Mountain climber Jim Whittaker shares his life on the edge
Mountain climber Jim Whittaker, who was first American to summit Everest and has climbed Rainier 80 times, talks of his life
His wisdom and humor come from years in the mountains.
So does his philosophy of life, which he sums up this way: "If you aren't living on the edge, you're taking up too much space."
Jim Whittaker, the celebrated mountaineer, adventurer and environmentalist best known for being the first American to summit Mount Everest, spoke in the Yakima Town Hall Lecture Series on Wednesday. He encouraged people to enjoy nature and protect it and to push their limits.
"Know fear," he said. "That's what keeps you alive. You should get out there, scare the hell out of yourself, learn how mortal you are."
Against a backdrop of photographs documenting some of his famous climbs, Whittaker humbly and humorously walked the audience through his life's ups and downs, pausing to tell a few jokes, recite a Robert Service poem and share some of the memories and insights detailed in his award-winning book, "A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond."
He often ended his vignettes by saying, "Nobody died."
"My objective: Get people outside," said Whittaker, who recently returned from New Zealand, where he represented the United States at the funeral of Sir Edmund Hillary.
In 1953, Hillary — along with Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide — were the first climbers to reach the summit of Everest.
Ten years later, Whittaker became the first American to do the same. Then 34, the climber spent about 20 minutes at 29,028 feet, planting an American flag in the snow and returning home a national hero, an American icon.
"It's a race between losing everything and getting to the top of the mountain," said Whittaker, who lives in Port Townsend with his wife of 35 years, Dianne Roberts. She is a photographer and adventurer in her own right.
Whittaker's Everest ascent landed him on the covers of magazines and at the White House, where he was congratulated by President Kennedy and awarded the Hubbard Medal, given by the National Geographic Society for distinction in exploration, discovery and research.
On Wednesday, Whittaker lauded his mother for inspiring his love of the great outdoors with a simple phrase. When he was wrestling — "and breaking furniture" — in his childhood home in West Seattle, she would tell him and his twin brother Lou, also an expert climber, "Go outside and play."
In 1965, the elite climber with a down-to-earth demeanor guided Sen. Robert Kennedy on the first ascent of Mount Kennedy, a peak in the Canadian Yukon named for his slain brother. In 1978, he led the first American ascent of K2, the world's second-highest — and according to many, most dangerous — peak. And in 1990, he returned to Everest, guiding Americans, Soviets and Chinese in an international Peace Climb.
He's also sailed extensively in the Pacific Ocean, climbed Mount Rainier 80 times, and given hundreds of talks around the world. Sometimes, the former president and CEO of REI said, young people approach him at events, telling him he's in their history books — and that they thought he was dead.
"I'm happy to say I'm not," Whittaker told the Yakima audience with a laugh. "I'm still here. I'm having a lot of fun."
He underwent a double knee replacement surgery two years ago and today at 79, still stands at 6-foot-5. He says another mountain might be in him, maybe another go at Rainier.
One of the photos in his presentation showed Rainier's Paradise Ice Caves, which Whittaker told the crowd no longer exist.
"If you want to ask me if we're facing some serious global warming, I would say yes," he said, imploring the audience to be stewards of the environment. "That snow and ice will eventually be in the Pacific Ocean and we'll sail on it. Everything's connected.
"Nature's a great teacher," he said. "You learn to be afraid of falling. And you learn about yourself."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.