Jim Whittaker has been atop the mountaineering community since becoming the first American to summit the world’s highest peak. In 1963, Jim became the 10th man to reach the 29,028-foot summit of Mount Everest in the Himalayas. He returned a national hero, and his life forever changed. Though mostly remembered for mountain climbing, his adventurous life is an inspiration to all.
To say he’s an accomplished outdoorsman would be an understatement. Jim and his twin brother Louie grew up in the Seattle area, and spent days on end learning about nature and mountain climbing on Mount Rainier. In his autobiography “A Life on the Edge; Memoires of Everest and Beyond,” Jim details his outdoor adventures growing up in the Pacific Northwest, along with other life experiences not related to climbing. His self-deprecating nature, and total honesty with himself and the world, makes this a great read while leaving you wanting for more. Jim was much more than a mountain climber. With a Bachelor of Science degree from Seattle University, Jim was invited by Uncle Sam to fight in the Korean War. However, his background in the outdoors kept him from the war zone and he served his military stint teaching others the basics of skiing and outdoor safety while stationed in Colorado.
After he stood atop the world’s highest peak, the door of opportunity seemed forever open. On the business side of things, he was the first manager and employee, and eventually the CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc., or REI as it is known today. After retiring from REI, he was offered the CEO position for a brand new company: Magellan, makers of global positioning systems. After some consideration, he opted for another offer with the company, accepting the chairman of the board position.
A few months after the successful summit of Mount Everest, Jim and his Everest team were invited to the White House where they received the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society from President John F. Kennedy. One of Jim’s team members that day in the Rose Garden was Nawang Gombu, who was the youngest member of Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing team – the first to scale Mount Everest in 1953. Nawang was at Jim’s side when they stood atop Everest, where he left a Buddhist friendship scarf on the mountain. Nawang, who died earlier this year, also draped a similar Buddhist scarf around the president’s neck. Though the charismatic president was assassinated less than five months later, Jim formed a lasting friendship with the Kennedy family. He danced with the First Lady, Jackie, and taught the Kennedy children Caroline and John Jr. how to snow ploy on skies. His bond with the Kennedy clan evolved even more after meeting and guiding Senator Robert F. Kennedy to the top of a special mountain in Canada.
In 1965, Jim and the senator were the first to scale Mount Kennedy, the 14,000 foot high mountain in Canada’s Yukon Territory that had previously never been climbed. Shortly after President Kennedy’s death, the Canadian government named the mountain in his honor. During the climb, Jim and Bobby took their first break, enjoying the sun and catching their breath. The only real problem for the senator up to that point was getting used to the snowshoes. In his book, Jim relives the moments leading up to the eventual summit. “We watched as the senator walked to the highest point of Mount Kennedy, becoming the first human being to stand on the summit of the mountain named after his brother. He stood alone, head bowed, and made the sign of the cross. Tears rolled down my cheeks and froze on my parka. From his pack he pulled out a pole and flag with the Kennedy crest, knelt down, and drove it into the snow. After a few moments, I joined him, knelt on one knee, put my arm around his shoulder, and congratulated him. “This can never be taken away,” I said. “There’ll never be another who will be first on Mount Kennedy.” Bobby left behind a copy of J.F.K.’s Inaugural Address, an inauguration medallion, and a couple of PT-109 tie clasps.
After becoming close friends with Bobby and the Kennedy family, Jim and his family often joined them at Hyannis Port, Hickory Hill (RFK’s home in Virginia), and on skiing, river rafting, sailing, and other adventures. Jim later served as the Washington State campaign chairman for Senator Kennedy in 1968. He was also at the Senator’s bedside when he was assassinated, and served as a pallbearer at Bobby’s funeral in Arlington National Cemetery.
•In 1978, he organized and led the first American ascent of K2, the world’s second highest—and many say most dangerous—peak, after five American failures spanning 40 years.
•Against formidable political and logistical odds, he organized and led the spectacularly successful 1990 Mt. Everest Peace Climb, which put 20 men and women from three superpowers—the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union—on the summit of Everest. To help focus world attention on environmental issues, the team also removed two tons of garbage left on the mountain by previous expeditions.
•He is an accomplished blue water sailor, and twice skippered his own boats on the 2,400-mile Victoria, Canada to Maui, Hawaii sailing race. He also raced and cruised extensively in the Pacific Northwest and inside passage for 20 years.
One of Jim’s poignant observations in the book focused on his devotion to the Catholic Church and the outdoors, a musing that snowshoers can relate to. He wondered how he was going to be in church every Sunday if he was climbing. He writes:
“Out in the mountains, high on a summit ridge or deep in a cathedral of conifers, I often wondered about the significance of that human creation, the church. It didn’t seem to me to take a building, or even a dogma, to make someone a believer; all you had to do was open your eyes, your ears, your heart. In the mountains, the “church” is all around you.”
Jim Whittaker’s “A Life on the Edge” was published by the Mountaineers Books and can be order online at www.mountaineersbooks.org or from any major bookseller.