Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest, on May 1, 1963
Jim Whittaker, First American To Summit Everest

Jim Whittaker, a well-known mountaineer, explorer, and advocate for the environment, gained international recognition for being the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest on May 1, 1963. Alongside his mountaineering feats, Jim also played a pioneering role in the business and community sectors. He became the inaugural full-time employee of one of the largest outdoor retailers in the country, Recreational Equipment, Inc. – also known as REI. After devoting 25 years to the company, he retired as its President and CEO. In addition to his impressive career, Jim is highly regarded as a skilled and motivational public speaker with a wealth of experience spanning over four decades. He has captivated and enlightened audiences from numerous corporations and organizations. Apart from conquering mountains, Jim has led notable climbing expeditions, such as the first ascent of Mt. Kennedy in the Canadian Yukon, alongside Senator Robert Kennedy in 1965. Further showcasing his climbing expertise, he successfully achieved the first American ascent of K2 in 1978 and later orchestrated the triumphant Mt. Everest International Peace Climb in 1990. Jim’s talents extend beyond mountains and into the realm of sailing; he is a proficient blue-water sailor who has skippered his own vessels twice in the challenging 2,400-mile Victoria-to-Maui International Yacht Race. Additionally, Jim and his wife, Dianne Roberts, embarked on an awe-inspiring four-year Pacific sailing expedition, covering a remarkable distance of 20,000 miles. They journeyed to Australia and back to their home in Port Townsend, Washington, cruising aboard their impressive 54-foot steel ketch named Impossible, accompanied by their two sons.

Before embarking on the monumental trek to Everest, Jim Whittaker, then 34 years old, was chosen from a group of the best mountain climbers to be the first American to reach the top of Everest. Thanks to that turn of events, there would be many great wins, painful failures, public fame, and personal tragedy. He wouldn’t change a single day of it.
At 74 years old, he’s still a big man, standing almost six and a half feet tall and having broad shoulders. His hair is now wispier and mostly white. James “Big Jim” Whittaker looks like an old sea salt at the foggy port in Port Townsend, Washington. He is. His steel-hulled, 54-foot sailing yacht, Impossible, is tethered to a nearby pier, where he likes to entertain guests. The more important thing is his Chevy TrailBlazer’s license plate. It says “29028.” On May 1, 1963, Whittaker was the first person from the United States to climb that high into the sky to plant a flag.

Whittaker came home to national news stories, a parade in Seattle, where he grew up, and a salute from President Kennedy in the Rose Garden. Life and National Geographic both ran stories about the Americans’ successful climb of Mount Everest. The Society also sponsored the trip, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer named Whittaker Man of the Year in Sports. There were still effects from the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War was still very tense, and the race between the US and the USSR to put a man on the moon was still going strong. The United States needed a new hero in that hot weather. Whittaker, who is 34 years old, fit the part of Jimmy Stewart like a glove thanks to his slim good looks and humble personality.

Whittaker’s long, strong legs just barely fit under the shiny wood table in Impossibe’s cozy room with mahogany walls. This is Whittaker’s third boat with the name “Impossible.” The first one was traded in for a bigger one when things were good, but it was sold off years later when Whittaker’s finances got bad. He, his wife Dianne, and their two young boys, Joss and Leif, lived on the current Impossible for three years at the end of the 1990s. This was around the time that the mountain that made him famous was resurveyed and found to be 29,035 feet high. For the family, the trip from Port Townsend across the Pacific to Australia is shown on a map on one wall. It was another task in a life full of risks. Whittaker says in his autobiography, A Life on the Edge, “Your odds of winning are at least fifty-fifty if you stick your neck out, whether it’s by climbing mountains or speaking out for something you believe in.” You can make the odds much more likely to be in your favor if you take chances after careful planning and thought. If you never put yourself out there, on the other hand, you almost certainly will lose.

