On May 1, 1963, Seattle climber Jim Whittaker became the first American to climb Mount Everest,
summiting with Sherpa Nawang Gombu. The men were the seventh and eight people to ever climb the highest mountain in the world, behind Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, and four Swiss climbers who summited in 1956. Upon their return, the American Everest Expedition members were heroes who visited the White House and met President John F. Kennedy, who would be assassinated months later. Whittaker was the first of the Americans to summit, followed by Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, who summited via the South Col route, and Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, who summited via the then-unclimbed West Ridge, a difficult route that would be repeated by only three climbers in the following 50 years.
The American Alpine Club celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Americans on Mount Everest at its annual banquet last weekend in San Francisco. Whittaker attended along with every living member of the expedition: Tom Hornbein, Norman Dyhrenfurth, Allen Auten, David Dingman, Maynard Miller, and Richard Pownall.
Whittaker recently chatted with Adventure Journal about the upcoming anniversary.
What do people always ask you about the American Everest Expedition?
What it’s like on top, I guess. They’re curious about what it was like on the highest point on earth. I tell them it was, you know, winds at 50 miles an hour and up — I’m not sure what the gusts were — and, you know, 35 below zero. And we were out a bottle of oxygen, so it was pretty hairy.
People ask, “What was the first thing you thought of? What did you think of?” and they expect this answer that’s sort of sublime and all that stuff, but the first thing we thought of was how to get down.
What kinds of things did you realize about the climb as the years went on?
As the years went on, I realized that it was quite an event. Initially I hadn’t realized the impact it might have. I knew it was a cool deal and so on and so forth, but as the years progressed, it really became, pun intended, it was the high point of my life, I guess. It means that a lot of people have remembered it and actually thanked me for being able to do it. I remind them that it was a team effort, that there were a lot of us working to get somebody up on the summit, and I was lucky enough to get the ball and make the slam dunk — but a lot of people brought the ball down the floor.
900 porters, 30 Sherpa, and 19 Americans — It was a big expedition. In those days, the only way you could do it was to get in there and live up there for a month or two, and that meant all those damn supplies, all the equipment, you know, it was a big deal — no airport to fly partway in like you can now.
What do you think the differences are on Everest in 2013 versus 1963?
There’s a big difference now. It’s in different shape. The Sherpas are now guides, not just high-altitude porters. When we were there, they were high-altitude porters because they didn’t know how to climb. So we put in the ladders, fixed ropes, all the stuff you had to do to get supplies up to high camps. Now, it’s pretty much if you can write a big check to a good guide service like Rainier Mountaineering, you have a pretty good chance of getting it, of summiting. But back then, man, you know, we had to pull all the gear together, we had to get all the donations, and raise the money and do all of that stuff. It was a hell of a job.
Do you think the meaning has changed quite a bit?
Basically people who go over there want to see if they can do it, right? I think that’s their motivation — they want to see if they can get to the top of the world. They may be more motivated ego-wise to do it.
Basically, all of us were climbers that just thought that’d be a hell of a deal, to be able to climb the highest. But we didn’t know either if we could do it, so that was a lot of the motivation — to see if we could do it. I think there’s still a lot of that, but maybe now a lot of it’s more ego-driven, more profit driven, I don’t know.
In the months leading up to the climb, a journalist asked you if you thought the team would summit, and you said, “I will.”
I was probably being a little over-confident [laughing]. But at that time, I was strong as hell. The year before we went up, I was 33. I guided on Mount Rainier, and I’d done the summit about 80 times, and I’d taken people up, and I worked out with weights, and I was very active doing stuff besides working at REI, but my life had been you know really in the mountains.
I also knew that it had been climbed, so I knew that if somebody could get up it, then what the hell, we could get up it. I just felt pretty positive about it for some reason and said, “Yeah. Damn right, we’re gonna climb it.”
What piece of gear would you take now that you didn’t have at the time?
The biggest thing, I think, is boots. I don’t want to fault the company; Lowa was a great company and made a great product. They provided us with the boots we wore almost all the time on the mountain and I wore to the summit. But it was a leather boot, and it was called a Triplex because it had three layers of leather. An inner and outer, and then it had a leather slipper for it, which was good, because you could take the inner piece of leather out and dry it, and have another one to put on. But you know, the leather, it got wet. Just walking into base camp, it got wet. Hell, they never did dry out. You know, they weighed about 3 1/2 pounds apiece, and so you’re just lifting that heavy boot with every step. You’re climbing the mountain about six times before you get to the summit because you’re shuttling back and forth getting supplies up and stuff, so you’re walking in these wet boots.
And now, they’ve got these beautiful — and Lowa does too — beautiful plastic, you know, it doesn’t get wet for god’s sake, and it’s lighter … God, they’re beautiful. I see the guys walking around and I just think, son of a bitch, they’re really lucky to have such a nice product. So that’s the big change.
But it’s funny, you know — the clothing we wore, basically, we had wool, but the down clothing we got from Eddie Bauer — there’s nothing any better now, than what we wore 50 years ago. You know, nature’s a pretty good designer.
The food is better, too. That stuff was freeze-dried cardboard. It wasn’t that good. We did carry in Spam. We had Rainier beer, too. God that was good.
What kind of relationships did you have with the other expedition members over the past 50 years?
