Forty years ago, Jim Whittaker, age 34, was selected from a group of elite mountaineers to be the first American atop Everest. That twist of fate would open up a world of soaring successes, bitter failures, public fame, and personal tragedy. He wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything.
Originally published in the May 2003 issue of National Geographic Adventure
He’s a big man still, nearly six and a half feet tall and broad-shouldered at 74, though his hair is now wispier and mostly white. At the fog-shrouded marina in Port Townsend, Washington, James “Big Jim” Whittaker looks like an old sea salt, and that he is: His steel-hulled, 54-foot sailing yacht, Impossible, where he likes to entertain visitors, is tied up at a nearby pier. But the license plate on his Chevy TrailBlazer tells the more important story. It reads “29028.” On May 1, 1963, Whittaker became the first American to climb that many feet toward the heavens to plant a flag.
Whittaker came home to national headlines, a parade in his hometown of Seattle, and a Rose Garden tribute from President Kennedy. The American conquest of Mount Everest made the covers of Life and National Geographic (the Society was one of the trip’s sponsors), and Whittaker was voted Man of the Year in Sports by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The reverberations of the Cuban missile crisis were still being felt, Cold War tensions remained high, and the race between America and the Soviet Union to put a man on the moon was under way. In that heated climate, America was ready for a new hero. With his lean good looks and modest manner, 34-year-old Whittaker stepped into the role effortlessly, an alpine Jimmy Stewart.
Whittaker’s long, still-powerful legs barely fit under the polished wood table in Impossibe’s cozy mahogany-paneled den. This is his third boat named Impossible; during flush times the first was traded in for a larger version, which was sold off years later when Whittaker’s finances crashed. For three years at the end of the 1990s—around the time that the mountain that made him famous was resurveyed at 29,035 feet—the current Impossible was home to him, his wife, Dianne, and their two young sons, Joss and Leif, as they sailed halfway around the world. A map on one wall traces the family’s route from Port Townsend across the Pacific to Australia: one more challenge in a life built on taking chances. Whittaker writes in his autobiography, A Life on the Edge: “If you stick your neck out, whether it’s by climbing mountains or speaking up for something you believe in, your odds of winning are at least fifty-fifty. If you take risks with preparation and care, you can increase those odds significantly in your favor. On the other hand, if you never stick your neck out, your odds of losing are pretty close to 100 percent.”
At the life-defining moment he stood in the frozen netherworld of Everest’s summit, gasping for air from his empty oxygen bottle, Big Jim Whittaker could not have guessed that this ascent was about to fling him into a world far beyond climbing. As Louis Reichardt, a neurobiologist who later climbed K2 with him, puts it, “Along with Willi Unsoeld, Jim is far and away the most interesting of the American mountaineers, because he’s done so much else.”
Whittaker had been flattered, but unsurprised, to have received an invitation from Swiss-born climber Norman Dyhrenfurth in 1960 to join the team he was assembling for a first U.S. assault of Everest. Both Jim and his twin brother, Lou, had established reputations by their early 30s as two of the best climbers in the Pacific Northwest. Jim Whittaker had also made a name for himself as the general manager of a small but fast-growing Seattle co-op that sold climbing gear to members at a discount—Recreational Equipment, Inc., or REI.
“I’d never been to the Himalaya before,” says Whittaker. “But I’d been to 20,320-foot-high McKinley. I’d trained hard, put 60 pounds of bricks in my backpack. I swam in Lake Sammamish in [winter] to build up to the cold we would encounter. I didn’t know anyone who was in better shape.” When the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research, which was helping to fund the expedition, asked the climbers in the summer of 1962 if they’d be able to summit, most replied, “I hope so” or “I’m going to do my best.” Whittaker’s response: “Yeah, I will.”
By the time the climb began in Nepal in February 1963, the American team had swelled to 19 members. Some were scientists or photographers or writers, but each man was fit, and every one hoped, if only privately, to reach the top himself. At the same time, all knew that just a handful, at best, would be allowed to make the final ascent, and that Dyhrenfurth would decide who they would be.
Whittaker was hardly the only team member who had never climbed a Himalayan peak: After George Mallory’s three attempts in the early 1920s and a few other British efforts in the 1930s, Everest had been more or less left alone until 1952, when a Swiss group—among them a young Norman Dyhrenfurth—had tried and failed. After Edmund Hillary’s spectacular success the next year, another Swiss team had topped out in 1956, but two subsequent Indian teams had been blown back within a few hundred feet of the summit. A Chinese team maintained that it had succeeded in 1960, but that claim is widely questioned; a quartet of inexperienced climbers, including three Americans, had reached 24,900 feet in 1962 and lived to tell the tale. And that was it.