Big Jim Whittaker had no idea that his ascent would take him to a world far beyond climbing when he stood on the frozen top of Everest, gasping for air from his empty oxygen bottle. That moment changed his life. Louis Reichardt, a neurobiologist who later climbed K2 with him, says, “Jim is by far the most interesting American mountaineer because he’s done so much else.”

In 1960, Swiss-born climber Norman Dyhrenfurth asked Whittaker to join the team he was putting together for the first U.S. attempt on Everest. Whittaker was flattered but not shocked. By the time they were in their early 30s, Jim and Lou, his twin brother, were known as two of the best climbers in the Pacific Northwest. He was also well-known as the general manager of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), a small but quickly growing co-op in Seattle that sold climbing gear at a price to its members.

The person says, “I’d never been to the Himalayas before.” “But I had been to McKinley, which is 20,320 feet high.” I worked out hard and packed along 60-pound bricks. I swam in Lake Sammamish in the winter to get ready for the cold weather we were going to have. “I did not know anyone in better shape.” When the U.S. In the summer of 1962, the Navy’s Office of Naval Research helped pay for the trip. When asked if the climbers would be able to reach the top, most said “I hope so” or “I’m going to do my best.” Whittaker, however, said, “Yeah, I will.”

The American team had grown to 19 people by the time the climb started in Nepal in February 1963. He was fit, and even if it was just in his mind, everyone wanted to get to the top. Some were scientists, some were shooters, and some were writers. At the same time, everyone knew that only a small group, at most, would be able to make it to the top, and Dyhrenfurth would choose who those people would be.

It wasn’t just Whittaker on the team who had never climbed a Himalayan peak. Everest had been pretty much left alone until 1952, when a Swiss group, including a young Norman Dyhrenfurth, tried and failed. This was after George Mallory’s three attempts in the early 1920s and a few other British attempts in the 1930s. The next year, Edmund Hillary had a huge success. In 1956, another Swiss team reached the top, but two Indian teams that came after them were blown back within a few hundred feet of the top. A Chinese team said it had done it in 1960, but that claim is generally questioned; in 1962, four inexperienced climbers, including three Americans, made it to 24,900 feet and made it back alive. That was it.

However, two of Dyhrenfurth’s hikers had been to the Himalaya before, which gave them a different point of view. Anesthesiologist Thomas Hornbein and Peace Corps head Willi Unsoeld both thought that following Hillary’s lead was too small of a goal. They asked why not try a new road that had never been taken before: the West Ridge. Dyhrenfurth praised their drive but warned them that getting an American to the top was his main goal. Those who had helped him owed him that. And the South Col was the safest way to get to the top. He said that once that was done, he was ready to take on the West Ridge.

As the climbers got closer to Base Camp, the West Ridge debate started to split them. Hornbein and Unsoeld even wanted to get rid of the South Col route, while other climbers agreed with Dyhrenfurth. Whittaker was from South Col, it turned out. As one of the strongest climbers, Whittaker was clearly influencing the debate and, as Hornbein and Unsoeld saw it, taking the less dangerous route to the top. Hornbein wrote about the trip in Everest: The West Ridge and seems annoyed by the sight of Whittaker “polishing off his daily five dozen push-ups.”

At 17,800 feet, Base Camp is where the food and gear for the team were brought up by a parade of more than 900 workers. Before most of the porters went down, Whittaker and a few other team members made their way through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall to clear a path. Avalanche risk is often judged by climbers by looking at how the snow has built up on a slope and taking the weather into account. The climbers didn’t know if the Khumbu would move, though, with blocks as big as houses moving around as they went through it.

They were scared to death on the second day when the icefall moved quickly and buried climber Jake Breitenbach under tons of ice, almost killing a Sherpa in the process. A lot of people on the team were shocked when Breitenbach died. For some, it was reason enough to stop right there. The man told Whittaker that he wanted to return to his family. “I thought, “Well, I also have a wife and two kids.” Why did I not return? To climb, I had been lucky so far, and I hoped that luck would last.

