Fifty years later, the moment is still as clear as ice to Jim Whittaker: May 1, 1963. A predawn wake-up call inside a flimsy, battered tent high on the South Col of Mount Everest, the wind howling loudly enough to compel sane people to roll over and stay inside.
Not Whittaker, who, like others schooled on the icy slopes of Mount Rainier, had his own vision of sane, both then and now. On what would become a historic day, Whittaker and his climbing partner, Nawang Gombu, simply did what had been drilled into Whittaker by years of climbing on Rainier.
“We knew there was a storm coming, and everybody thought we were nuts,” Whittaker says with a chuckle. “But on Rainier you always got out of the damn camp and started up. Because what if you cancel the climb, and then you’re sitting there at Camp Muir, the mountain clears and the wind dies down? Everyone’s looking at you saying, ‘Hey, we paid to climb the mountain, not sit here.’ You always start up, because you can always turn around.”
The gale-force ground blizzard on Everest, at an altitude twice Rainier’s, would not improve that day, but Whittaker and Gombu pushed on, walking together to the summit of the world’s highest peak. A decade after Kiwi climber Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent, Whittaker and Gombu were the 10th and 11th humans to stand atop Everest, at 29,029 feet.
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Whittaker’s status as the first American launched the West Seattle native down a path toward national fame and status as a Northwest icon.
The landmark expedition also cemented Seattle’s role as the heartland of America’s big-peak climbing community, adding a dimension of raw-edge adventure to the local self-image that lingers today, far beyond the realm of the climbing community, Whittaker hopes.
Climbing for him and others of his generation was never really an end unto itself, he says: It was a means to indulge in their true passion — celebrating a life lived outdoors, particularly in the unique surroundings of the Northwest.
“If I hadn’t been born here, I would have never thought of climbing Everest,” Whittaker says.
Remarkably, the historic success of the 1963 team — a true old-school expedition, with tons of gear packed 185 miles into Everest Base Camp by 907 porters — caused hardly a stir in Seattle at the time, mostly because of the eight-day delay in sending news from Everest to Katmandu. But the city feted the team with a downtown parade when members finally arrived home in Seattle weeks later.
Whittaker, who along with twin brother Lou learned to climb with The Mountaineers, embraced the role of the expedition’s public face.
He would go on to lead local outdoor retailer REI to national prominence and command other major U.S. climbing expeditions.
Today at age 84, he says older locals run into him on the street and still want to shake his hand.
“There are people who come up and say, ‘God, I remember the day. It changed my life. It made me want to do stuff!’ ”
Like other climbers of his era, Whittaker laments the big-money, big-crowds world the mountain has become over the past five decades.
But he hesitates to call for severe climbing limits out of fear of discouraging people from climbing, an activity he still views as transformational.
“I much prefer to see people testing themselves there, spending their money on good guides and climbing, instead of going out with a rifle hunting big game,” Whittaker says.
“I think nature is a great teacher. Being in nature that way is a good way to find out who the hell you are.”
Ron Judd: email@example.com