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The Man and the Mountain (Video)

Jim Whittaker remembers historic assault on Mount Everest

Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit Mount Everest. (Courtesy Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit Mount Everest. (Courtesy

By: Joel Shangle,

SEATTLE — It might seem a little odd, coming out of the mouth of an 84-year-old with two artificial knees: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

Not, however, when those knees – and that “on the edge” life motto – belong to Jim Whittaker.

Fifty years after becoming the first American to summit Mount Everest, Whittaker is enthusiastically unapologetic about the spirit that carried him to 29,029 feet, and to a lifetime as one of the most notorious adventurers on the planet.

“When I say ‘Live life on the edge,’ it’s not just a toss-off phrase,” Whittaker says as he chats with passersby in the Whittaker Mountaineering booth at a climbers’ expo in Seattle. “You have to get out there a little bit. It’s a gift to be on this damn planet, and it should be an adventure. When you get out on the edge, you get out of your comfort zone – that’s a good thing. You become aware of things, and you learn to appreciate things.”

Like a single blade of grass.

Click image to view Jim Whittaker's Mt. Everest photos

Of the many galvanizing memories that Whittaker carries of four months in 1963 – when he and a team of U.S. climbers made their historic assault on the highest mountain in the world – the simplest, most seemingly random sliver of everyday life sticks with him as powerfully as the moment he became the first American to set foot on the top of the world.

“We came off that mountain and I saw the first green grass, I thought to myself ‘My God, look at that blade of grass!’” Whittaker remembers. “It was beautiful: emerald green. I’ll never forget the color of that blade of grass. It was living. I hadn’t seen anything of the sort for so long, that blade of grass felt like the most wonderful thing in the world.”

Beauty and brutality of The Mountain

Jim Whittaker has been asked the question an uncountable number of times, of the exact moment when he and sherpa Nawang Ghombu made the final traverse to Everest’s summit on May 7, 1963: “What were you thinking when you got to the top of Mount Everest?”

The toll to get to the peak had been enormous.

Just two days into the expedition, 27-year-old Wyoming climber Jake Brietenbach had been buried under the ice on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, the 17th person to have been claimed by the mountain since the first organized assault in 1922. Several members of the 19-man American team assembled by expedition organizer Norman Dyhenfurth had fallen victim to the brutal conditions, some suffering from edema due to a lack of oxygen, others later requiring amputations due to frostbite.

“By the time we were ready to make that last push to the top, we were pretty depleted,” Whittaker admits.

At 6-foot-5 and described by fellow climber and author James Ramsey Ullman as having “the concentrated power of a locomotive,” Whittaker’s impressive physical stature had long before earned him the nickname “Big Jim” in the Western climbing community. Whittaker toiled daily to maintain his fitness level while on the expedition, often dropping to the ground to knock out a round of push-ups. Despite that, the wicked reality of four months at such extreme altitudes had carved 35 pounds from Whittaker’s 210-pound frame and sapped his strength, despite his daily consumption of 5,000 calories a day.

“There’s not enough oxygen for your body to metabolize anything, so whatever you eat goes right through you,” he says. “It was tough being up on that mountain for that long.”

Whitaker and Ghombu had foolishly stashed their water bottles outside their packs upon breaking Camp VI (high camp) at 27,450 feet the morning of their final climb, rendering them frozen solid within an hour, and the pair battling dehydration. In addition, the cold was so brutal and the wind so strong that day that one of Whittaker’s eyes was, in his words, “frozen under my goggles – I couldn’t see out of it.”

As Whittaker, and then Ghombu a few moments later, struggled the last several yards to the peak in a 50-mile-per-hour gale, planted an ice axe bearing the American flag and surveyed the Himalayan mountainside, the making of history was possibly the furthest thing from mind.

“I’ll tell you what I was thinking when I got to the top: ‘How the hell do I get off this mountain?’” Whittaker says. “When you climb a mountain, that’s only half of it. You have to get down. We were out of oxygen, in the ‘Death Zone’, the wind was blowing 50 and gusting 80, and it was 35 degrees below zero. Was I excited or thrilled? Hell no. I wanted to get off of that thing as quickly as possible.”

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From Everest forward

Whittaker’s life – both on and off what he often refers to as “the cathedrals of the world” – unfolded like an adventurer’s storybook after the historic 1963 climb.

The iconic photo of him planting the flag atop Everest became a symbol of American pride as Whittaker was named “Man of the Year” by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and celebrated on magazine covers (Life and National Geographic) and newspaper headlines throughout the country. He found himself the recipient of the coveted Hubbard Medal – other recipients include Neil Armstrong and Charles Lindbergh – and the guest of John F. Kennedy in the White House.

He broke bread with great Americans, most of whom were more keenly interested in his Everest exploits than the turbulent politics of the time (and some more than the country’s recent conquest of outer space).