Another climber got a blood clot that made it impossible for them to move as the team got closer to the Death Zone, which is the area above 25,000 feet where the air is dangerously thin. Others were sick or lost on their way to and from Base Camp, where they helped their 37 surviving Sherpas carry supplies to the higher camps.

Whittaker, on the other hand, decided to stay above the falling ice the whole time. He lost 25 pounds and a lot of strength after being in thin air for five weeks straight with no breaks. His main job, though, was to push the route from one camp to the next. He was probably the best ice climber on the team. He also says, “I didn’t like that icefall. It scared me.” When you reach the top, it’s better to only go back down through it once.

The West Ridge argument reached its peak at Camp II. Dyhrenfurth told Hornbein and Unsoeld that they could go after the West Ridge if things allowed it. He told Hornbein that the South Col group’s plan was to bring a four-person team with all the supplies they would need to Camp VI for the last climb. But Hornbein said that a group of four people would only have one day to make it to the top before they ran out of air. What would happen if the weather got bad? He wanted to send two men up one day and then another two men up the next. That would make their chances with the weather twice as good. It would also mean that fewer Sherpas would be needed, which would help Hornbein and his friends push toward the West Ridge at the same time. No, Dyhrenfurth said. The West Ridge team would have to wait for the South Col group to reach the top and come back. Whittaker says, “That’s what made the West Ridgers mad.” “But that’s how we planned it, and we only had so many bodies.”

They didn’t want to, but the West Ridgers decided to wait to climb the mountain their way. This cut down even more on the number of potential winners. Only a few South Collers were left after two hard weeks of moving camp: Whittaker and Dyhrenfurth, Lute Jerstad, a college acting teacher, and Barry Bishop, a cameraman for the National Geographic Society. Based on the skills of each climber, Dyhrenfurth made the choice to leave Jerstad and Bishop at the base camp and send Whittaker and Dyhrenfurth to Camp VI, which is at 27,450 feet, for the first assault. If the weather was good, Jerstad and Bishop would launch the second attack. That meant Whittaker had a chance, but only if the weather and his climbing luck were good.

Since they were at 23,900 feet, the hikers had been using oxygen bottles most of the time. Now, the first assault team didn’t use it much so that they would have enough for the peak. Ten Sherpas went with them and helped carry goods up, while the others kept the camps below running. Eight of those Sherpas were supposed to help set up high camp and then go down, leaving Whittaker, Dyhrenfurth, and the two remaining Sherpas—one for each climber—with enough oxygen in bottles for the last rise. The hikers were horrified, though, when seven of the eight Sherpas took oxygen bottles from the high camp to use on the way down. Whittaker says of the theft, “You just don’t get into a fight up there.” “I guess you’re not strong enough.”

That night, the view from the tents of the hikers on the southwest side of the mountain was beautiful. The South Collers could see Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain, and Nepal, which is a very long way below. The climbers were now in danger of something else. As night fell, the wind sped up to a scary 80 miles per hour, whipping snow and ice pieces at the canvas tent and making it look like the climbers wouldn’t be able to make it to the top on the one day they had left before they ran out of air.

At 4 a.m. The men got up on May 1 to make hot tea and Jell-O. In a village close to the base of Everest, Edmund Hillary told the group’s visitors that they would have to start back down because the storm was too strong. Dyhrenfurth and Ang Dawa, a Sherpa, chose to wait. Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gom­bu made the firm decision to keep going.

Whittaker says, “It wasn’t that steep.” “You could stumble and walk up.” The height was the hardest part. We were only taking in air, even with the oxygen tanks. Stand with a pillow over your face and run around the block. Then try to breathe through the pillow. It will help you think of something. You need air, so you take a few steps, breathe, and then take a few more steps. This is all while the wind is blowing over 50 miles per hour and you have a backpack that weighs at least 50 pounds, with two oxygen bottles that weigh 13 pounds each.

