THE wind was blowing at 50 miles per hour the morning when my Sherpa climbing partner, Nawang Gombu, and I went for the summit. I stuck my head out of the tent into the wind raking the tiny platform where we had anchored our camp at 27,500 feet on Mount Everest’s southeast ridge.
It was not the weather we had hoped for, but after more than a decade of experience on high, glaciated mountains I had experienced worse. I believed that we could make it to the top and return back alive.
Later that day, at approximately 1 p.m. on May 1, 1963, we stood on the highest point on earth, and I became the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
It’s hard to imagine that 50 years have come and gone since that day. I’m reminded of this because this weekend I will join with several of my 1963 expedition colleagues and celebrate the 50th anniversary with The American Alpine Club and 700 others at a gala event in San Francisco. I look forward to reconnecting with my old teammates, but also with the current generation of Everest climbers who face a mountain environment far different from the one we faced five decades ago.
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In 1963, our expedition hired 32 Sherpas and 909 porters to help us carry 27 tons of equipment over a 185-mile trek from Katmandu to Everest Base Camp. As we progressed up the mountain, we entered a high-altitude wilderness composed of snow, rock and ice. For more than a month, we painstakingly laid bridges across cavernous crevasses, ladders up ice walls and installed fixed ropes. Our team was comprised of the strongest young men in the American mountaineering community: Many of us were professional mountain guides and ski patrollers who had years of high altitude, cold-weather climbing experience under our belts.
Today, the trek to Everest Base Camp has been reduced to a 45-minute airplane ride and a 40-mile hike. There are guesthouses with meals, beds and beer along the way — luxuries that we could only have dreamed of in 1963. There is also a plethora of guide services that promise the experience of a lifetime for a handsome fee. While some of the more respected and long-standing guide services will turn away inexperienced clients, there are a growing number of low-budget companies that have few prerequisites. As a result, the relative inexperience of those climbing the mountain has considerably increased.
In May 2012, my son, Leif Whittaker, sponsored by Eddie Bauer (the same company that supplied our down clothing and sleeping bags in 1963), reached the summit of Mount Everest for his second time. During the ascent, Leif was forced to wait for more than an hour just below the summit at 28,700 feet, while more than 100 climbers descended the fixed rope. Leif recalled that some were exhausted to the point of stumbling dangerously down the route.
Sadly, the 2012 season was the second-most-deadly year in the history of the mountain. Everest claimed 10 people, and if not for nearly perfect weather the day of Leif’s summit bid, the death toll could easily have been much worse. Causes of death were largely avoidable: exhaustion, altitude sickness, climbing too slowly, and the failure to recognize personal limits and turn around. Lack of climbing experience at high altitude in cold weather increases the likelihood of such problems.
Everest’s now relative ease of access and the advent of some guides who do not turn away — or know when to turn back — clients, means inexperienced climbers are often bottlenecked in what’s known as the “Death Zone.”
In 1963, our expedition fought the same weather and bitter cold. But we were seasoned mountain men who had climbed high on many beautiful mountains, and been turned back on even more.
Everest is a glorious and beautiful mountain. Adventurers will always want to test themselves on its magnificent walls of snow, rock and ice. Good for them. But, in the next 50 years, I hope we can learn from both our successes and failures, and let experience be our guide.
Jim Whittaker is author of the best-selling, award-winning memoir, “A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond.” An anniversary edition will be released in April.