Top 10 facts about Jim Whittaker’s historical climb of Mount Everest, in honor of 50th anniversary

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As stories surface about Jim Whittaker and the celebration this Wednesday of the 50th anniversary of his becoming the first American to summit Mount Everest, a few interesting facts rise to the peak of the human interest chart.

You might already know that Whittaker made history on May 1, 1963 when he stepped foot on the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, at 29,035 feet, doing so 10 years after Edmund Hillary became the first to accomplish the feat.

But did you know Whittaker was afraid of heights, and still is?

whittaker at peak

From stories about and interviews with Whittaker in Outside Magazine, Pacific NW Magazine, Men’s Journal, and Bloomberg Businessweek, we gleaned our favorite facts about the historical climb of Mount Everest—facts you might never have heard before—and put together a Top 10 list of them. Here, then, is that list:

1. Whittaker is afraid of heights. “Climbers say to me, ‘I’m afraid of heights,’ and I say ‘Good, or else you’ll die,’” he told Men’s Journal. “Even now, when I get to a tall building, I look out the window and feel, Eeeeee! But you learn to overcome it.”

2. Before the climb, Whittaker was the first store manager of REI.

3. Jake Breitenbach, a 27-year-old member of the expedition team, was killed in the icefall. “We didn’t hear any talking [on the radio], but then we heard cries for help, so we roped up to the icefall and started digging,” Whittaker told Men’s Journal. “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.”

4. After Breitenbach’s death, the expedition briefly considered quitting and going home, but instead discovered a newfound determination. “We knew that the best memorial [for] Jake would be just clobbering the hell out of the mountain,” climber Barry Bishop said in an audiotape debriefing after the expedition, according to Outside.

Jim Whittaker mug

5. On summit day, Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu set out first at 6 a.m. in a gale. They couldn’t see their feet. Before they started, Whittaker and Gombu melted snow for water and put the bottles in their packs instead of under their jackets. As a result, the water froze and they were without liquids for the climb. “Dumb as hell,” Whittaker told Outside.

6. Gombu was the nephew of Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Hillary on the first ascent of Mount Everest.

7. Just moments after the pair began to descend after 20 minutes at the summit, Whittaker attended to some toilet business, dropping his pants and moving his bowels. When he removed his backpack, his camera went tumbling down the side some 80 feet. He briefly considered leaving it, but luckily–thankfully–he did retrieve it. That camera had the historic and iconic photos of him at the summit, along with the American flag planted on the peak.

8. A bus-sized portion of the summit-ridge cornice broke free and tumbled thousands of feet below. “We were lucky,” Whittaker told Pacific NW Magazine. “It could have easily been tragic.”

9. Upon his return to the states, Whittaker received a ticker-tape parade in his hometown of Seattle and a ceremony in the Rose Garden with President Kennedy.

10. As a result of his achievement, Whittaker was chosen in 1965 to guide Sen. Robert Kennedy on the first ascent of Mount Kennedy, a 14,000-foot peak in Canada. “Going up the mountain, there’s a picture of me turning around — and Bobby close behind me with all this slack between us on the rope,” Whittaker told James M. Clash for BloombergBusinessweek. “Now we’re going up a glacier with hidden snow bridges where you can drop into a crevasse in an instant, so I said, ‘Bobby, could you slow a bit so the rope is taut?’ He responded, ‘Can’t you speed it up a bit?’” Kennedy was the first to step foot on the peak and planted a half-dollar coin in the snow.

Photos are file art. 

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