The climbers hid a bottle in the snow halfway between high camp and the top. They didn’t want to carry the extra weight if they wouldn’t need their second bottle until they got back to this place. But such beliefs were already being put to the test in a big way. Whittaker thought one of his eyes was freezing up under his goggles as he fought for every vertical foot in the windy snow. He couldn’t tell how far away things were without binocular eyesight. His water bottles had frozen because he had put them outside his pack, which was a bad idea. He was also very thirsty soon.

Whittaker and Gombu did make it to the South Summit by late morning, though. In that area, the mountain goes down a little before rising to its real peak. In 1953, two of Hillary’s climbers got to this place before Hillary, but had to turn back because their oxygen equipment wasn’t working right. It was by chance that Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first men to reach the top. They moved forward along the narrow slope until they got to the Hillary Step, which is a short cliff.

Whittaker climbed the easy hill first, and then he helped Gombu get to the top. He had about 50 feet to go before he ran out of air. Since Gombu was only five feet two inches tall, he didn’t have much left. As they got close to 29,000 feet, not having any bottled air was a big problem. Whittaker says, “If a guy flew up to that height and got out, he’d probably be dead in ten minutes.” I was more used to the altitude than that, but I hadn’t had air since 23,900 feet, so I wasn’t that used to it. It took me a few hours to get to the other bottle. Whittaker and Gombu pushed up the last few feet together because they were too drunk to be scared. “You come first, Gombu!”Whittaker yelled through the wind.

“You go first, Big Jim!””Gombu yelled back!”

Instead, the two guys stumbled their way to the top of the mountain together. Whittaker was weak and lost, and all he could think about was how small he was on this rocky peak in the -30oF world of ice, snow, and wind. They were both out of air, and their lives were in great danger, so they only stayed on top for 20 minutes before going back down. Whittaker knew it would be dangerous to go down. Still, he was shocked to see the ground give way right in front of him as he tried to focus his one good eye on retracing his steps.

He tells me straight out, “That was scary as hell.” “It just broke apart, and the wind was so strong I couldn’t hear it go.” When the wind knocks you down and you’re stumbling, all of a sudden there’s a crack that goes along a step you took to get up. “One more step to the side, and I would have fallen with it.”

It was Whittaker who was pulling the two guys together with a rope. I think Gombu would have gone down too. Instead, they stumbled down to where they had hidden their gas tanks. After getting some rest, they made it to high camp just before it got dark. Dyhrenfurth and Ang Dawa were there to welcome them with open arms. They had spent the whole day in high camp. Whittaker fell asleep in his sleeping bag while his boots were still on.

Walther’s last bottle of air ran out at midnight. By morning, all of them were either out or almost out. If the storm got worse during the night, they could have been stuck and died from edemas. Somehow, the wind had stopped, and the sky was clear. The drop to Base Camp went pretty smoothly. The icefall’s building-sized blocks stayed put as the hikers carefully made their way around them.

When the hikers got back together with their friends, they agreed not to tell anyone who had reached the top. But word got out while they were getting better at Base Camp. A message from President Kennedy soon arrived by telegram. About halfway around the world, Jim Whittaker started to be talked about in the news.

At the same time, the West Ridgers were still holding on to their dreams. The weather was terrible for one week after another. Finally, Hornbein and Unsoeld left Base Camp with five Sherpas on one of the last days they were supposed to be there. They were going to the higher camps. At Advance Base Camp, they met up with other people in the group who were also set on making a second attack on South Col. Bad weather and lack of space eventually drove them to make a tough choice: Jerstad and Bishop would be the only ones to try the South Col, while Hornbein and Unsoeld would be the only ones to try the West Ridge. The two groups were supposed to meet at the top and go down together.