Two of Dyhrenfurth’s climbers, however, did have experience in the Himalaya, and that gave them a different perspective. Thomas Hornbein, an anesthesiologist, and Willi Unsoeld, a Peace Corps director, felt that merely climbing in Hillary’s footsteps was too modest a goal. Why not chart a new, untried route, the West Ridge, they argued. Dyhrenfurth praised their ambition but cautioned that his priority was getting an American to the top. That was what he owed his backers. And the surest way to the top was the South Col. Once that was accomplished, he said, he was all for taking on the West Ridge.
As the climbers made their way to Base Camp, the West Ridge debate began to divide them—Hornbein and Unsoeld going so far as to advocate dumping the South Col route, others agreeing with Dyhrenfurth. Whittaker, as it happened, was a South Col man. Hornbein, in his own account of the trip, Everest: The West Ridge, refers with apparent annoyance to the sight of Whittaker “polishing off his daily five dozen push-ups.” As one of the strongest climbers, Whittaker was clearly influencing the debate and, as Hornbein and Unsoeld saw it, choosing the less adventurous route to the top.
A meandering parade of more than 900 porters brought the team’s food and equipment up to Base Camp, at 17,800 feet. Now, as most of the porters began to descend, Whittaker and a few of the team members picked their way through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, setting a route. Climbers often assess avalanche risk by observing how the snow has built up on a mountainside and factoring in the weather. There was, however, no way to predict whether the Khumbu would shift, moving blocks as big as buildings, as the climbers passed through it.
On their second day, their worst fear came true: The icefall moved precipitously, burying climber Jake Breitenbach under tons of ice and nearly killing a Sherpa with him. Breitenbach’s death was a shock and, to several of the team, reason enough to stop right there. “One guy said he wanted to go back to his children,” Whittaker recalls. “I thought, Well, I have a wife and two kids, too. Why didn’t I go back? I’d been lucky in climbing so far, and I just hoped I’d stay lucky.”
As the team neared the Death Zone—the region of dangerously thin air above 25,000 feet—one climber began to suffer pulmonary edema, another a crippling blood clot. Others just felt sick or disoriented as they went to and from Base Camp, helping their 37 remaining Sherpas carry supplies to establish the higher camps.
Whittaker, unlike the rest, chose to stay above the icefall the whole time. Five weeks of thin air without respite took its toll: He lost 25 pounds and much of his strength. But as perhaps the team’s best ice climber, he was most useful in pushing the route from each camp to the next. Also, he admits, “I didn’t like that icefall.” It scared him. Better to come back down through it only once, after summiting.
It was at Camp II that the West Ridge debate came to a head. Dyhrenfurth had told Hornbein and Unsoeld that if circumstances allowed, they could pursue the West Ridge. The plan for the South Col group, he reminded Hornbein, was to get a four-man team, and all needed supplies, up to Camp VI for the final ascent. Hornbein, however, argued that a four-man team would have only one day to make the ascent before running out of oxygen. What if the weather went bad? He advocated sending a two-man team up one day, another two men up the next. That would double their chances with the weather. It would also mean fewer Sherpas needed, allowing the balance to help Hornbein and his cohorts push toward the West Ridge at the same time. Dyhrenfurth said no: The West Ridge team would have to wait for the South Col group to summit and return. “That’s what pissed off the West Ridgers,” says Whittaker. “But we’d planned it that way, and we only had so many bodies.”
Grudgingly, the West Ridgers agreed to wait to take the mountain their way, thus winnowing further the roster of prospects who might get to the top first. After two grueling weeks spent moving camp, only a few of the South Collers remained: Whittaker and Dyhrenfurth; Lute Jerstad, a college drama teacher; and Barry Bishop, a National Geographic Society cameraman. That was when Dyhrenfurth made the summit decision, based on each climber’s skills: Jerstad and Bishop would stay down while Whittaker and Dyhrenfurth advanced to Camp VI—high camp, at 27,450 feet—for the first assault. Weather permitting, Jerstad and Bishop would make the second assault. So Whittaker had his chance—if the weather and his climbing luck held.
