The first time I met 84-year-old Jim Whittaker, a giant both in height (6’5″) and spirit, he was literally throwing around the heavy (and sharp) ice ax he used to become the first American to plant a U.S. flag on Mount Everest’s summit. At a small gathering in Salt Lake City, Utah, he challenged that we needed to “get the bastards outside” by educating them and sharing the value of being connected to nature. He raved about his summit partner, Nawang Gombu, “a prince of a man” with whom he was lifelong friends. Each additional encounter with Jim—and there have been many as we honor the 50th anniversary of that expedition—has been just as memorable, humorous, and kind spirited.
After the 1963 American Everest Expedition, Jim, a national hero, continued to define his life in the mountains and the outdoors—and even was the CEO of REI. The expedition is credited with inspiring an interest in mountaineering and the outdoors in Americans like never before. Many of today’s current outdoor industry leaders wax poetically about how, as kids, they read Tom Hornbein’s book The West Ridge or had posters of the 1963 American Everest Expedition on their bedroom walls. That’s hefty gift to our country—and one that we need to keep sharing, because, as Jim says: “If they love it, they will take care if it.”
Here Whittaker answers a few questions—and gives me a pretty sizable homework assignment.
Adventure: What would you say are three of the best outdoor adventures in the U.S.?
Jim Whittaker: I’d have to say Mount Rainier…
A: How many times have you climbed Mount Rainer?
A: Wow, that’s almost once for every year of your life.
J.W.: But I guided through college. It was an opportunity for people who had never climbed before to go up on that mountain with a guide. You roped up with that person, so if they fell, they could kill you, so you would teach them as much as you knew.
A: What else?
J.W.: Some of the most beautiful places are in the parks. I’d say Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. And then I’d say the ocean. There are a lot of ocean beaches. That’s an easy one for people to get to.
A: What do you like to do when you are at the beach?
J.W.: Everything. I like to lie in the sun, but I’ve sailed a boat with my wife, Dianne, and our sons from here in Port Townsend, Washington, to Australia and back. We sailed down the coast and across to the Marquesas, then to Tahiti, and all the way down to Australia. It took four years. I love the water. And the boys were 11 and 13. I took them out of school. Joss graduated from Brown with honors. And Leif graduated from Western Washington with honors. People said, aren’t you afraid of pirates and stuff? And our answer was: Do you know how dangerous middle school is these days?
That’s an easy one. People can get to the beaches and oceans. And if there’s a marina they can get on a boat for a little bit. Just to see the fish and the clear water. It’s a whole new world.
I dive, our whole family dives. I have been down to 180 feet. I figure I’m the only guy who has been to the highest point of Earth and down 180 feet deep.
A. That’s quite a perspective. How do you think outdoor gear has changed since you climbed Everest 50 years ago?
J.W.: The biggest change is the boots. We wore three layers of leather. And they got wet. So for two months we were in wet leather boots, and we’d have to take them into our sleeping bags because they’d freeze like rock.
Now they are plastic so they don’t get wet—oh what a difference! They are half the weight of our boots. And can you imagine the difference? Every step you take, and we took thousands of steps, is lighter and your feet are dry, for God’s sake. That’s a big change.
Actually Eddie Bauer made such good clothing. And down hasn’t changed, but now they are putting it into lighter covers and lighter fabric. But down is the best insulation. You look at the birds, and they are flying in zero weather and they are flying in warmer temperatures. And it works. It’s really good stuff. There are some little changes, the ice ax shapes and crampons are a little better. There’s now some synthetics. But up on Everest it was always so cold, it was a dry cold, so you didn’t need to put a waterproof frabric on the outside on your down parka.
A: Why do you think it’s important for us to remember the 1963 American Everest Expedition 50 years later?
J.W.: The team, going over there and putting the American flag on the highest point on the planet, that was a big deal—and not just among mountain climbers, though I think they were happy about it. At that time, in the 60s, we had a lot going on. MLK was shot and five months after we climbed Everest John F. Kennedy was killed. The 1960s were turbulent. And that’s why I think our 50 year anniversary is good to look back and see, Hey, we were doing some pretty good stuff in those days.
A: Your expedition is credited with inspiring Americans to get interested in the outdoors. Do you agree?
J.W.: I have heard that a lot. People come up and say, “You actually started me in mountain climbing and in getting out.” So yeah, that’s another good thing. And if they get out there they see, son of a bitch, this is a beautiful planet.
A: How about Everest today? Is there one thing you would change about it?
J.W.: I think they are going to have to limit the climbers on the mountain. And you hope that the guide services over there are not just doing it for money and are cautious enough and smart enough to handle their climbs carefully. If you’ve been given $65,000 and this guy wants to climb it, you really feel obligated. But you gotta know when to turn back. If you climb a few mountains before you go, then you learn the mountain will still be there. And it’s good to turn back sometimes.
There are now three guide services on Rainier, but they all have limitations. They can only take 25 clients a day up on the mountain. So it limits the number of people who are going up and down. And I think they are going to have to do that on Everest because it get incredibly dangerous.
Leif, my son, waited for an hour up there, because there are several narrow sections that are a bottleneck, and people are stumbling down and so forth. So there are going to have to be some controls. There are people from all over the world who want to climb it. I think there is going to have to be some kind of reservation system.
A: What’s something surprising about you?
J.W.: I love ice cream. I like a mix of vanilla and mint chocolate chip. Isn’t that good?
And I love my wife, and these days that’s a little unusual. We just had our 30th anniversary. We’re an endangered species.
A: Playing devil’s advocate here: Why does it matter if people feel connected to the outdoors or not?
J.W.: If children, and then as adults, know a little bit about nature or get out into it, then they really like it. And then they’ll really develop a love for it. And if they love it, they will take care of it. Mother Earth needs a little taking care of. People need to get out of those concrete, brick, and glass canyons of the cities. If they enjoy the outdoors then they’ll pass that love on to their children and on to their children’s children. You don’t vote for something that you don’t know.
A: How do we get more kids and people outdoors?
J.W.: Your National Geographic television programs are good because they show nature, and people might look at that and say, I’d like to do that. I think the Boy Scouts were always good. But I don’t think they do a lot in the outdoors in the big cities. Central Park in New York City is amazing. And the New York Times has done some really good stuff trying to get the little local lots to turn them into natural areas. Just a little vacant lot can become a place where kids can see what trees are. I bet they can’t even name two different kinds of trees.
In the past, that was our life. That was what we did. You just don’t want to lose that. I think if you can bring some nature into the city, fine, but if you can’t, you’re going to have to get the kids out. There are a lot of outdoor programs that get people out. And then educating them through magazines and stuff like that. Ed Viesturs, who has climbed all the 8,000-meter peaks, was motivated by reading a couple books as a kid. So books and magazines, we gotta educate them.
I’m leaving it to you, Mary Anne. You have to educate the bastards. You wonder how are we going to save the planet, right?
A: We gotta get them outside. I know! I’ll try to help.