After a hard all-day climb, Hornbein and Unsoeld won, but it cost them a lot. They got to the top hours after it was safe to do so, at 6:15 p.m. Fresh tracks showed that Jerstad and Bishop had climbed the South Col earlier in the day, reached the top, and then started going back down. Soon it got dark, and Hornbein and Unsoeld started to follow their friends’ steps. They were completely worn out and there was a strong wind when they amazingly came across Jerstad and Bishop lying in the snow. The four climbers snuggled together to stay warm, making what was at the time the highest mountain bivouac that had ever been tried. Thank goodness, it was quiet that night. Whittaker says, “If there had been any wind up there, they would have died of cold or been swept away.” Not getting enough air, lying on the rock face with no tent or sleeping bag. Hey.Hey.They were so worn out that they had no idea what was going on. Oh my, what a risk! Terribly careless. But they really wanted the mountain that much.

The drop the next morning was painful, and both Unsoeld and Bishop would have to have toes cut off later because they were frostbitten. The four men lived, though. Also, the West Ridge was climbed. This was such an amazing first ascent that climbers would come to think of it as more important than Whittaker’s South Col journey. One thing that Everest did that Whittaker could not have seen coming was this, and he wasn’t really to blame. The leader of his team had asked him to do the climb, and he did it thanks to his strength, drive, extreme skill, and huge bravery. But in the years to come, the climb up West Ridge would be more famous than his, and Whittaker would get a bad name for taking the easy route.

Today, Hornbein says, “It’s nice to see that the West Ridge is seen as the more important mountaineering event.” “But I see that both can fit.” Jim stuck with it even though the weather was pretty bad and other hikers might have given up.

White Beard keeps a Tibetan prayer stone that was given to him on the way home in the cabin of Impossible. He was thrilled to be the first American to climb Everest. As Hornbein says, he was always honest about his climbing goals. But he was also more aware of the beauty of the world around him. “Go down and see a flower when you get off the mountain and see the first blade of grass,” he says. Hey.Hey.Get on your knees and breathe in the beautiful smell of dirt and life. You’ll feel so thankful and humble as you do this. You know you’re lucky to be able to share the beauty of this world when you reach the bottom of Everest.

Some of Whittaker’s expedition mates were still getting better from frostbite when he shook John F. Kennedy’s hand in the Rose Garden and got the Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society. He says, “I didn’t know what effect [the climb] would have.” “I didn’t think it would get as much attention as it did.” It was a big moment for the young climber, but the killing of John F. Kennedy soon overshadowed it.

The President’s family knew how much he admired Whittaker, so when, two years later, Canada’s government named its highest unclimbed peak Mount Kennedy and asked Robert Kennedy to plant a flag on top of it, Whittaker was the clear choice to lead the climb. He called Kennedy from Seattle and asked what he was doing to get ready for the climb. “Going up and down the stairs quickly and practicing calling out “Help!”“I replied the senator. What a great idea, Whittaker thought.

The man Whittaker met for the first time right before the group left for the Yukon looked like he was in good shape. Whittaker set a normal guide pace on the mountain, which was slow enough so that the new climbers wouldn’t get too tired. Kennedy soon told him to go faster. As they got closer to the top, there was no question about who would go first. Whittaker watched as the senator climbed the last 13,905 feet of the peak and knelt to pray for his dead brother.

The climb brought the two guys together and made them friends. Whittaker spent a lot of time with the senator’s family. He would sometimes talk politics with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and a young newscaster named Tom Brokaw over dinner. He played touch football with the Kennedys and went skiing with them in Sun Valley, Idaho. Walt took his then-wife Blanche and their two young sons on the family trips. At first, Blanche seemed to enjoy her husband’s exciting new group of friends. But Whittaker could see that she was feeling uncomfortable more and more.

In 1968, Whittaker was chosen to lead the Washington State team in John F. Kennedy’s late-starting campaign for president. He was soon also going up Oregon. On the night of the California primary, June 4, Whittaker had his staff meet in a hotel suite in Seattle to watch the results. As soon as it was clear that Kennedy had won, the senator called the suite from his room in the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. to use microphones to talk to Whittaker’s group. He then went downstairs to tell everyone that he had won. After that, he left through the kitchen.