Since 23,900 feet, the climbers had used bottled oxygen much of the time. Now, to reserve enough for the summit, the first assault team used it sparingly. Ten Sherpas accompanied them, hauling up supplies, while the rest maintained camps below. The plan was for eight of those Sherpas to help establish high camp, then descend, leaving Whittaker, Dyhrenfurth, and the two remaining Sherpas—one for each climber—with enough bottled oxygen for the final ascent. To the climbers’ horror, however, seven of the eight Sherpas snatched up oxygen bottles from the high camp supply for their descent. “You just don’t get in a fight up there,” Whittaker says of the theft. “I suppose physically you’re too weak.”
The view from the climbers’ tent on the southwest side of the mountain that evening was sublime: The South Collers looked out at Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world, and down—way, way down—into Nepal. But now the climbers faced another threat. As night fell, the wind picked up alarmingly, to about 80 miles an hour, whipping snow and ice fragments at the canvas tent and threatening to keep the climbers from reaching the top on the one day they could attempt it before running out of oxygen.
At 4 a.m. on May 1, the men got up to make tea and hot Jell-O. In a village near Everest’s base, a visiting Edmund Hillary predicted flatly that the team would start back down: The storm was just too fierce. Dyhrenfurth and Sherpa Ang Dawa decided to wait. Resolutely, Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu opted to push on.
“It wasn’t that steep,” Whittaker explains. “You could walk—stumble—up. The hardest thing was the altitude. Even with the oxygen tanks, we were just sucking air. Put a pillow on your face, run around the block, and try to suck oxygen through that pillow. It will give you an idea. You get oxygen-deprived, so you take a few steps, breathe, and then a few more steps.” All with the wind blowing at over 50 miles an hour—and a backpack of at least 50 pounds, including two oxygen bottles at 13 pounds apiece.
Partway between high camp and the top, the climbers stashed a bottle each in the snow—no sense carrying the extra weight if neither man would need his second bottle until he returned to this point. But already such assumptions were being severely tested. As he struggled for every vertical foot in the windswept snow, Whittaker felt one eyeball freeze up under his goggles. Without binocular vision, he couldn’t judge distances well. He was soon also very thirsty, but his water bottles had frozen: Foolishly, he had stored them outside his pack.
Nevertheless, Whittaker and Gombu reached the South Summit by late morning. From there, the mountain takes a little dip before rising to its true summit. In 1953, two of the climbers in Hillary’s expedition had reached this point in advance of Hillary, only to be driven back by a faulty oxygen apparatus; by such a fluke had Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first men to summit. Whittaker and Gombu pushed forward along the narrow ridge until they reached the short cliff known as the Hillary Step.
Whittaker led the climb up the gentle slope, then belayed Gombu up behind him. He was around 50 feet from the top when he ran out of oxygen. Gombu, at only five feet two inches, had a bit left, but not much. Approaching 29,000 feet, the lack of bottled oxygen was a crisis. “If a guy flew up to that elevation and got out,” Whittaker explains, “he’d probably be dead in ten minutes. I was more acclimatized than that, but I’d had oxygen since 23,900 feet, so I wasn’t that acclimatized. And it was a few hours before I got down to the other bottle.” Too woozy to be scared, Whittaker and Gombu pushed up the last feet together. “You first, Gombu!” Whittaker shouted over the wind.
“You first, Big Jim!” Gombu shouted back.
Instead, the two men straggled up to the summit together. Weak and disoriented, Whittaker could think only of how puny he felt on this rocky pinnacle in a world of ice and snow and wind at minus 30ºF. Both out of oxygen now, their lives in serious danger, the climbers spent only 20 minutes on top before starting back down. Whittaker knew the descent was going to be treacherous. Still, as he struggled to focus with his one good eye on retracing his steps, he was stunned to see the ground give way directly ahead.
“That was scary as hell,” he says soberly. “It just dissolved, and the wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t hear it go. You’re being knocked down by the wind, and you’re staggering, and suddenly there’s this crack that goes along a footstep that you laid on the way up. One more step off to the side, and I’d have gone down with it.”
The two men were roped together, with Whittaker the anchorman. Gombu would have gone down, too. Instead, they staggered down to their stashed oxygen bottles. Refreshed, they reached high camp just before nightfall. Dyhrenfurth and Ang Dawa were there to greet them enthusiastically. The two had stayed in high camp all day. Whittaker collapsed onto his sleeping bag with his crampons still on.
