Fifty years ago, in 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak at 29,035 feet.
Since then, more than a 1,000 hearty Americans have followed in his footsteps, but “Big Jim,” as the six-foot-five climber is affectionately called, was first.
In 1978, Whittaker also led the first successful American ascent of K2, the world’s second highest peak (28,252 feet), and in 1990 he brought together a Russian, a Chinese and an American on Everest’s top during the famous peace climb. But Whittaker’s 1963 Everest expedition will always define him.
This spring he re-released his autobiography, “A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond” (Mountaineers Books).I caught up with the 84-year-old legend to discuss his life and big anniversary.
Clash: Why did it take America 10 years to duplicate Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1953 Everest ascent?
Whittaker: Climbing in America wasn’t a big deal back then. I was at Recreational Equipment Inc., and we had a small inventory of ice axes and crampons, but it was just professionals. The kids hadn’t come out yet. Climbing started in Europe, so the British and Swiss had done Everest. We were just catching up.
Clash: What do you remember most about being atop Everest May 1, 1963?
Whittaker: Thinking about how to get down [laughs]. No, we crawled out of the tent early that morning at 27,000 feet. It was minus 35 Fahrenheit with 50-mph winds, 80-mph gusts. It was a snow blizzard. We couldn’t even see our feet. Hillary, who was in the valley nearby, said, “They won’t climb it today.”
Clash: Why would you even try under such conditions?
Whittaker: If we had to turn around, we’d turn around. Our team had worked for four months to get somebody on top. I had guided Mount Rainier in college and learned you’ve got to start, no matter what the weather. On Rainier you get up at midnight and climb with headlamps until it’s light.
A few times, the wind was blowing so hard that rocks were flying over the roof of the [Muir] hut at 10,000 feet. You think, “To hell with it, we’re not going” but in the morning when the wind has died and the sun has come up you’re looking at a client who has paid you to take him to the summit. You know the guy is thinking, “Why aren’t we climbing?”
Clash: Did things get better as you went higher on Everest?
Whittaker: I don’t remember that happening [laughs]. We ran out of bottled oxygen on the summit. We left a full bottle half way up. You do dumb things at altitude. We had spent two hours melting snow for water before we left. I put it in two plastic bottles, then put them in the outside of my pack.
What happens to water at 35 below? When we went to take a drink halfway up, ice! To show how really dumb I was, we put the two ice bottles back in our pack and carried them to the top, but to carry less weight we left the full oxygen bottle there.
Clash: There’s that epic shot of you on the top.
Whittaker: My Sherpa, Nawang Gombu, had probably never seen a camera, let alone taken a picture. But he held it up, then turned it to get a vertical shot. I’m thinking, “Geez, just take the picture -- don’t drop the thing.” Later a runner traveled 185 miles out with the film.
Eight days later we got a call at base camp: “Jim, we just heard from National Geographic” -- and I’m thinking, ‘Damn, the photo didn’t turn out’ -- and the guy says, “It’s beautiful!”
Clash: You guided Senator Robert Kennedy up a peak in the Yukon in 1965. What was that like?
Whittaker: After President Kennedy was assassinated, they named the highest unclimbed peak in Canada Mount Kennedy. I called National Geographic to see if they would fund a climb there. They agreed but quickly called back to say Senator Kennedy would like to go along. I asked if he had climbed before, and they said no.
I called Kennedy and told him it was going to be difficult because, as with any unclimbed peak, we didn’t know what was up there. I also asked what he was doing to get in shape. He said running up and down stairs practicing how to yell “help.”
Clash: Was he in shape?
Whittaker: Going up the mountain, there’s a picture of me turning around -- and Bobby close behind me with all this slack between us on the rope. Now we’re going up a glacier with hidden snow bridges where you can drop into a crevasse in an instant, so I said, “Bobby, could you slow a bit so the rope is taught?” He responded, “Can’t you speed it up a bit?”
When we got near the summit, I stopped 50 feet below and said, “It’s yours.” He went up and became the first human to stand on top of the peak named after his brother. He was a great guy.
Clash: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space,” is a quote of yours.
Whittaker: If you want a life that’s reasonably full, you have to go out of your comfort zone. Hell, for me it’s just coming to New York from the northwest and riding in a cab from the airport [laughs]. When you get out of your comfort zone, you learn the most about yourself.
Clash: Given all the inexperienced climbers on Everest, is another 1996 “Into Thin Air” disaster looming?
Whittaker: Without question! People who have never climbed are going up now -- and paying guides to take them.
The guide wants his $65,000, so he is motivated to get the client up. You run into situations where even guides die. My advice: Go out and climb first, knock off some smaller mountains. Find out what it’s like to be turned back. I was turned back on a lot of mountains before I got up Everest.
(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s,” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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