A Life on the Edge: An Interview with Jim Whittaker
The business side is low-key: A simple, stylized mountain logo, his name, and the words “Adventurer, Author, Speaker.” But turn it over and you'll find a picture of Whittaker--or "Big Jim," as he was known then and ever since--standing astride the summit of the tallest mountain on the planet, ice axe raised over his head in what must have been a heady mix of triumph, joy, and disbelief (relief would have to wait until after the descent). He was--is--the first American to accomplish the feat, and either the 10th or 11th overall, depending on how you're counting. Nawang Gombu, who took that picture, was Whittaker's climbing partner that day--May 1, 1963, 50 years ago tomorrow--and as Big Jim tells it, they chose to summit as a team, together.
Whittaker's and Gombu's achievement wasn't the only highlight of the expedition. Three weeks later, on another spine of Everest’s three-sided pyramid, Thomas Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld drove a new route up the perilous West Ridge, over the summit, and down Whittaker's South Col route, pausing overnight to bivouac at 28 thousand feet. It was the first traverse of an eight-thousand meter peak, but they had no choice—their route up provided no way back down. As an incredible feat of daring and perserverance, mountaineers consider it to be one of the greatest accomplishments in Everest (and climbing) history. Even a half-century later, it has been rarely repeated.
May 1, 1963, was a life-changing moment for Whittaker: He suddenly found himself befriended by the Kennedys--vacationing with the family and hosting them in his own home--and later ran RFK’s campaign in Washington State; he became CEO of REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated--he was previously its first full-time employee); he led two expeditions to K2, the second of which put the first Americans atop the world’s second-highest peak; and he returned to Everest in 1990 to lead a team comprised of Cold War antagonists to the top. And those are just the highlights.
But the unassuming kid from West Seattle stayed the same. He simply feels amazed at his own fortune: lucky.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary, Mountaineers Books has published extraordinary new editions of Whittaker’s autobiography, A Life on the Edge, and Hornbein’s account of his and Unsoeld’s epic climb, Everest: The West Ridge. Both are oversized hardcovers, filled with incredible images (many by Whittaker’s wife, Dianne Roberts, who photographed their K2 expeditions and has an amazing business card of her own), with new forewords by climber/authors Ed Viesturs and Jon Krakauer. These are essential books for mountaineers, armchair or otherwise.
When you look at pictures of these men, they are almost always smiling (especially Unsoeld), even as some of them are ported down mountains without so many of the toes they started up with. Certainly there are grittier images available, and maybe those are just the pictures they selected for the books, but I'd like to think not. When asked why he was so determined to climb Everest, British climber George Mallory famously said, "Because it's there." Whittaker, Tom Hornbein, and the rest of the 1963 expedition didn't climb the mountain because it was there; they climbed it because they were here, present on what Big Jim calls “this magical planet.” They were living with purpose, and they knew it. Jim and Dianne still are.
Though he’s been busy with media and events to mark the date, Jim and Dianne made time to stop by the Brave Horse Tavern in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood for a chat about Everest, the Kennedys, and more. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
(Click here to learn more about Everest, K2, and other classics of mountaineering—many of which are published by Mountaineers books--and visit Jim Whittaker’s web site for more information, including additional photographs from his personal collection. )Jon Foro: You were specifically picked for the Everest team due to your Mt. Rainier experience. Did that prepare you the way you thought it might?
Jim Whittaker: I guided on Rainier through college, for three summers, and I climbed a lot, and I was on the ski patrol. So I'd done a lot of different things in the outdoors. (On McKinley, we had an accident--one of our team got a broken ankle and it took us a while to get down. I meant to ask Norman [Dyhrenfurth, the expedition leader] whether that was what really drew his attention, because it was on nation-wide news that we were stranded on the summit of Mt. McKinley.)
Yeah, it did, it did. The thing is, the Northwest has got the glaciers. The East Coast, The middle states, even the Rockies don't have the glaciers. But here, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, they've got snow and ice--everything that Mount Everest has except that extra fourteen thousand feet. We have the crevasses, the seracs, we've got the weather--incredibly bad weather could hit.... So it was a great training ground. So I went over fairly confident--maybe overconfident--that we could knock off the mountain.
