It's safe to say no one was ever more of a place than Jim Whittaker has been of his homeland of glaciers, salmon and moss.
JUST LOOK AT Big Jim Whittaker in that summit photo, standing in full Kodachrome glory on the rooftop of the whole blessed world, hoisting that wood-handled ice ax like a bloody lance over the quivering body of some vanquished dragon.
Seriously, look at him: Rooted in the snow like a Douglas fir, his rugged frame swathed in puffy Eddie Bauer goose down, leaning straight into the wind at 35 below zero.
The power of the image is the time and place it evokes. It was 50 years ago next month. Snapped on the summit of Mount Everest just after 1 p.m. on May 1, 1963, by Nawang Gombu, Whittaker’s Sherpa climbing partner, the photograph is one of those rare, freezings-in-time of history shifting gears.
Stare at it, and feel the lurch. President John F. Kennedy would hail Whittaker’s arrival as the first American on the rooftop of the world as a moment of national pride. But it held special significance for people who grew up camping in moldy canvas tents on the shoulders of Mount Rainier.
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Whittaker wasn’t some upper-crust Ivy League faux hero. He was a flannel-and-white-chowder guy — a kid who grew up with identical twin brother Lou in Arbor Heights, went to West Seattle High School and learned to do a seated glissade in a Mountaineers club climbing class. It’s safe to say no one was ever more of a place than Jim Whittaker has been of his homeland of glaciers, salmon and moss.
He was one of us, all of us — a big slab of Snoqualmie Pass granite about to be sculpted into something befitting the national jewel case of explorer-heroes, right before our eyes.
Whittaker and Gombu were the 10th and 11th humans to stand atop Everest, first scaled 10 years earlier by New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary and another Sherpa climber, Tenzing Norgay. But 50 years — and some 6,200 Everest summiteers — later, it is clearer than ever that Big Jim’s status as the first American altered not just the course of his life but most of the rest of ours as well.
As he and other giants of America’s age of exploration slip from view, the likes of that powerful image of Whittaker astride Everest will not be seen again.
They don’t make Kodachrome anymore. Jim Whittakers, either.
BACK BEFORE Instagram, cameras came out for special occasions, and photographs meant something. For Whittaker — and an entire upper-left corner of America steeped in the natural-adventure ethic he still preaches — the summit photo meant everything. Still does: The pride in his eyes as he signs copies of it for admirers today has not dimmed.
Mountain climbers in general are not fuzzy people. The celebrity trappings of that “first” label pinned on his chest might have wilted lesser men, including some of his expedition mates. Whittaker embraced it as a springboard that would propel him to other notable expeditions, business adventure and misadventure, divorce and new love, and “family” membership in the Kennedy clan, of all things.
Over time, it also would come to overshadow remarkable details of the 1963 expedition itself.
Few people remember the particulars of Whittaker’s South Col climb, let alone the harrowing, wind-blasted descent, during which a bus-sized portion of the summit-ridge cornice upon which Whittaker and Gombu trod broke free literally at their feet and tumbled thousands of feet into Tibet.
“We were lucky,” Whittaker says. “It could have easily been tragic.”
And few nonclimbers ever truly grasped the enormity of the 1963 Everest expedition’s most remarkable feat: Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld’s summit-or-die gambit on the sheer, unclimbed (and still rarely attempted) West Ridge of the tallest mountain on Earth. Even today, climbers such as Ed Viesturs, who has seen and done it all in the Himalaya, look back at that climb — the first “traverse” of an 8,000-meter peak — and whistle with admiration.
“Those guys were tough as nails,” he says.
The blow-by-blow details of both 1963 climbs are recounted in Hornbein’s “Everest: The West Ridge” and Whittaker’s “A Life on the Edge,” both of which are being rereleased in updated 50th-anniversary editions by The Mountaineers Books. But the best remembrances of that spring of 1963 still come from the mouths of the men who were there.
YOU’LL HAVE TO catch up with them first. Despite physical challenges such as knee replacements, a couple annoying cancers and some pesky heart trouble, Big Jim remains in constant motion. The obligations of retired life, he will tell you, with a wink, can be a drag.
