In 1960, Pacific Northwest climber Jim Whittaker received an invitation to join the first U.S. expedition up Mount Everest. "I said, 'Yep,' and told my wife I was going on a four-month vacation," Whittaker, 84, says with a chuckle. It wasn't quite that easy: During the expedition, which got under way in early 1963, the team endured brutal winds, the theft of most of their oxygen tanks, and one climber's death. But on May 1, Whittaker, then 34, became the first American to stand atop the 29,028-foot peak. He was celebrated with a ticker-tape parade in his hometown of Seattle and a ceremony in the Rose Garden with President Kennedy. Along with John Glenn, he became an adventure-explorer icon of his time, and he dedicated his life to the outdoors. Before the climb, Whittaker was the first general manager of REI; for more than a decade starting in the Eighties, he helped develop GPS devices for Magellan. And he's returned to Everest several times, most recently last year. "I made it to 17,000 feet. Not bad for 83 friggin' years old!"
When did you become interested in climbing?
I was born in the Northwest, and the Boy Scouts got me into my first overnights up in the hills. When I was 14, I got to my first peak in the Cascade Mountains, 6,000 feet up, and it scared the hell out of me. I swore to God that if I got down alive, I would never climb again. But afterward, I realized it had been an amazing experience.
You've said you're actually afraid of heights?
I am! Climbers say to me, "I'm afraid of heights," and I say, "Good, or else you'll die." Even now, when I get to a tall building, I look out the window and feel, Eeeeee! But you learn to overcome it.
Why were you chosen for the 1963 trip?
I'd guided for years and even taught Special Forces how to climb during the Korean War. But on an ascent of Mount McKinley in 1960, one guy on our team broke his ankle. We were stuck for days and got some publicity. [Everest leader] Norman Dyhrenfurth called me soon after.
You trained for the expedition for two years. What did you do?
I knew it would be the hardest thing I'd ever done, walking 185 miles. I did everything I could to get in shape. So I climbed with loads of bricks, rocks, and weights in my pack. In winter I'd swim in the lake and jump in the sauna and sit there as long as I could. I was tough as nails.
Were you aware of potential routes?
We knew it was climbable because Sir Edmund Hillary had done one route in 1953 and the Swiss had done another in '56. But we didn't have any maps or pictures that we could look at and say, "There's a route."
How did climber Jake Breitenbach die during the trip?
I was at base camp resting from the previous day, pooped out, and we heard ice fall above. We shouted and tried to get on the radio to talk to Jake. We didn't hear any talking, but then we heard cries for help, so we roped up to the icefall and started digging. We got only four or five feet down; we couldn't get to him. We cut the rope and had to leave him in the ice.
Right before the summit, some of the Sherpas took off with most of your oxygen bottles.
My Sherpa, Nawang Gombu, said to them, "No, the oxygen stays!" But the Sherpas are funny people. They're real friendly and open, and just said, "Goodbye!" What do you do, attack them? We were just standing there, dumbfounded. Gombu and I each had two bottles left, and one for the tent. So we grabbed our gear and continued on.
What was it like at the summit?
There was terrible wind. On the top, the plume was blowing off. My left eye filmed over because of the wind. I drove the American flag into the ice, and we took pictures. We only spent 20 minutes there. You're thinking, "I gotta get down!"
You were congratulated by President Kennedy and two years later led his brother Robert up Canada's Mount Kennedy. How did that come about?
I got word that Bobby wanted to do it, so I called him and said, "What are you doing to train?" He said, "I'm running up and down stairs, yelling, 'Help!'" It was funny. So I led him. He was the first person to stand on the summit. He knelt and planted a Kennedy half-dollar in the snow.
You were involved in the development of GPS. How do you think that and WiFi have changed climbing?
I worry that climbers rely too much on it. My wife gave me a device for my phone, so she can locate me if I'm lying under a log. But people have lost the navigation skills of our forefathers.
You returned to Everest last year, the same month four climbers died. How was it different?
The trails were crowded. There's a fixed rope you can use now, but it means huge bottlenecks, because people are on the same rope. And if you're in the death zone, there's not enough oxygen to support life. It's a serious problem. But the trail to base camp is cleaner than it was in 1963. Garbage was all over. Now there are garbage cans, and it's clean and nice. That's one positive thing.
Do you think you'll revisit the peak this year for the 50th anniversary?
I told my wife, "If you can get a chopper!" But you never know.