JF: How much more intense was it once you got there? You mention the irony is that the hardest part of climbing Everest--from the South anyway--is the Khumbu Icefall. [If a glacier is a frozen river, then the icefall is a cataract in freeze-frame--except when it's not. 10-story blocks of ice, called seracs, frequently—and utterly unpredictably—tumble free.]
JW: Yeah, from Nepal, exactly. The icefall that the whole team had to get through. This is an objective danger over which you have no control. You don't know when that wall's going to come off, when the glacier's going to move.
You look at it and you think, “This is crazy.” Any sane mountaineer would never climb it. It's like looking at the Nisqually Icefall on Rainier, and you think, "What the hell would you want to go up that icefall for?" So you go up the Cowlitz or the Ingraham [glaciers]. Nobody wants to be there, because it's just luck--you don't know when blocks of ice as big as this building will come off. It's a roll of the dice. The first day, we set a route all the way up. Unsoeld, who was the climbing leader at the time, said, "Jim, you're the ice guy. Go for it." I said, "Yeah, OK Willi." [laughs]
Looking at this wall, I had to jump a crevasse to get onto the wall. I started up and I don't get all the way--I poop out. And Willi said, "Jim, you're turning blue." That's when I began to realize that the altitude is such a difficult thing to overcome. When I first got there [base camp], I looked at this thing and I thought, "What the hell. We're only talking about 11,000 vertical feet from this camp." OK, Rainier is 9,000 vertical feet from Paradise to the summit ... A couple more vertical feet... I can do Rainier in five hours and 20 minutes, to the summit."
JF: No problem.
JW: No problem! So again I start out the first day, and man, I'm just sucking air. You're going into the Death Zone.
I was 34 then. I was in terrific shape--I trained a couple of years just to build up and be ready for it. But then I realized, "Ohhh. This is going to take a while." I came down, and then the next day Jake [Breitenbach] was killed in the icefall. The second day on the mountain--the second day of climbing--after a month of walking in to get to the bottom of the mountain.
JF: But at that point there was really no going back, after years of planning.
JW: Most of us thought that. But some thought that they wanted to come back home.
JF: So then, when you're on an expedition like this, it takes weeks to ferry supplies up the mountain....
JW: Almost six weeks. Basically you tried to put a camp a day apart with enough supplies. So you've got to camp high enough to go to the summit and get back to that camp in one day.... It took us six camps, up to 27,500 feet.
JF: Usually climbers make the final attempt from the South Col, right? [A saddle between Everest and the neighboring peak—about 26 thousand feet in elevation]
JW: They do now, because there's a route. They know the route. We didn't know the route. We couldn't find it in the darkness.... We had to have daylight, so we left at daybreak and made it back just before dark. The team [three] weeks later didn't get back in time--they were trapped by darkness and had to spend the night out, a bivouac.
JF: That's a night out.
JW: Jeez! The highest bivouac in the world. Twenty-eight thousand feet--without tents, without sleeping bags, without bottled oxygen.
JF: When you made your attempt for the top, it was you and Gombu, who was one of the Sherpas with you. How did you get over the Hillary Step? The Hillary Step is… I'll let you explain it since you've been there.
JW: It's steep [laughs]. It's steep, and it's what stopped the first team of the British when they got up to that point. They looked up at that and said, "We're going to turn back." And then the next day, Hillary and Tenzing got up to that point, and as Hillary said, "We knocked the bastard off." [Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first climbers to summit Everest—at least the first confirmed summiters—JF]
Some people who have done that said they couldn't imagine doing that technical climb at that altitude, which makes it even more difficult. Do you know what a cornice is?
JW: I was looking up at it and there's a cornice going into Tibet, overhanging Tibet. So I could, there's place between the rock and the snow where I could wedge in, so I climbed up it--and it was difficult--and then I belayed Gombu up. And then we went along the final section until we got to the top. It's not that far once you get on top. You go over the South Summit and a little saddle.
We only spent 20 minutes. We got up there and we thought, "Son of a bitch. We climbed it."
JF: And you were short on oxygen.