“I was at a dinner party with John Glenn and Bobby (Kennedy) and all these bigwigs from the Senate, sort of hiding from the crowd,” Whittaker recalls. “I remember John Glenn talking about what it was like when he orbited the earth, how shocking it was to look down and see the Earth! Bobby gets up with his wine glass and says ‘I’d like to recognize Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mount Everest.’ He kind of winked at John, and goes ‘And a chimpanzee didn’t do it first.’ I didn’t know I’d form such long and beautiful friendships.”

Whittaker and the younger Kennedy had hit it off immediately after Whittaker was chosen to be the expedition leader for the first summit of Mount Kennedy, a 14,000-foot peak in the Mount Elias Wilderness of the Yukon Territory, named after JFK.

It was one of several monumental climbs that Whittaker undertook, including the first successful American summit of K2 (in 1975), the second-highest peak in the world and considered much more difficult than even Everest.

“K2 is a terrible mountain,” Whittaker says. “The conditions there are worse than Everest: you have 6-foot snowfalls, avalanches, the weather is even worse. It’s incredibly dangerous.”

Whittaker returned to Everest in 1990 to lead the Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb, a joint expedition of climbers from the U.S., China and the Soviet Union. “Everybody said ‘You’ll never do it’ because of the political climate,” Whittaker says of the Peace Climb. “My thought, though, was that even if we got close, or even if we got just one climber up, it’d be a success. I made it a rule that I didn’t want it to look like one country was leading another country. I wanted to climb it with arms around each other, demonstrating to the world what could be done with friendship and cooperation.”

Everest contemporary

The subject of a recent photo in National Geographic comes up in conversation with Whittaker, to which he reacts with disgust.

In the photo, perhaps the most descriptive visual in a story titled “Mount Everest: The traffic jam at 20,000 feet,” dozens of climbers cram together, crampon to crampon in a Gore-Tex bottleneck at the Hillary Step on Everest, 28,740 feet above sea level. It’s a wait-until-you-die danger that Whittaker’s son Leif – himself a two-time summiter of Mount Everest – encountered on Everest, and one that causes the elder Whittaker to cringe.

“They’re just sitting there waiting in the Death Zone,” Whittaker says, referring in climberspeak to the level above 25,000 feet where life can’t exist without oxygen. “It’s a new peril, and it’s maybe more dangerous than anything we ever saw (in 1963). They have to do something about this, dammit.

“They’re going to have to put some limits on that mountain. You have a lot of people with absolutely no climbing experience, but they say ‘I have $65,000, I’m going to climb that mountain,’ and up they go. They should have to climb some other mountains in Nepal before Everest. They’re not smart enough to know that they’re supposed to be afraid.”

Fear has been Whittaker’s ally ever since he first climbed Washington’s Mount Rainier. Despite his reputation as one of the boldest risk-takers in the sport, the possibility of the “ultimate failure” has been part of what allowed Whittaker to walk the razor’s edge between fortitude and caution on some of the world’s toughest climbs.

“When I guided, people would tell me ‘I’m afraid of heights,’ to which I responded: ‘Good! You better be afraid of heights, because I am, too’” Whittaker says. “You see these guys walking around with the T-shirt that says ‘No Fear.’ Well, I think it should say ‘Know fear.’ Nature gave us that gift to keep us alive. Fear is good, you just need to learn to control it.”

“Get them outside”

Whittaker glances to his left and spots a 10-year-old girl in a bright pink shirt and ponytail scaling the indoor rock wall at the climbing expo, and virtually shoots out of his chair.

“Look at her go!” he exclaims as he hustles across the aisle to watch, and to cheer her on. “Good job, good job!”

The girl has spent the morning hovering around the Whittaker Mountaineering booth, so she’s well aware of who the tall, lanky gentleman in the orange down vest is, offering her advice from the bottom of the climbing wall. She looks slightly starstruck, grinning from ear to ear, as Whittaker chatters with her and signs a poster for her: “To Linnea, You Are A Rock Star.”

Encouragement, though, is one thing that Jim Whittaker does exceptionally well these days.

“Our kids must be taught that life is an adventure, and that you might get a bruise or scar along the way,” he says. “It’s OK to let them stumble a little bit. They need to climb a tree, kick a can, get outside and breathe the air. I encourage people all the time ‘Get out and see different parts of the world,’ and it’s the same for our kids. If they experience the world, they’ll take care of it. And they’ll pass it on.

“The only way we’re going to save this planet is to appreciate it – get out and love it and learn about it. Global warming? What the hell is that, anyway? Let there be no borders on this planet. Let’s make a clean and safe world for our children and their children, and their children after that. If people can get their kids outside and allow them to appreciate this world, there’s a chance we can save it.”

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