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For the week of Dec. 29, 1999 through Jan. 4, 2000

Feet on the ground, head in the clouds

National hero Jim Whittaker finds meaning in his life’s adventures


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

On May 1, 1963, at 4 a.m., Jim Whittaker awoke inside a small tent perched more than five miles above sea level on an icy mountainside. Gale-force winds whistled in the tent poles and hammered the tent’s thin, nylon fabric.

After more than a year of planning, and months of physical hardship that tested the limits of human durability, this was Whittaker’s chance—a window of opportunity that amounted to a mere handful of hours.

Whittaker pointed skyward and said to the Sherpa, Gombu, "We go up."

That afternoon, after staggering for nine hours towards the highest place on earth, Whittaker and Gombu stood together at the edge of space—29,028 feet atop Mt. Everest.

At that altitude, the sky was a deep, dark blue. Whittaker, at age 34, had become the first American to summit Mt. Everest.

It was the moment around which the rest of his life would pivot.

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During a visit last week to Sun Valley—a trip that was part book tour, part ski vacation—Whittaker talked about his life, and discussed what he hoped to accomplish in writing about it.

Whittaker gave a slide show recounting his life’s adventures at Ketchum’s Community Library on Wednesday evening. He then talked to the Idaho Mountain Express on Thursday afternoon at the Warm Springs Lodge after a day of skiing.

Since that historic day on Mt. Everest, Whittaker has shown the world that "going up" on the mountain and in life—that is, putting yourself at risk—can mean both high achievement and deep failure. In the wake of national recognition, he became part of the Kennedy "family," socializing with the world’s most famous and powerful public figures—a heady experience for a young man who grew up in a middle class family, climbing the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

He ran Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Washington state, until, to the loss of Whittaker and the world, Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. He saw one marriage disintegrate, then met his current wife of 27 years, Dianne Roberts in 1972. Plagued by a myriad of logistical problems, he was defeated by the world’s second highest mountain, K2, in 1975, only to lead the first successful American ascent in 1978.

As the first full-time employee of a small co-op called REI, he built the fledgling company into the nation’s largest outdoor equipment retailer. Decades later, he suffered near bankruptcy.

Today, at age 70, Whittaker, Roberts and their two sons are sailing a 54-foot ketch, the Impossible, around the world.

In the introduction to Whittaker’s new memoir, Jim Whittaker, A Life on the Edge, friend and fellow climber Tom Hornbein writes, "Between the bookends, life is a journey. For a few, the journey becomes an odyssey of adventure." Certainly, Whittaker’s life has been an odyssey of adventure, but at the core of the man and the book, there is more than just thrill seeking. The book turns on several themes. It recounts a moving, inspirational and deeply human story.

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At six feet, five inches, Whittaker was described by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as a "physical giant with a huge heart, a decent soul and inspirational courage." At age 70, he still seems to have the power and determination to climb Mt. Everest.

However, writing and publishing the book has been difficult, Whittaker said. At least one editor called him a name-dropper, and a reviewer in Seattle accused him of putting on "rarefied airs," apparently because Whittaker, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Seattle University with a minor in philosophy, believes it is important not only to discuss his life’s adventures, but also to convey their meaning.

"I want the word to get out that life is good," he said, "and that the planet is beautiful." For people to realize that, Whittaker believes risk is necessary. Stick your neck out, he says, and your odds of winning are at least 50/50. Don’t, and you’re not even in the game.

You can increase your odds, Whittaker says, by careful preparation, which comes in part from constant learning. "Learning," he writes at the end of his book, "is what happens when you risk a journey beyond what you know and are comfortable with."

Whittaker first began discovering the value of risk at age 20, climbing with his twin brother Louie on the 3,000-foot-high east face of Washington state’s Mt. Index, a mountain described by many simply as "evil."

With Louie on belay (attached to Whittaker by rope to catch a fall), Whittaker had started up the nearly vertical rock face. Then, the mistakes began to pile up.

First, Whittaker didn’t use as much climbing hardware as he should have—with the result that if he came off the rock, he would have farther to fall before reaching the end of the rope.

Mistake No. 2: Louie wasn’t anchored into anything—if Whittaker fell, he would pull his brother down with him. Then, near the top, with one foot dangling in the air, Whittaker searched for and couldn’t find a place to hold onto with his left hand. That was mistake No.3: always have three solid points of contact between the rock and your body.

With his right leg trembling from fatigue, and just moments away from peeling off the rock, Whittaker made a desperate flying leap. His fingertips hooked a ledge, and he pulled himself to safety.

Whittaker learned that day that a few small mistakes, added together, can be deadly. He’s been building on that lesson throughout his life both on and off the mountain. Mostly, he’s learned to find value in failure.

"I think there’s sort of a hierarchy of living, not unlike the camps on a climb," he wrote. "If you never leave base camp, you never get anywhere. Maybe you get to camp I and try for camp II, fail on the first attempt and give up. Live a life that way, and you never, as they say, ‘get off the ground.’"

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Whittaker acknowledges that he’s been very fortunate in life, and part of writing the book, he says, is to show readers the mistakes he’s made so they’ll know what not to do. Also, he says, the book is a way of "giving something back."

Whittaker wrote the book’s final chapter aboard the Impossible" near Brisbane, Australia, at the end of the first leg of his family’s round-the-world journey. With the boat rocking gently on its mooring and brown pelicans hunting breakfast nearby, he recollected that in high school, when asked what he hoped to achieve, he had answered "to be an asset to the world."

"I really had no idea what I meant by that," he wrote. It was more of a yearning than a clear idea. Now, "as I near 70, I’m still working on it. In a way, this memoir is a sort of progress report."

 

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Copyright 1999, 2000 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.