Port Townsend's Jim Whittaker reunited with Everest climbing team in California (with related video)
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The Associated Press
Surviving members of the first American expedition team to reach the top of Mt. Everest are interviewed. From left, clockwise: Dave Dingman, Jim Whittaker, Tom Hornbein and Norm Dyhrenfurth. **RELATED VIDEO, BELOW**

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BERKELEY, Calif. — It might be hard to conceive now, in an era of extreme sports and ultra-light equipment, but there was a time when Americans who set out to conquer mountains engaged in a pursuit that was as lonely as it was dangerous.

But Port Townsend's Jim Whittaker, 84, and three others — Norm Dyhrenfurth, 94, Tom Hornbein, 82, and Dave Dingman, 76 — remember.

The leather boots stayed wet for weeks.

Oxygen canisters weighed 15 pounds.

And they remember the shrugs of indifference most of their countrymen gave a half-century ago to what it would take to get a U.S.-led mountaineering expedition to the top of Mount Everest.

“Americans, when I first raised it, they said, 'Well, Everest, it's been done. Why do it again?'” Dyhrenfurth recalled Friday as he and three other surviving members of the 1963 expedition gathered in the San Francisco Bay area for a meeting honoring the 50th anniversary of their achievement.

The American Alpine Club is hosting lectures, film screenings, book-signings and a dinner this weekend recognizing the pioneering climbers and what their feat accomplished.

It was captured in a Life magazine cover story.

President John F. Kennedy honored Whittaker — the first American of the four to scale the world's tallest mountain — and the others with a Rose Garden reception.

And it represented the birth of mountaineering as a popular sport in the U.S.

Whittaker went on to become chief executive of outdoors outfitter Recreational Equipment Inc., a company still helping to promote the sport.

[One of his CEO successors, Sally Jewell, got a new job when she was nominated by President Barack Obama to be interior secretary earlier this month.]

Whittaker and his Sherpa companion, Nawang Gombu, reached the top of the world on May 1, 1963, a decade after New Zealand's Edmund Hillary was the first non-Sherpa to do so.

It was about six weeks after another climber on the U.S. expedition, Jake Breitenbach, died in an avalanche.

Memories of how close Whittaker came to his own death on Everest — he and Gombu ran out of oxygen on the summit and had to climb up and back without water after their bottles froze — infused every day of his life since with gratitude and childlike wonder, he said.

“I think I will probably take it with me into my next life, if I have one,” Whittaker said.

In the meantime, the acorn doesn't fall far from the tallest mountain peak.

Whittaker's son, Leif, has reached the Mount Everest summit two times, the latest ascent last May.

Three weeks after Jim Whittaker's ascent in 1963, two other Americans, Hornbein and the late Willi Unsoeld, became the first men ever to scale Everest via a more dangerous route on the mountain's west side.

The next day, they descended by the southern route that Hillary, Whittaker and, by then, two more members of the American team, had taken to the summit.

The adventure, which included spending the night without sleeping bags or tents at 28,000 feet, made them the first men ever to traverse the world's highest peak — and cost Unsoeld nine frostbitten toes.

Dingman has been lauded over the years for sacrificing his own chance to scale Everest to belay Hornbein, Unsoeld and two other climbers, Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad, who had gotten stuck out in the open with them, back down to base camp.

Dingman never made it back to Everest.

As a doctor in training, a Vietnam War draftee and then a physician with a young family, he never could find the time to make the trip.

He said he had no regrets then and has none now.

“When they were talking about a reunion three years ago, I thought, 'Who the hell cares about that?' I figured we'd just together for some beers,” Dingman said Friday between interviews with National Geographic, Outside magazine and the Alpine Club's oral history project.

“It's turned into this big event, and I'm glad it has.”

“It would have made no difference to get two more people on to the summit, but if we had lost two or three people on the way down that would have been a very different story,” he said.

VIDEO: Jim Whittaker Returns To Everest: Everest 50th Anniversary

Last modified: February 24. 2013 10:48AM
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