At midnight, Whittaker’s last bottle of oxygen ran out. By morning, the others, too, were either out or nearly so. Had the storm worsened through the night, they might have been trapped and suffered fatal edemas. Miraculously, the wind had died down, and the sky was clear. The descent to Base Camp was relatively uneventful. Even the building-size blocks of the Khumbu Icefall stayed put as the climbers gingerly picked their way around them.
Reunited with the rest of their comrades, the climbers made a pact not to divulge which of them had reached the top. But even as they recovered at Base Camp, word got out. Soon came a telegram from President Kennedy. Halfway around the world, headlines began making a household name of Jim Whittaker.
Meanwhile, the West Ridgers were still nursing their own hopes. One week, and then another, brought brutal weather. Finally, on one of the last scheduled days in Base Camp, Hornbein and Unsoeld set off, accompanied by five Sherpas, for the higher camps. At Advance Base Camp, they met up with others in the group who were determined to make a second South Col assault. Eventually, bad weather and logistics forced a hard decision: Only two of those climbers, Jerstad and Bishop, would try the South Col, while just Hornbein and Unsoeld would attempt the West Ridge. The hope was for the two groups to meet at the top and come back down together.
Hornbein and Unsoeld prevailed after a brutal all-day climb, but at a terrible cost. They reached the summit at 6:15 p.m., hours later than was safe. They saw from fresh footsteps that Jerstad and Bishop had come up the South Col earlier in the day, reached the top, and started back down. Hornbein and Unsoeld began following their teammates’ footsteps as darkness closed in. Utterly exhausted, in a still-fierce wind, they amazingly encountered Jerstad and Bishop, lying in the snow, dangerously spent themselves. The four climbers huddled together for warmth, establishing what was then the highest mountain bivouac ever attempted. Mercifully, the weather that night was calm. “If there had been any wind up there,” says Whittaker, “they’d have died from hypothermia or been swept away. Out of oxygen, lying on the outcrop, no tent, no sleeping bags . . . They didn’t even know what was going on, they were so wiped out. Jeez, what a risk! Terribly reckless. But they wanted the mountain that badly.”
The next morning’s descent was painful, and both Unsoeld and Bishop would later have frostbitten toes amputated. But the four men survived. And the West Ridge was won—an extraordinary first that, among climbers, would come to seem more historic than Whittaker’s South Col ascent. This was but one consequence of Everest that Whittaker could never have predicted, and for which he could hardly be blamed. He had done the climb that his team leader had asked him to do and had succeeded out of strength and determination, extraordinary skill and monumental daring. Yet in the years to come, the West Ridge ascent would overshadow his own, and there would be an unfair rap that Whittaker had taken the easy way up.
“It’s satisfying to see the West Ridge regarded as the more significant mountaineering event,” Hornbein says today. “But I see there’s room for both. Jim gutsed it out under some fairly fragile weather conditions that might well have turned back other climbers.”
In the cabin of Impossible, Whittaker keeps a Tibetan prayer stone given to him on the homeward trek. He was thrilled to be the first American to conquer Everest—he was, as Hornbein says, always up-front about his climbing ambitions—but also newly appreciative of the natural beauty around him. “When you come off the mountain and see the first blade of grass,” he says, “then go lower and see a flower . . . get down on your knees and smell that beautiful smell of dirt, the life that exists, you feel so humble and grateful to be alive. We’re so damn lucky to be able to share the magic of this planet, and you realize that when you come off Everest.”
Several of his expedition mates were still recovering from frostbite when Whittaker shook John Kennedy’s hand in the Rose Garden and received the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal. “I didn’t realize what impact [the climb] would have,” he says. “I didn’t think it would catch the imagination of the public as much as it did.” It was a shining moment for the young climber—but within months, it was eclipsed by Kennedy’s assassination.
The Kennedy family had noted the President’s genuine admiration for Whittaker, and so, two years later, when the Canadian government named its country’s highest unclimbed peak Mount Kennedy and invited Robert Kennedy to plant a flag on its summit, Whittaker was the obvious choice to guide. On the phone from Seattle, Whittaker asked Kennedy what he was doing to get in shape for the climb. “Running up and down the stairs and practicing hollering ‘Help!’ ” the senator replied. Oh, great, thought Whittaker.