Bouncing around home in Port Townsend, he is quick to say that being a famed mountaineer does little to push his 6-foot-5 frame up that cursed hill on the way back from his regular walks to Point Wilson. This is all part of the Whittaker schtick: His persona, particularly when playing the part of the guy in that photograph, has always been a mix of unabashed pride and self-deprecating hints that he’s just another outdoorsy guy from Seattle who happened along at the right time.
The latter, endearing quality leaps forth when Whittaker admits that many of the sharpest memories in his fading mental newsreels are some of the expedition’s more-absurd moments.
Few people realize, for instance, that Whittaker unceremoniously conducted, on the descent of his historic climb, what surely was the first Everest summit-ridge emergency defecation experiment. Hanging your private parts out over Nepal to do your business in a subzero blizzard tends to stick with you.
“There are times when you just have to go — right?” he says, busting into laughter. “What the hell!”
Weeks later on the same route, expedition mate Barry Bishop, faithfully following Whittaker’s footsteps, got a surprise passenger on his boot crampons, Big Jim chortles. “He’s carrying this frozen turd, going, ‘Whittaker! That sonofabitch!’
“At least he knew he was on the right track.”
But his most powerful memories are of his 20 minutes on the summit with Gombu, and of the expedition’s tragic moment, when climber Jake Breitenbach, 27, was crushed beneath tons of cascading ice in the Khumbu Icefall.
Also burned in his brain is his May 22, 1963, base-camp radio conversation with Unsoeld, when it became clear he and Hornbein were beyond the point of no-return on the perilous West Ridge. Whittaker, watching daylight slip away, pleaded with the pair to consider an escape route. Unsoeld replied flatly:
“There are no rappel points, Jim, absolutely no rappel points. There’s nothing to secure a rope to. So it’s up and over for us today.”
“I thought they were not going to make it,” Whittaker says. “Then, when we didn’t hear from them, I thought, Christ, they’re lying up there somewhere.”
Against all odds, Hornbein and Unsoeld had reached the summit near sundown and began descending in the dark, stumbling down the South Col route. Exhausted, freezing and out of bottled oxygen, they met teammates Bishop and Lute Jerstad — also descending from the summit — and huddled on a rock outcrop with no sleeping bags or other supplies.
It was one night in 100, Whittaker recalls, without a killer wind and, miraculously, all four survived, with a price: Unsoeld and Bishop would lose their toes to frostbite.
PERHAPS MORE than the climb itself, Whittaker remembers his shock at the parade reception he received upon arriving home in Seattle — especially since the event itself had barely even registered in local newspapers, largely because of the eight-day delay in getting news from Everest by runner to Katmandu, Nepal.
He laughs about this now, recalling the 2010 night he and his wife of 40 years, Dianne Roberts, sat in a Bellevue hotel when the phone rang and their son, Leif, was on the line from Everest’s South Summit, having just filled some very big climbing shoes.
It’s just a small measure of how different a world Everest is today: Fixed ropes along most of the route greatly reduce the danger, and fear, of falling off the mountain — a common fate of many early climbers. And real-time weather forecasting is a valuable tool for life-or-death decisions. Whittaker’s team, by comparison, was in some ways closer to the 1920s Everest climbers, such as Britain’s George Mallory, in terms of technology — a curse and a blessing.
“They had it the way I always thought an expedition should be,” Viesturs says. “You literally walked off the map, and then you came home three months later.”
For Big Jim, fame from the Everest climb struck with breathtaking impact. After the huzzahs faded, he led a fledgling, niche-market Seattle co-op, REI, to the edge of national prominence; he guided newfound friend Bobby Kennedy up an unclimbed peak in the Yukon to plant a flag in honor of the slain JFK; he captained both the first successful U.S. ascent of K2 in 1978 and a 1990 Everest International Peace Climb with teams from the U.S., China and Russia.
Whittaker never shirked from his role as ’63 expedition frontman. This was actually welcomed by other team members such as Hornbein, who would spend succeeding decades trying not to let their lives be defined by the climb.
Hornbein, 32 at the time, saw his medical career — he would later conduct notable research as head of the Anesthesiology Department at the University of Washington — as his serious life’s mission:
“I was always fearful I would be remembered as the doctor who climbed Everest,” he recalls. “I put it aside until my mid-50s, when I realized all the pieces are inseparable. People would ask, ‘What do you do after Everest? My answer: ‘Life!’ “
Having done the ultimate up-and-over on Everest, Hornbein has never gone back.