“I heard about the shooting on the radio on the way home,” Whittaker says in a soft voice. He ran straight to the airport and took a plane to L.A. He says, “They took me to the hospital.” “He was still alive, but machines were keeping him alive.” Teddy and Ethel Kennedy were the only ones in the room with Bobby. Whittaker was asked to join them in their terrible gathering. It was very clear what was wrong with the senator. He says, “The vital sign displays on the machines were flat.” Around 1:40 a.m. On June 6, the choice was made to turn off the life support. Ethel passed out as Bobby’s body turned cold and gray. Big Jim picked her up, carried her into another room, and held her there until she woke up.

Whittaker was already swept away by Everest into a world he could never have dreamed. The climb had also helped his business, REI, which was doing very well. But his marriage was going badly. Blanche became a Christian and started inviting a dozen strangers to dinner every night. The meetings got more intense until people were speaking in tongues and putting on of hands. In 1970, Whittaker had enough. He was lying in bed one night while a group of religious people shouted downstairs. Early the next morning, he told them, “I had a dream last night that I was kicking all of you out of this house!”That ended his marriage.

Carl, Whittaker’s oldest son, seemed to be the one who took the split the worst. He broke the rules at several schools before he finally got into Middlesex, a famous prep school in Massachusetts, thanks to Ethel Kennedy’s recommendation. David Kennedy was a student there. Making more friends with the troubled young Kennedy wasn’t going to solve Carl’s issues. The powerless Whittaker says, “I didn’t know what marijuana smelled like.” “As adults, we had no idea what was going on with the kids.” The boys were kicked out of school together for using drugs. Carl went back to Seattle to live by himself and finally figure out what to do. As a result of drugs, David was the first of Bobby Kennedy’s children to die in 1984.

Ever since he was a child, Whittaker wanted to climb K2, which is the second highest mountain in the world. During the Korean War, he was in Colorado with the Army’s Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command. There, he heard stories about an American fail to climb K2 in 1953. …” “Two of our teachers were on that failed try.” Whittaker says, “I remember seeing their frostbite. They had holes in their heels from lying in their sleeping bags on the ice and their heels freezing.” “That caught my attention.”

Because of its harsh weather, K2 was thought to be even more dangerous than Everest. It had only been safely climbed once, by an Italian team in 1954. Pakistan shut down its borders in 1960, but by 1975, the country was ready to let people climb again. Whittaker, who is 46 years old now, jumped at the chance to try something new. His twin brother and Dianne Roberts, a 27-year-old photographer who Whittaker had just married, were among the people he hired.

There were fights over who should be on the summit team and whether Roberts, or any woman, should have been included at all. The trip was a failure. At 22,000 feet, the hikers were hampered by bad weather. When Whittaker got back to Seattle, he sent an angry letter to the Pakistani government with 19 complaints about how the trip had been made harder than it needed to be by bad government control. This surprised him because the Pakistanis agreed to fix all 19 points.

Whittaker thought that K2 was unfinished business, so he went back there in 1978. This time, he put together a team with more Himalayan experience, but he insisted that his wife and another woman come along too, which made some hikers even more angry. Whittaker’s choice to name a summit team at the start of the trip made things more tense. He didn’t want to be involved in the back-and-forth that had surrounded his Everest trip and the first try at K2. He told everyone that neither he nor Dianne would be one of the summiters. Still, Louis Reichardt, who was on the 1978 trip, says it was a dead mistake. “The truth is that he didn’t need to do this; the same people would have gone anyway,” he says. “It made a lot of people angry.”

Whittaker had no choice but to start the climb late in the summer, near the end of the rainy season instead of before it. Pakistan had already given its one season permit to a British group. Senator Ted Kennedy had to lobby for an extra second permit to be given to Whittaker, and even then, it was only with the condition that the Americans would not come until after the British had gone up.