JW: We ran out on the summit, so we were sucking air. We were in the Death Zone. Nothing supports life above 20 thousand feet. You die at 21 or 22 thousand feet because your body won't oxidize food--you can't metabolize, so eventually you'll die. And the higher you go, the more you run out of oxygen. So there, we didn't know how long we could live. Hillary had taken his mask off on the summit and timed it. And it didn't feel good, so he put it back on. So we're kind of pushing the boundary, we're at the death line. We had to get down. I said "Gombu, we've got to get down. We've got to get down." We had to get down to a tank that we left halfway up. Instead of carrying two 13-pound bottles of oxygen, we dropped one where I thought there'd be enough oxygen in the other to go to the summit, and back down to that tank. Then we only carry 13 pounds.... But we ran out.
JF: You had a 45-pound pack, too.
JW: Yeah--a heavy pack. Two cameras. I had a radio, which didn't work. I had an Eddie Bauer sleeping bag, in case we had to bivouac. And two water bottles that were ice. DUMB. We spent a couple hours melting ice for water, then we stick them in the outside pocket of our pack.... 35 below zero. [laughs] And then, to show how dumb we were, when I got the bottle and went to take a drink, you know, "I'll be damned! It's ice!" We put them both back in the pack and carried the ice up. Extra weight up to the summit and back down. Solid ice. It was DUMB.
There’s a snow plume going off the summit [Everest’s peak is literally in the jet stream, and a strong wind is usually blowing into Tibet—JF]. Hillary was in the valley next door doing a school for the Sherpa, and he looked up the mountain and said, "Nobody will climb the mountain today."
JF: But you did it.
JW: [groans] It was a hell of a day. Nobody else left their tents that day, on the team. Too friggin' cold! The weather's lousy!
You have to leave. You had two years getting equipment together. Jake was killed. You’ve got to go. You’ve got to go.
JF: Did it matter to you at all that you were the first on your team, or the first American?
JW: I was delighted to do it. In a way it freed up Hornbein and Unsoeld to attempt the West Ridge. If I hadn't gotten it, they wouldn't have had a chance to try the West Ridge. Because the object was that we going to try to get an American to the top. That was the goal.
JF: Was there a lot of competition between the South Col team and West Ridge teams?
JW: Yeeeah, but it was all gentlemanly. Hornbein was considered somewhat of a nut [laughs]. Give credit to Dyhrenfurth and to Unsoeld. Willi was good. He was the climbing leader on the mountain; Dyhrenfurth was the official leader. But Willi kind of held down Tom a little bit. We were competing to get some of the high-elevation porters to carry on our side. They [the West Ridgers] wanted them to carry on the West Side. We put the camps in, but they wouldn't help us put supplies in. We put fixed rope in so that they would not fall off going up. And most of the team went to the West Ridge. There were only a few of us on the South Col route. That bothered me some, because there were only four of us trying to put the route in. And yeah, we were extended.
JF: In your book, the Everest chapter ends probably a third through it—there’s a lot that happens after. When you came back, one of the first things you did was greet the president. After he was assassinated you led Bobby up Mt. Kennedy in Canada, which had been recently renamed after JFK. What was it like for a kid from West Seattle to become tight with a family like the Kennedys? [There’s a wonderful picture in the book of Jim teaching “John-John” to ski while Jackie looks over their shoulders--JF]
JW: I was delighted about Kennedy. That's one of those times when your tears freeze on your parka. I stopped below the summit, and I said, "Bobby, it's yours." And so he walked the last 50 feet in unbroken snow to stand on top of the peak named after his brother, the highest unclimbed mountain in Canada. And he was the first human being... the first ascent of Mt. Kennedy.
But then we're back in Washington D.C. I did the [National Geographic] article, and Bobby says, "Stay with me.” So he has a party. I'm sitting at the table, a kid from West Seattle, and here's McNamara--
JF: Robert McNamara?
JW: Yeah, Robert McNamara. And all these dignitaries from all over the place. John Glenn was there. And I was sitting down, just hunkered down, trying to hide from all these guys. And then John Glenn goes [taps his water glass with a spoon] and he stands up.
He's the man who orbited the planet a year earlier--the first American to orbit the planet--and he says, "I'd like to make a toast to Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mt. Everest, and a chimpanzee didn't do it first." What a neat guy! He became a good friend.