IN ESTES PARK, Colo., where Hornbein and wife Kathy moved in 2006, the cagey mountaineer still pulls on the harness and goes climbing for the same reasons he did back then: challenge, tranquillity and where that takes him. After living most of his life in the Seattle area, small-town ways suit him.
“It’s a fairy-tale place for me,” he says of a home with tempting rock pitches a stroll away. On the 48th anniversary of his Everest summit, he climbed on Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower with his friend, Jon Krakauer.
Of the 20 climbing-team members from 1963, 13 are gone. Hornbein often thinks of those Everest friends, especially Unsoeld, who died in an avalanche on Mount Rainier in 1979. The last alive of the four who huddled together below the summit, Hornbein swears that sometimes, he still feels the steady hand of his old friend Willi on his shoulder.
Whittaker, too, mourns the losses. Five decades have done little to ease his grief over the slaying of Bobby Kennedy, whom he loved like a brother and helped carry to his resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. More recently, the death of his first son, Carl, at age 51, pushed the fragility of life uncomfortably close.
Big Jim stays busy walking, lecturing, skiing in Sun Valley with brother Lou and other family. Sometimes, Jim Whittaker, REI membership No. 647, pops into an REI store and tries not to notice how few green-vested employees know “who the hell I am.”
Like Hornbein, he spends his precious days reaching for touchstones: his wife and family, and a beloved cabin on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean in the Quinault drainage of the Olympic Mountains. Once a month, for most of those 50 years, he has mulled the good and the bad here, often alone.
“I sit 100 feet above the surf,” Big Jim says, his eyes softening as if seeing the foam and hearing the roar of the ocean.
“The cellphone doesn’t work. There’s nobody there. Just eagles, maybe dolphins out front. No running water. No electricity. Just a propane stove and a fireplace.”
Whittaker’s fortress is hand-hewn from the old-growth forest that envelops it. The sweet-smoky refuge keeps him grounded in the special place that launched him into a life outdoors.
“It is unique,” he says of the Northwest. “There are not a lot of places that have the oceans, the rivers, the mountains and the forest. The spirit of adventure had to come out of this area.”
THE MOUNTAINEERS club is hosting a sold-out fundraising event April 20 in honor of Whittaker, Hornbein and other surviving Everest team members — a final salute, of sorts.
Mulling the event, Whittaker sent notes inviting the heads of Microsoft, Paccar, Boeing and other major Seattle-area corporations, asking them to donate to Mountaineers education programs because they are of this place, as well — contributors to, and beneficiaries of, what he calls a “magical” region.
The Everest expedition trained on Mount Rainier and drew heavily from our amassed climbing talent. It has been paying back that favor ever since: Succeeding generations of big-peak mountaineers would establish the Puget Sound region as North America’s guide-service Mecca, and set new standards for climbing, guiding and trekking on the world’s wildest mountains.
But there is more. It doesn’t require a huge imaginary leap to ponder an alternate Northwest universe in which that ’63 climb never took place: Seattle’s rep as an outdoors enclave might never have gone global; its Gore-Tex gestalt and spirit of adventure might never have attracted cutting-edge entrepreneurs who continue to change the world. REI might never have risen to its national prominence — and perhaps, by extension, a woman named Sally Jewell, the ethic of glaciers, salmon and moss instilled in her, might not be running the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“Damn right,” Whittaker says to this, with the sort of assured satisfaction that makes it clear he wouldn’t mind seeing it stand as his legacy.
If succeeding generations learn nothing else from the exploits of their mountain-loving Northwest grandparents, Whittaker hopes it is the lesson his mother, bless her soul, taught him and his siblings: Get out of the house. See where that takes you. Whether it is to the top of the world, or just down to the beach, it might change you.
“You could begin to enjoy it,” Whittaker says. “And if you do enjoy it, you could then begin to love it, and then you might take care of it.”
Only time will tell whether generations next will take that to heart. But nobody can argue that James W. Whittaker failed to shine a light down the path.
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com.