The man Whittaker met for the first time just before the group headed up to the Yukon was reassuringly fit. On the mountain, Whittaker set a standard guide pace—slow enough not to burn out the novices. Soon, Kennedy asked him to go faster. As the group approached the summit, there was no question of who would go first: Whittaker stood back as the senator scaled the last of the peak’s 13,905 feet and knelt in a private moment of prayer for his murdered brother.
The climb forged a friendship between the two men. Whittaker visited often with the senator’s family, sometimes talking politics around the dinner table with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and a young broadcaster named Tom Brokaw. He played in the Kennedys’ famous touch football games and skied with them in Sun Valley, Idaho. On the family trips, Whittaker brought his then-wife, Blanche, and their two young sons. At first, Blanche seemed to enjoy her husband’s heady new social world. But increasingly, Whittaker saw, she felt uncomfortable.
In 1968 Whittaker was selected to head up the Washington State team in Kennedy’s late-starting presidential campaign. Soon he was heading up Oregon, too. On June 4, the night of the California primary, Whittaker had his volunteers gather in a Seattle hotel suite to watch the returns. When Kennedy’s victory was confirmed, the senator called the suite from his room in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel to address Whittaker’s group through a set of loudspeakers. Then he went downstairs to announce his win. And then he went out through the kitchen.
“I heard the news on the radio driving back home,” Whittaker says softly of Kennedy’s shooting. Immediately, he raced to the airport and flew down to L.A. “They took me to the hospital,” he says. “He was still alive but being kept alive by machines.” Only Teddy and Ethel Kennedy were in the room with Bobby. Whittaker was invited to join them in their awful vigil. The senator’s condition was all too clear. “The vital-sign indicators on the machines were flat,” he recalls. At about 1:40 a.m. on June 6, the decision was made to cease life support. As Bobby’s body turned cold and gray, Ethel fainted. Big Jim gathered her up and carried her into another room, holding her until she regained consciousness.
Already, Everest had swept Whittaker into a milieu he never could have imagined. The climb had benefited his business, too: REI was booming. But his marriage was derailing. Blanche had become a born-again Christian who invited a dozen strangers to dinner each night for evenings that built up to speaking in tongues and the laying on of hands. One night in 1970, lying in bed as a group of the faithful chanted downstairs, Whittaker decided enough was enough. The next morning he announced to them, “I had a vision last night—and it was of me throwing every one of you out of this house!” With that, his marriage was over.
Carl, Whittaker’s oldest son, seemed to take the divorce the hardest. Breaking rules at one school after another, he eventually landed in Middlesex, the well-known Massachusetts prep school, at the suggestion of Ethel Kennedy, whose son David was there. A closer bond with the troubled young Kennedy was not the answer to Carl’s problems. “I didn’t know what marijuana smelled like,” Whittaker says helplessly. “So we didn’t know as adults what was happening to the kids.” The boys were expelled together for drug use. Carl returned to Seattle to live on his own, eventually to find his way. David became the first of Bobby Kennedy’s children to die, in drug-related circumstances, in 1984.
Even before Everest, Whittaker had nursed a dream of climbing the world’s second highest mountain. As a member of the Army’s Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command in Colorado during the Korean War, he had heard stories of a failed American effort to scale K2 in 1953. “Two of our teachers had been on that unsuccessful attempt. I remember seeing their frostbite: They had holes in their heels, because they’d lain in their sleeping bags on the ice and their heels froze,” Whittaker remembers. “That attracted my interest.”
Considered even more dangerous than Everest because of its brutal weather conditions, K2 had been climbed successfully only once, by an Italian team in 1954. In 1960, Pakistan closed its borders, but by 1975 the country was once again willing to grant climbing permits. Whittaker, now 46, seized the opportunity to try a new approach. His recruits included his twin brother and a 27-year-old photographer named Dianne Roberts, whom Whittaker had just married.
The trip was a disaster, riven by feuds about who should be on the summit team and about whether the relatively untested Roberts—or any woman—should have been included. Bad weather, in any event, stymied the climbers at 22,000 feet. Upon returning to Seattle, Whittaker sent an angry missive to the Pakistani authorities, listing 19 grievances about sloppy governmental oversight that had made the trip harder than it needed to be. To his surprise, the Pakistanis responded by agreeing to rectify all 19 points.