JF: Can we talk a little about the 1990 Mt. Everest Peace Climb?
JW: Before the [Berlin] Wall came down I said, "What can we do?” Why not have a climb with Soviets, Chinese, and Americans? Rope them up to someone who is an enemy, trusting your lives to that person. And you're going to climb together, and stand an American, a Soviet, and a Chinese on the summit with their arms around each other, demonstrating for the world what can be done through friendship and cooperation.
It was 20 years of Earth Day in 1990. So, two goals: Put the three countries on the summit. Clean the planet off from the top down. And so we did it. We did it. We buried two tons of garbage, and we put 20 people on the summit, which is amazing.
Dianne Roberts: That was before the big guided climbs started. Now they take these gigantic parties--sometimes there's 50 people.
JW: We had no Sherpa help. We did all the stuff ourselves. We carried the loads, we put the tents in, put the camps in. We put the first Soviet woman on the summit. It was amazing that this worked. Everybody said, "My God. International expeditions don't work just because people eat different food." We didn't even speak the same language in some cases. Needed interpreters.
DR: We had a giant satellite dish. We had to get all this permission from the military to be able to take this satellite phone over there. There were only two of them that existed and one of them broke. I was at home [in Port Townsend, WA] managing affairs, because our kids were really little. The expedition was treated like was a ship operating at sea, so if I would try to call them on Everest when they didn't have the phone turned on--they had to start the generator to do it--I would get a message saying that "The ship that you are calling is not operating in this ocean at this time. Please try your call later." And our phone bill was $17,000 for one month!
JW: It was great. I talked to Bush--to President Bush--at 4 o'clock in the morning. Near a Coleman stove and lantern, sitting there in a tent at -20 degrees. The phone rang. "Mr. Whittaker, I've got the president on the phone." "Hello, Jim...."
JF: To Dianne's point about the change in climbing culture. With so many people buying their way to the top, do you think it diminishes the accomplishment? Or do you think it's beneficial to expose more people to this kind of experience?
JW: [pauses] Yeah... yes. [laughs]
Ah, look. For one thing, it's good, I think, for the Sherpa. It's really lifted the economic opportunities of the Sherpa, more so than in Kathmandu. But the mountain is too full of people. They're going to have to regulate some of the activity, because you don't want to have bottlenecks. Our son, Leif, had to wait an hour for people that were coming down off the Step--the Hillary Step--before he could go up. It's really narrow, with the pitch. And you're breathing [bottled] oxygen. If you run out, you're going to die. Nowadays, these are the hazards, just from the population.
JF: That was the problem with the '96 tragedy.
JW: A lot of people on top, but they were too late and they couldn't find their way off. When you reach the summit of the mountain, that's half the climb. You’ve got to get back off.
DR: I definitely was.
JW: Dianne went to 26,000 feet on K2 without any bottled oxygen. She set the altitude record for women.
JF: What would you like people to take away from both of those achievements?
JW: Life is an adventure--as it should be. Exploring and doing... Get outside before you leave this magical planet. That's the message I'd like to get out, is that nature's a wonderful teacher. Get outside. "No child left inside."
Explore this magic planet. Get out there. Some of them will learn to love it, and if they love it, they'll take care of it. You're not going to vote for a virgin forest if you don't know what the hell a forest is. You're not going to protect the sea if you haven't sailed or if you haven't stood on the shore and looked at the incredible 70% of the planet that is liquid.
JF: Last question. I asked Ed Viesturs this, too. Have you ever seen a yeti?
JW: [laughs] Ah. One night, at Camp IV, up high on the Lhotse face. I was there with Gombu, and there was a whistling noise. And Gombu said, "Jim! Jim! Yeti? Yeti?" I think … their mothers said If you aren't a good boy, the Yeti's gonna get you. But I said, "Wind whistling through tent poles, Gombu. Wind through tent poles." "OK, Jim."
No, I haven't seen a Yeti, nor seen a footprint. But a lot of rumors. Who knows? It’s a big country--the Himalayas are huge. There's a lot of places no one has ever been. Nobody has ever been. So there are places something could hide out, if they wanted.