50 years after Everest, Whittaker not resting on his laurels

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT TOWNSEND — After 50 years, Port Townsend adventurer Jim Whittaker's achievement is a high point of history, but the 84-year-old isn't resting on his laurels on the anniversary of his historic climb to the top of the world's tallest mountain.

On May 1, 1963, Whittaker, then 34, reached the summit of Mount Everest. He was the first American to reach it.

Whittaker isn't one to live in the past.

On Tuesday, he was more concerned about what he has in his future.

“There are still things I want to do,” Whittaker said, noting that even after a lifetime of exploring, he still has a long “bucket list.”

He was last on Everest in 2012, reaching 17,000 feet before turning back — at age 83. But he said he no longer climbs “tall mountains” — such as up to the 29,035 feet of Everest.

In comparison with other treks, Hurricane Ridge is “not difficult,” he added.

Instead of concentrating on the past, he wanted to talk about now and his campaign to get children outside and more active.

“There should be no child left inside,” he said.

“Children need to know about nature,” he added, noting that on the North Olympic Peninsula, there is no excuse not to explore the outdoors.

On Sunday, he threw out the first pitch at the Seattle Mariners' game against the Los Angeles Angels as the team honored Whittaker's accomplishment.

“We sat up in the owners' booth,” he said. He noted that the Mariners won the game, which only sweetened the day.

Whittaker said he also threw the first pitch for the 40th anniversary of his climb.

Several events are celebrating the 50th anniversary.

A new edition of his book A Life on the Edge has been released for the anniversary, and Whittaker will travel to other states for book signings, he said.

The special edition is available on his website, www.jimwhittaker.com, for $24.95.

Whittaker's famous climb was made only 10 years after the first successful ascent of the mountain peak in 1953.

Since then, he has climbed K2, the second-highest mountain in the world; spent four years on a sailboat exploring the South Pacific with his family; traveled to Antarctica; and summited countless smaller mountains.

He even has a high mountain ridge named for him on another planet: Whittaker Ridge on Mars.

Whittaker's party of 19 climbers lost a member during the Everest climb.

Elevations above 18,000 feet are in the death zone, where nothing lives and climbers carry oxygen, he explained.

He said he remembers the wet leather boots that caused other climbers to lose their toes to frostbite.

They had good equipment, warm down coats and sleeping bags for the 1963 climb, but today, there are better boots and other equipment that make the climb safer and more comfortable, he said.

Despite the thrill of summiting Everest, the best part of that climb was the fact he made it down the mountain alive, he said.

The return to lower elevations, and their first sighting of other living things, was a special moment.

“The team had stopped. They were looking at a blade of grass. It was the first living green we had seen for months,” Whittaker said.

“There are only seven of us left from that climb,” he added.

Of the 19 members of the 1963 expedition, four of them get together for reunions occasionally, but the other three are no longer physically able to join them, he said.

His son, Leif Whittaker, 28, has followed in his father's footsteps twice, climbing Everest in 2010 and 2012.

The mountain is a different place from the one the elder Whittaker remembers from his early climb.

Jim Whittaker noted that there was a brawl between two competing groups on Everest this week and said the mountain isn't the same as it was in the 1960s.

“The mountain itself is overcrowded,” he said.

Many of Whittaker's stories and photos from decades of adventure can be seen on his website at www.jimwhittaker.com.

Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 30. 2013 6:14PM
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