Whittaker considered K2 unfinished business, and so, in 1978, he returned. This time he assembled a team with more Himalaya experience, but to the fresh indignation of several climbers, he also insisted that his wife and another woman come along. Greater tensions arose from Whittaker’s decision to name a summit team at the outset of the expedition. He wanted to avoid the jockeying that had characterized both his Everest trip and the first K2 attempt; he declared that he himself would not be one of the summiters, nor would Dianne. Still, says 1978 expedition member Louis Reichardt, it was a fatal mistake. “The truth was, this was unnecessary: The same people would have gone whether he named them or not,” he says. “It resulted in a lot of resentment.”
The climb began late in the summer, toward the end of monsoon season instead of before it, but Whittaker had had no choice. Pakistan had already granted its one permit for the season to a British group and had granted an extraordinary second permit to Whittaker only through the intercession of Senator Ted Kennedy, and even then only with the proviso that the Americans not arrive until after the British had gone up.
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The British group had headed up K2’s west face (they would soon be turned back by an avalanche), so Whittaker had chosen to lead his team up the even more challenging northeast ridge. A Polish team had pioneered the route in 1976 and reached 27,000 feet before stalling. No one had taken it all the way to the top. Often, in the days leading to the summit push, Whittaker was out in front with fellow expedition head Jim Wickwire, trading leads as they put in the route. On September 6, Wickwire and Reichardt became the first Americans atop K2. Later, as the sport became more technical, Whittaker would be tagged as a climber of rudimentary skill who just happened to take on big mountains. But Wickwire remembers very tough, technical aspects to that second K2 climb that Whittaker handled with aplomb. “Most leaders tend to stay down and let the younger guys do it. That wasn’t Jim,” he recalls of Whittaker, by then in his late 40s. “The fact that Jim’s career has been mainly big mountains—it’s just a different kind of climbing. The brilliant technical climbers of smaller peaks tend to forget how much altitude counts with 8,000-meter peaks. Climbing that might seem easier at a lower altitude is suddenly much harder.”
“He was completely selfless on that K2 trip,” Reichardt recalls. “It’s hard to appreciate now, but we all felt that Americans had tried to climb this thing so many times, so much history was wrapped up in it, that there was a sense of purpose larger than self—a sense that would be inconceivable to someone climbing it today.”
Whittaker was more than satisfied to get up to a high camp at 26,000 feet—and to have Dianne be there with him. “K2 had magic,” he says. “It was beautiful. You realize, when you’re up there, that the true cathedrals of the world were built by the Creator, not by man.”
Back at REI, Whittaker got a cool reception. Instead of slaps on the back, he got a request from the board of directors for an itemized accounting of the gear the company had provided for the expedition. So he retired. At 50, he received only a $52,000 payout from the company; in a co-op, as he observes dryly, there are no stock options. But he had some money saved, a good income from endorsements—and, soon, a new business opportunity. Drawn by Whittaker’s fame, a Wharton Business School graduate named Jim O’Malley proposed manufacturing a new line of outdoor gear to sell to REI and other retailers.
For a while, business throve. Then came a call from the partners’ banker: O’Malley had ruined the company by inflating invoices from retailers to borrow large sums, which he’d failed to repay. Almost a million dollars was owed. Worse, as a result of neglecting to read the fine print of various contracts, Whittaker was personally liable for the losses. He was forced to sell his sloop, though eventually he replaced it by selling the big, two-story log cabin he’d built in Port Townsend to house his new family. Today, he and Dianne and their two teenage sons split their time between the Impossible and a modest ranch-style home with a mortgage on it—not destitute, but pretty hard apples for the ex-CEO of a company worth, at his departure, $46 million, with more than 700 employees.
In a sense, it was Whittaker’s Everest fame that had brought him to this pass: Without it, O’Malley never would have sought him out as a business partner. Yet even as Whittaker’s troubles mounted, fame was giving him a chance to lead climbs unlike any he’d imagined before. Warren Thompson, a mountaineer who is now an institutional investor, received a call from Whittaker in 1981 asking if he’d be interested in helping with a Fourth of July charity climb up Washington’s Mount Rainier, in which a group of climbers with disabilities—blind climbers, deaf climbers, an amputee—would be guided to the summit. “It was the most amazing experience of my life,” says Thompson.
