A Life on the Edge: An Interview with Jim Whittaker

Omni-CardNobody has a better business card than 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.

Omni-LifeEdgeMay 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.

Omni-WestRidgeTo 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.

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Seems to be that Jim Whittaker has redefined what it means to live a life worth living! Sounds like a must-read to me.

Posted by: Howard Sherman | Tuesday April 30, 2013 at 12:40 PM

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