First American up Everest revisits mountain

Posted: Friday, April 18, 2003

SEATTLE Four decades after becoming the first American to stand atop the world, Jim Whittaker is heading back to Mount Everest.

This time, though, the 74-year-old from Port Townsend will trek only as far as the 17,400-foot-high base camp for the anniversary, which he plans to toast with a rum and coke.

I've waited 40 years for this,'' he told The Associated Press in a phone interview Sunday.

Whittaker called the 70-mile hike a tribute to the mountain and said he hopes to inspire people of all ages to get outside to enjoy the outdoors.

Nawang Gombu, 69, the Sherpa who accompanied him on his 1963 climb, will join him. So will Gombu's daughter and granddaughter, as well as Whittaker's family.

I've been living with Mount Everest for 30 years,'' said Whittaker's wife, Dianne Roberts, 55, who has only heard about it.

She said she's looking forward to seeing the mountain for the first time. Their sons, Leif, 18, and Joss, 20, will be along, as well as friends of both Whittaker and Gombu.

Whittaker earned renown by topping the 29,035-foot peak 10 years after New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first visitors to the summit in 1953.

Whittaker's 1963 climb began with a 185-mile trek to base camp and required supplies to last several months all for the reward of spending 20 minutes at the summit.

This time around, he and the group will fly from Katmandu, Nepal, to an airfield at 9,000 feet, where they'll begin their 22-day trek. Their first stop will be the town of Nanche Bazaar, where they expect to arrive May 1, the date Whittaker and Gombu reached the summit back in 1963.

This one will be a more comfortable trip, with air mattresses, water-resistant jackets, lightweight hiking boots and gear unavailable 40 years ago. Eddie Bauer, which outfitted the original expedition, is supplying the 40-member group with all their outerwear.

A couple of other Washington climbing legends are already over in the Himalayas, hoping to make a bid for Everest's summit in May. It would be the first time for Jim Wickwire, 62, of Seattle, and John Roskelley, 54, of Spokane. They're climbing with Roskelley's 20-year-old son, Jess, and Dick Bass of Dallas, who's reached the peak before, and at 73, would be the oldest person to reach the top.

Whittaker wrote about the climb in his 1999 book, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond.''

People mostly non-climbers talk about conquering mountains,'' he wrote. In my mind, nothing could be farther from the truth. The mountain is so huge and powerful, and the climber so puny, exhausted, and powerless. The mountain is forever. Gombu and I, meanwhile, were dying every second we lingered.''

In 1978, Whittaker organized and led the first American ascent of K2, world's second highest peak. A year later, he retired as president and CEO of REI, where he had worked for 25 years.

In 1990, he organized and led the Mount Everest International Peace Climb, which brought together 20 men and women from the United States, China and Russia to focus attention on environmental issues.

In 1996, Whittaker, his wife and their two sons set out to sail the South Pacific. They spent four years at sea.

Being out on the edge, with everything at risk,'' Whittaker wrote in his memoirs, is where you learn and grow the most.''

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