Jim Whittaker, a renowned mountaineer, keynote speaker, and author, is best known for being the first American to summit Mount Everest on May 1, 1963, ten years following the peak’s ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa.
James W. “Jim” Whittaker was born ten minutes earlier than his twin brother Lou on February 10, 1929. The sons of Hortense Elizabeth and Charles Bernard Whittaker grew up in the Arbor Heights district of West Seattle alongside their older brother Barney. Their father dealt with vault doors and bank alarms.
The extremely active twins joined Boy Scout Troop 272, Explorer Scouts, and The Mountaineers Club when they were 12, 14, and 16, respectively. Jim attended Seattle University after graduating from West Seattle High School and went on to get a biology degree with a philosophy minor. But mountains were all they could think about.
They conquered numerous peaks while still in college, joined the National Ski Patrol, served as founding members of the Northwest Mountain Rescue and Safety Council, and worked as licensed guides on Mount Rainier.
In 1952, during the Korean War, the Whittaker twins received their degrees from Seattle University, and soon after, they were enlisted in the American Army. They worked as guides on Mount Rainier for one more summer after which they left for basic training at Fort Lewis. At Camp Hale, a remote location in the Colorado Rockies, they were tasked with instructing Special Forces soldiers in skiing and mountaineering.
The Whittaker twins had already reached the summit of Mount Rainier numerous times and Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet.
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The American Expedition- 1963
Jim Whittaker received an invitation from mountaineering movie producer and director Norman Dyhrenfurth to join a 1963 expedition in an attempt to ascend Mount Everest, which no American had previously done. His brother Lou also received the invitation but he decided not to go.
Of the 20 participants in the American Mount Everest Expedition, Jim Whittaker was not the most skilled, but he was the biggest and most likely the strongest. He was also possibly the most determined.
In a 2010 interview with HistoryLink.org, Whittaker remarked, “I was strong, powerful, and optimistic, and I didn’t know anyone that was any stronger in mountaineering than I was.” And I believed, “What the hell, I could do it if Hillary could do it.”
On February 20, the expedition departed from Katmandu. It was an enormous project that cost about $400,000. There were 32 Sherpas—ethnic Tibetans who resided in Nepal at an altitude of around 12,000 feet and were renowned for their strength as climbers—as well as 27 tons of food and supplies. The crew traveled 25 km by truck before walking the final 274 km to Mount Everest, resembling what Whittaker called “a mile-long millipede.” It took a month to hike.
After 70 days long hike filled with many hurdles, Jim became the first American to climb Mt Everest along with Sherpa Nawang Gombu on May 1, 1963.
Conquering the Summit: The Challenge
The world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, offers climbers an enormous and difficult challenge. It takes a combination of technical expertise, mental flexibility, and physical fitness to scale this great mountain. So it is evident that Jim faced a lot of hurdles along the way.
Only two days after establishing their base camp John E. Breitenbach, a climber from Jackson, Wyoming, died while navigating the glacier’s most difficult stretch. He was buried beneath enormous ice blocks.
This shook the confidence of the remaining team members, but Whittaker was not ready to give up. They began establishing upper camps on April 17; Whittaker was frequently the one paving the trail. The first climbers who attempted the summit were Whittaker, Gombu, expedition leader Dyhrenfurth, and Sherpa Ang Dawa.
On April 30, they struggled into the highest camp, which was located at 27,450 feet and was less than 1,600 feet from their destination. They then passed the night in a horrible blizzard. Whittaker believed he had traveled too far to turn back, despite winds storming to 60 miles per hour and temperatures as low as minus 30. He and Gombu set out from their tent on May 1 into a fierce ground blizzard where they could not see their feet.
They stumbled the final 50 feet together to the top. The oxygen was running low. Whittaker got frostbite in one eye despite wearing goggles, and his two water bottles were frozen solid. He placed an American flag on the ice, and Gombu and he both posed for pictures.
His achievements began on May 1, 1963, when he became the first person to set foot on top of the world’s tallest mountain, making history.
Jim Whittaker and the rest of the expedition team received the Hubbard Medal, the highest honor of the National Geographic Society, from President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) on July 8 at a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House.
Jim Whittaker also took on the challenge of conducting the International Peace Climb on Mount Everest in 1990 to bring together climbers from the US, China, and the USSR, who were formerly Cold War adversaries, to demonstrate the strength of trust and collaboration. With 20 climbers reaching the summit, the Peace Climb proved to be the most successful Everest expedition in history.
Jim Whittaker faced his second great mountain challenge in 1975 when Jim Wickwire, a Seattle attorney, invited him to lead an expedition up K2, a challenging peak in the Karakoram range between China and Pakistan.
His other accomplishments include having two mountains named after him: Big Jim Mountain in Chelan County, Washington, and Jim Whittaker Wilderness Peak Trail in Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park close to Issaquah, Washington.
Jim Whittaker- A businessman
At the age of 25, Jim Whittaker received a promotion to manager at the Recreational Equipment Co-operative (REI), which was established by his climbing companion Lloyd Anderson. Whittaker continued to be in charge of sales while the company established itself and expanded quickly, while Anderson served as the general manager. Soon he became the CEO of the company.
When Whittaker resigned from the CEO position of REI in 1979, there were branches all across the country, hundreds of thousands of members, and REI was a $46 million company. During his leadership, the company developed significantly.
Jim is a brilliant business and community leader in addition to the summit. He has high-level business expertise, which is uncommon among adventure speakers, and he believes that mountain climbing is the ideal parallel for the difficulties faced by the business world. He was the former CEO of the outdoor retailing behemoth REI.
He also succeeded in his role as board chairman for Magellan Navigation, a business that specializes in portable GPS systems. Whittaker’s retirement did not mean inaction, but rather a new phase of his life.
Jim Whittaker- An Inspiration
After his renowned ascent of Mount Everest, Jim Whittaker developed a deep concern for the environment and worked to reduce how much outdoor recreation affects the ecosystem. He coordinated cleanups and encouraged responsible behavior among climbers and hikers. Whittaker and his wife Dianne Roberts set sail with their boys Joss and Leif on a four-year trip in 1996, covering approximately 20,000 miles while learning about various cultures.
Whittaker, then 74, and his Sherpa partner Nawang Gombu, 69, reconnected on Everest with their family four decades after their Everest trip. They walked to base camp and summited at roughly 18,000 feet to raise a glass to their accomplishments.
Whittaker’s commitment to environmental protection and his extraordinary adventure continues to serve as an example for others.
Jim Whittaker currently 94 years old is still considered an important figure in North American mountaineering today. He also became a savvy businessman who played a major part in the development of the outdoor recreation sector. Mountaineers Books’ A Life on the Edge highlights his successes both in the mountains and in life.