brought this rock back from the summit. Here, you gotta touch it. It'll bring you good luck.
Then I'm totally touching it. [The rock is mounted to a ring.]
Yeah. Dianne and I each have a rock from the summit. You think the summit is all snow. It isn't. The wind blows so hard, it blows the snow off the ridge, so there are little pieces of rock sitting right near the summit. I picked some up and stuck 'em in the pocket. Dianne's is a little bigger.
Dianne Whittaker: I could punch out any mugger in New York City with that, I'm tellin' ya.
Who taught you to climb?
I started to climb with the Mountaineers, a club in Seattle. I was about 14.
Did you have any heroes as a kid?
Heroes? No. But I do remember when Edmund Hillary climbed the mountain in 1953. I thought: that lucky son of a bitch. It was during the Korean War. I was at Camp Hale, Colo. I was in the 10th Mountain Division. I was an instructor of climbing and skiing. Instead of going to Korea, I was transferred to the Mountain and Cold Weather Command.
It sounds like when Hillary was up there, you already knew it was something you wanted. How did you get the idea to climb Everest?
I had been guiding on Mount Rainier through college, in the summers. I really became a good climber then because I learned how to watch the clients. If they fell, I'd go down with them. So when I was phoned up by Norman Dyhrenfurth, the leader of the expedition, and asked if I wanted to go climb Everest, right away I said "Yep." It was 1960.
Do you know why he chose you?
I've never asked Norman what triggered that phone call, but by then my brother and I were some of the better snow and ice climbers in the United States. We'd guided on Rainier. And we had been on McKinley climbing at 20,000 [feet]. We had a pretty good reputation by then.
In the three years between that phone call and the expedition, did you ever have a moment when you thought: Hmm, maybe not?
No, no, I always felt like I could do it. Actually, we had five scientific projects when we went, and one of them was a psychological study from the office of naval research. They wanted to do it because we'd be isolated for a long time under stressful conditions where you could die -- as if we were on a submarine or in combat. I was asked if I thought I could climb Mount Everest. The whole team was. The others said: I hope so, maybe, and so forth. I was the only one who said yes. I felt pretty confident that if it had been climbed before -- and it had, by Hillary and Tenzing -- then I should be able to do it.
There were 19 Americans on the 1963 Everest team.
Yeah. We eventually put five Americans and one Sherpa on the summit. Three weeks later, four more Americans reached the summit -- two by a different route, a new route up the West Ridge.
There were also fatalities, right?
We lost Jake Breitenbach on the second day on the mountain. He was killed on the Khumbu icefall. I was putting the route up on the first day. The second day, he was on the wall that I had been on and it collapsed and killed him. Jake was from Jackson, Wyo., 27 years old. He was killed instantly. We couldn't recover his body. He was buried under tons of ice.
Was that the first fatality you had experienced on a climb?
No, I'd gone to mountain rescue in my guiding experience. I had recovered bodies out of crevasses.
You still had a long mission ahead. Was Jake's death something you thought about every day, or did you have to really compartmentalize it?
The whole team was really demoralized. We told our friends that it was not that technical, that it was altitude and weather that we were worried about. But you have to be up. We were happy to be there -- including Jake. It became, in a way, another incentive: climbing the mountain for Jake. I'd been lucky. I'd been caught in avalanches and fallen into crevasses and been turned back on a lot of mountains, so I felt comfortable in the area. But I was very cautious on the icefall.
What are your most vivid memories from the summit day?
It was a very unusual day. A storm had come in from the west. When we crawled out of the tent, the winds were 50 mph at our camp. In the col below us, Lute Jerstad said it was gusting up to 80. Hillary was in the valley next to our valley working with his school for Nepalese. He said he looked up and told everybody that the mountain would never be climbed on that day -- he told us this later. No one else moved out of their tents, and Gombu and I crawled out and started staggering up in the wind. People say, "Why did you even attempt it?" We couldn't wait around at 27,000 [feet] at the high camp. We only had enough oxygen. It was my only chance. So there was no question that we wouldn't start up and see what we could do. And at one o'clock in the afternoon on May 1st, 1963, Gombu and I stepped onto the highest point on earth: 29,029 feet above the sea.