Thompson got his own idea for an inspirational climb in 1985 after listening to President Reagan’s remark, muttered inadvertently near a microphone, about vanquishing the Soviets by pressing the nuclear button. A peace climb undertaken by Americans and Soviets—and maybe the Chinese—would be a dramatic counterpoint to Cold War paranoia, Thompson mused. And why not Everest? “Everyone I talked to said, ‘You’re nuts.’ And so I called Jim and invited him and Dianne to lunch and told them about my idea. He instantly said, ‘That’s great, we have to do that, the world needs us to do that.’ ”
Whittaker borrowed money so that he and Thompson could fly to Beijing and broach the idea with the Chinese Mountaineering Association, which granted permits to the Tibetan side of the mountain. The Chinese told Whittaker they would invite the Soviets—but that the Soviets would have to ask first. Whittaker and Thompson then flew to Moscow. The Soviets liked the idea—these were the early days of perestroika—but said they couldn’t ask the Chinese first; they might be turned down. Catch-22. In a Kissingeresque exercise in shuttle diplomacy, the Americans flew back to China and declared that they were now representing the Soviets, who wanted to participate: a little white lie. The Chinese promptly issued an invitation; the Soviets accepted.
Both the Chinese and the Soviets had to be assured that all three teams would reach the summit together. Whittaker gave them his word. At 60, the once keenly competitive climber now took pleasure from promising he’d stay below and get a triumvirate of younger mountaineers to the top. He still had to raise $1.2 million for the expedition, but when L.L. Bean’s chairman, Leon Gorman, wrote out a six-figure check after listening to Whittaker describe the climb over a soft drink, the rest was easy.
Now, instead of having to negotiate the dreaded Khumbu Icefall on the Nepal side, Whittaker could lead his international team up Everest’s easier Tibetan approach. Diplomacy was the challenge this time. Tensions flared between climbers on the Chinese team—Tibetans, mostly—and the Soviets. Early on, the trip almost unraveled when a box of oxygen mask regulators turned up missing; it was shortly found on the factory floor in Moscow, where it had been left. Disaster nearly struck again when two Soviets departed for the peak without bottled oxygen, slowing down the team. But on the afternoon of May 6, 1990, climbers from the three superpowers linked hands on the summit.
Elite mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who finally scaled Everest as part of the U.S. team after two earlier failed attempts, marveled at Whittaker’s ability to calm the three contingents. “It was phenomenal to watch him work,” Viesturs recalls. “The Russians and the Chinese all respected him. He had this commanding leadership ability they couldn’t argue with. He full-on kept it together. He was the guy.”
That climb is the one Whittaker is proudest of; he considers it the most successful expedition in Everest history. “We took the three countries that were enemies during the Cold War and demonstrated what could be done through friendship and cooperation. We also hauled garbage off the top, sending a message that climbers had to start packing out what they packed in, and started that campaign from the highest point on Earth.”
This month, at age 74, Jim Whittaker is returning to Everest again. This time, his goal is modest. On the 40th anniversary of his first ascent, he plans to climb to Base Camp with Dianne and their sons and raise a glass to the peak that he scaled in 1963. With him will be Gombu, to whom he has remained close, and a dozen or so other colleagues. Not among them will be his friend of almost 40 years, Ted Kennedy, who describes the mountaineer as “an Everest of integrity, loyalty, and devotion to the environment.”
From Base Camp, Whittaker knows, the mountain will look little changed from the Everest he pondered in 1963. In another sense, sadly, it’s simply not the same. Along the South Col route that Whittaker and his fellow climbers attacked step by step, fixed ropes are now strung along the difficult sections for experts and novices alike to cling to. “You have a sling around your waist, and you clamp on to the rope, and just rest on it, and you can’t fall,” Whittaker says with disgust. “You’d starve to death before falling!”
He is still climbing’s biggest booster. At a recent Salt Lake City speaking engagement attended by some of the world’s elite mountaineers, he showed slides from more than four decades of peak-bagging. But what left the crowd nodding in agreement was his quoting John Muir on the rewards to be found only at altitude: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
“Here was this guy who was the first American atop Everest,” recalls IMAX filmmaker David Breashears. “A guy looking back on the major moment of his life. And he talked about the feeling of the power of nature and knowing our limitations as humans. It was very humbling.”
Outside Impossible’s cabin, a bright sun has broken through the morning fog, and other sailors’ voices echo off the water as their boats thrum out of the harbor. Whittaker leads the way to his truck and then up to his small hillside house. In his basement office, he tells the stories behind the pictures on the wall: an aerial shot of K2 taken by Dianne; one of the youthful Whittaker flanked by his 1963 expedition mates; a lovely snap of Whittaker with Robert F. Kennedy and Senator John Glenn. Mementos of a life—a risky life—well lived.