Good. A lot of them have kicked the bucket, you know. Time marches on. There’s not a lot of them that’s left. I’m pleased and surprised that Norman’s [Dyhrenfurth, leader of the American Everest Expedition] still kicking around. Tom Hornbein is the one I’m in touch with most now. He’s on his computer all the time. I don’t use my computer that much.
[Sherpa Nawang] Gombu we had over all the time. Brought him over, brought his wife over, got her hearing aids and stuff. He worked on Mount Rainier, so he’d come over a lot, make some good money and go back to Darjeeling. So I saw him a lot up until the last year that he passed away . We’d go on treks. We did a 40th anniversary trek up to base camp with our kids. He was really close, and he was looking forward to the 50th anniversary. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite make it. He was just a wonderful guy. You couldn’t find a better guy.
You and Gombu got to within a few feet of the summit of Everest, and you told him to go first. What were you thinking?
I was thinking about Hillary and Tenzing. There was a big question that never was answered until just before Hillary died when he said he did it, that he was first. I just thought of that and the way that had created somewhat of a problem. And I figured Gombu wouldn’t. I mean, he wouldn’t say, “Okay,” and then go — he wasn’t that kind of a guy. So that meant that the two of us would walk side by side to the top, which is what we did. And that made it nice.
Yeah, we were smart enough to do that. It was blowing like a son of a bitch, and we’re just staggering, colder than hell, just staggering around, but there it was, the highest point, can’t go any higher.
How about the guy who was on his way up the mountain? How did summiting Everest change his life? Did you ever imagine you’d meet the president?
I didn’t think anything like that. We had a telegram from the president on May 2nd, the day after we climbed it. And no one know who had done it, because the team — Norman wanted to make sure there wasn’t just one or two heroes, that it would be the whole team. And that they’d know who the leader was. He complained they didn’t even know who the leader of the Hillary and Tenzing expedition was — they thought it was just those guys. He didn’t want that to happen. So it came out about six days later.
We had no idea. When we came back, we kind of couldn’t believe it. They had a parade in Seattle. Things just developed. I had no idea it was that big a deal. It was a total surprise.
It caught the public’s imagination. The sixties were kind of tough. I think they were looking for a hero.
What do you tell people who want to climb Everest?
I think it’s a good deal, if they do certain things: If they realize that it’ll be the hardest thing they’ve ever done, if they climb other mountains first, if they get 20,000 feet under their belt on McKinley or somewhere else, and really learn the sport. And they love the outdoors, love wilderness — that’s what I hope they’d bring back from it: that this is an incredible planet, and that they’re damn lucky to have been able to get to the highest point of it.
People ask me what I think, and I make enemies here when I say I’d rather see a wealthy person try and see if he can reach the highest point, and do it right by training and everything else, and listening to what the guide says, and turn around if the guide says we’re gonna turn back — if they really want to try it, I think it’s better than going out with high-powered rifles and helicopters and flying out to kill some of the most beautiful game species (what they call game species) in the world. They have the money to go out and kill these beautiful animals, and I think, God, that’s terrible, I’d rather see them challenge themselves on a mountain like Rainier or McKinley or Everest.
That’s like saying, “Would you encourage people to climb mountains?” Damn right. I’d encourage people to climb mountains, to get outside, just to get outside, for God’s sake, enjoy the natural world.
What do you think of when you think back to Everest in 1963? What are some of the snapshots that have stayed in your memory for 50 years?
The [Khumbu] icefall is the crux of it. It’s really a dangerous place. You’d never do it normally; on any other mountain, you’d find another route. We knew that. But there was no other route from that area — we had avalanches coming off both sides into the icefall, and they were awfully steep, so the icefall was the logical way to go. It was terribly dangerous. Nobody in their right mind would go through an icefall.
That was the terrible thing. That was weighing on my mind all the time I was on the mountain, too. When I was up above it, putting up the route, doing all that stuff, I thought, god, I’m going to have to get down through that. And then after we climbed the mountain, coming down with Gombu, we spent the night at Camp II, and that thing was waiting for us, that icefall. It was a terrible mess of ice that had killed Jake [Breitenbach]. That’s the last thing we gotta get over. I laid awake all night with that one, and it wasn’t until we got through it to Base Camp that I began to appreciate the fact that we’d climbed the mountain and that we were back alive.
That was the worst blow. We were only on the mountain the second day, you know? What are you going to do? You can’t go home, halfway around the world, you work for two years getting equipment and all that stuff, you got all the money from people, donations, what the hell are you going to do? You basically have to climb it. That was tough.
Do you ever sit around with Tom Hornbein and talk about how you did two of the biggest things in American mountaineering history within a couple weeks of each other and just say, “Hey, that was pretty cool”?
[Laughing] Tom’s a great guy. He’s a sweetheart. You know, you come back knowing you’ve done something like that, you feel a little bit less anxious, you don’t have a lot of fear anymore, maybe. I don’t know what it does to you. A little more laid-back, I think.
It makes you appreciate the planet, and the beauty of it, and so forth. I think one of the things that our team had that maybe some of the other teams didn’t, was that we just loved mountains. We loved to be in the mountains. I felt so at home up there, just looking at the cornices, and snow, and beautiful mountains. I felt really comfortable; I think more at home in the mountains than a lot of people.
Want to know more about one of the most important expeditions in American climbing? Check out AJ’s 50 Things About the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 American Everest Expedition.
Portrait courtesy Eddie Bauer. All other photos by Diane Roberts/Eddie Bauer