Did you see anything up there from Hillary's 1953 climb?
Nothing. The summit was completely bare.
Did you leave anything else there besides the American flag?
Gombu tied a kata, a Buddhist friendship scarf, around the foot of the flag. It's a white silk scarf. Gombu put one around President Kennedy's neck too in the White House when we got the Hubbard award from the president.
Speaking of Gombu, is he still alive?
No, he died a year and a half ago in Darjeeling, India. He wanted to come to the 50th anniversary, but he didn't make it.
Did you ever climb with Gombu again?
Oh yeah. Dianne and I climbed Rainier with him. We went with Gombu on the 40th anniversary trek to base camp with our children and his children and grandchildren. It was a lifelong friendship.
So you got to the top, planted the flag, tied a kata around it, took a photo, and...
Got the hell off! Our thoughts were on how to get down.
Was the way down more harrowing than the way up?
It would have been if we'd have been rational, but we were so stunned from lack of oxygen that we just thought it was sort of a routine descent. We broke off a cornice, so that was pretty exciting. Gombu was leading on the way down. The strongest climber goes last because he can anchor a fall. We're 60 feet apart. It's blowing like hell and 35-below zero, okay? We're walking along, and all of a sudden the whole cornice to the left just dissolves and goes down the Kangshung face, 10,000 feet into China. And the only thing I thought was: I'd better move over. Down at base camp, two days later, I thought about it: Jesus Christ! We could have gone down that thing and we would have been in trouble. I didn't have a passport for China! But the other team coming up would have seen that and known that's how we died.
Any other memorable moments from the descent?
Well, I don't know if you want to write this, but ... I had to go to the bathroom. The winds were blowing and everything else, but I had to go. It was between the north and south summits, so that's 27,900 feet. It was the highest call of nature -- although somebody mentioned to me that Hillary claimed to have taken a pee up there. I don't know if that's true but ... he didn't do No. 2, I know that. So that was sort of a big deal. When I put my pack down, I had two cameras in it. One of the damn cameras fell out of the pack and rolled down off the ridge toward Nepal.
The camera with the photos from the summit?
I think we took photos with both cameras; I'm not sure now. But it was a Leica and it belonged to John Day, a guy I climbed McKinley with. I was going to leave it, and then I thought: Dammit, I'd better get that camera. It wasn't mine, and it was expensive. But the problem was that Gombu was up ahead, on a rise, just out of sight. And the winds were still blowing 50 mph. He can't hear and I'm shouting like hell: I need slack to go back into Nepal about 30 feet. The camera bounced, stopped, and it's lying there. Finally, I'm pulling hard enough that Gombu decides to give. I go down into Nepal, get the camera. It's funny because three weeks later, Jerstad was going up that route, sees the footprints and goes down following my prints and he's going, "What the hell am I doing down there?" and realized he was on the wrong route.
What was it like when you came out of the death zone and into the world of the living?
Oh man, it was incredible. When you come down into the thicker air, you can just feel the softness of it. And as we were coming out from base camp, the team stopped in front of me. I come up wondering what the hell they're looking at. They point to a little green blade of grass coming out of the tundra, out of the ground rock. They said: "Look at that, Jim!" The whole team was almost in tears looking at that blade of grass.
What altitude was that?
About 17,000 feet. Suddenly you realize you're back where things grow. My god, you just think what an incredible, beautiful planet we live on. Then you realize we're so damn lucky to be on it, so lucky to have done what we did and come back down into this warm, living, moist, wonderful, magical planet where every day is a goddamn gift. And as you get older, you realize every day is a freakin' miracle.
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