After going up K2’s west face, the British group was soon forced to turn around by an avalanche, so Whittaker led his team up the even tougher northeast ridge. In 1976, a Polish team was the first to try the way. They got as high as 27,000 feet before they got stuck. No one had made it all the way to the top. Whittaker and Jim Wickwire, who was also in charge of the mission, were often out in front in the days before the summit push. As they built the route, they traded leads. American Wickwire and Reichardt were the first people to reach the top of K2 on September 6. As climbing got more difficult over time, Whittaker was labeled as a beginner climber who liked big mountains. But Wickwire remembers that Whittaker did a great job with some very difficult and tricky parts of that second K2 climb. “Most leaders do nothing and let the younger guys do it.” “That wasn’t Jim,” he says of Whittaker, who was in his late 40s at the time. “Jim’s job has mostly been on big mountains; it’s just a different kind of climbing.” People who are very good at technical climbing on smaller peaks often forget how high 8,000-meter peaks are. Things that might have seemed easy to climb at a lower elevation are now much harder.

Reichardt remembers, “He didn’t care about anything on that K2 trip.” We all felt like there was a sense of purpose bigger than ourselves because Americans had tried to climb this thing so many times and so much history was tied to it. That sense of purpose would be unimaginable to someone climbing it today.

After making it to a high camp at 26,000 feet, Whittaker was very happy to have Dianne with him. He says, “K2 had magic.” “It looked lovely.” And from up there, you understand that the real world’s temples were built by God, not people.

Whittaker got a cool welcome back at REI. Instead of a pat on the back, the board of directors asked for a detailed list of all the gear the company had given for the expedition. He then quit. At age 50, the company only gave him $52,000. He says dryly that in a co-op, there are no stock options. His savings were good, and ads brought in a lot of money. Plus, he was about to start a new business. Jim O’Malley, a graduate of Wharton Business School, was inspired by Whittaker’s fame to come up with the idea of making a new line of outdoor gear to sell to REI and other stores.

Business was booming for a while. That same night, the partners’ banker called. O’Malley had ruined the business by lying on retailer bills to borrow a lot of money and not paying it back. A debt of almost a million dollars was due. Even worse, Whittaker was personally responsible for the losses because he didn’t read the small print of several contracts. Even though he had to sell his sloop, he finally bought a bigger, two-story log cabin in Port Townsend to live in with his new family. Today, he, Dianne, and their two teenage kids split their time between the Impossible and a simple ranch-style home with a mortgage. They aren’t poor, but they are pretty hard on themselves for the former CEO of a company worth $46 million with more than 700 employees when he left.

Whittaker’s fame for climbing Everest had gotten him to this point; O’Malley would not have looked for him as a business partner if it weren’t for it. Even though Whittaker was having more and more problems, his fame was giving him the chance to lead climbs he had never thought of before. Whittaker called Warren Thompson, a mountain climber who is now an institutional investor, in 1981 and asked if he would be interested in helping with a charity climb up Washington’s Mount Rainier on July 4. The climb would help guide a group of disabled climbers to the top, including blind climbers, deaf climbers, and an amputee. Thompson says, “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”

In 1985, Thompson got the idea for his own inspiring climb from hearing President Reagan muttering near a microphone that he could defeat the Soviets by pressing the nuclear button. Thompson thought that a peace climb by the US and USSR, and maybe even China, would be a dramatic contrast to the fear of the Cold War. And why not Mount Everest? People I talked to all told me, ‘You’re crazy.’ So I called Jim, asked him and Dianne to lunch, and told them about my idea. Right away, he said, “That’s great! We need to do that! The world needs us to do that!”

Whittaker borrowed money to pay for a plane ticket to Beijing, where he and Thompson talked about the plan with the Chinese Mountaineering Association. The Chinese Mountaineering Association agreed to let them climb the mountain on the Tibetan side. China told Whittaker that they would call the USSR, but the USSR would have to ask first. After that, Whittaker and Thompson took a plane to Moscow. It was the early days of perestroika, and the Soviets liked the idea. But they said they couldn’t ask the Chinese first because they might say no. Catch-22. In an exercise in shuttle diplomacy a la Kissinger, the Americans flew back to China and said they were now representing the Soviets, who wanted to take part. This was just a little white lie. The Chinese quickly sent an offer, and the Soviets accepted it.

There had to be proof for both the Chinese and the Soviets that all three teams would get to the top together. Whittaker said he would keep his word. At age 60, the climber who used to be very competitive enjoyed telling others he would stay below and lead three younger climbers to the top. He still had to get $1.2 million for the trip, but when L.L. After hearing Whittaker talk about the climb over a soft drink, Bean’s boss Leon Gorman wrote a six-figure check. The rest was easy.

Whittaker could now lead his foreign team up Everest’s easier Tibetan route instead of having to deal with the dangerous Khumbu Icefall on the Nepal side. This time, it was hard to be diplomatic. The Chinese team, mostly Tibetan climbers, and the Soviets got into a fight. Early on in the trip, a box of oxygen mask regulators went missing. It was quickly found on the plant floor in Moscow, where it had been left. Two Soviets went to the peak without bottled air, which slowed down the team and almost caused another disaster. On the afternoon of May 6, 1990, however, climbers from all three countries joined hands at the top.

Elite mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who finally climbed Everest with the U.S. team after two failed tries, was amazed at Whittaker’s ability to keep everyone calm. “It was amazing to see him work,” Viesturs says. “Both the Russians and the Chinese looked up to him.” They couldn’t argue with his strong leading skills. He really kept it together. “He was the one.”

Whittaker is most proud of that climb; he thinks it was the most successful Everest mission ever. “During the Cold War, these three countries were enemies, but we showed them what could be done by making friends and working together.” We also took trash off the top to show climbers that they needed to start taking out what they brought with them. This effort began at the top of the world.

At age 74, Jim Whittaker is going back to Everest this month. His goal this time is not very high. He wants to climb to Base Camp with Dianne and their kids on the 40th anniversary of his first ascent and raise a glass to the peak that he reached in 1963. He will be with Gombu, who he has stayed close to, and about a dozen other men from work. He has been friends with Ted Kennedy for almost 40 years, and Kennedy calls him “an Everest of integrity, loyalty, and devotion to the environment.” Kennedy will not be one of them.

From Base Camp, Whittaker knows that the mountain won’t look much different from the Everest he thought about all those years ago. It’s just not the same in another way, which is sad. Fixed ropes are now strung along the hardest parts of the South Col route that Whittaker and his fellow climbers took one step at a time. Both experienced and new climbers can use them to hold on to. Whittaker says, “You have a sling around your waist, you clamp on to the rope, and you just rest on it. You can’t fall.” “You’d die of hunger before you fell!”“

He is still the biggest supporter of climbing. Some of the best mountain climbers in the world recently came to hear him talk in Salt Lake City, where he showed slides from more than 40 years of peak-bagging. But what made everyone agree with him was when he quoted John Muir about the benefits of being high: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” The peace of nature will flow into you like sunlight flows into trees. The winds will bring you fresh air, and the storms will give you energy. Your worries will fall away like falling leaves.

It was this guy who was the first American to reach the top of Everest, says IMAX director David Breashears. “A man remembering the most important event in his life.” Besides that, he talked about how powerful nature feels and how we people have limits. It made me feel very small.

The sun has broken through the morning fog outside of Impossible’s cabin, and the sounds of other sailors’ boats leaving the dock can be heard. He shows them how to get to his truck and then up to his small house on a hill. There are pictures of K2 taken by Dianne, Whittaker as a child with his trip mates in 1963, and a beautiful picture of Whittaker with Robert F. Kennedy and Senator John Glenn on the wall in his basement office. He tells the stories behind the pictures. Ashes of a life well lived, one that was risky.

Jim Wittaker is the best-selling and award-winning author of the memoir, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond.



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