Fifty years since the climb of a lifetime

May, 1, 2013
5/01/13
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Sunday afternoon, 84-year-old Jim Whittaker climbed to the top of the 10-inch mound at Seattle’s Safeco Field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in front of 20,000-some fans at the Mariners game. Anyone who has ever been in that position can tell you how daunting it is -- remember Carl Lewis? -- but Whittaker has placed his feet atop far higher peaks.

The highest peak, in fact.

Fifty years ago Wednesday, Whittaker became the first American to reach the 29,029-foot summit of Mount Everest when he and Sherpa Nawang Gombu climbed the final demanding steps up the mountain’s South Col in excruciating conditions.

"We had 50 mph winds, and it was 35 below zero," Whittaker said. “We were out of oxygen, and we were in the death zone. There is one thought that enters your mind when you place that first step on the summit, and that’s how to get down.

“I pulled out my Eddie Bauer parka, grabbed an American flag, pounded it into the ice with my ice ax, grabbed my camera and handed it to Gombu. He took a picture, then we packed up and got the hell off. There was no more bottled oxygen, and as I said, we were in the death zone and nothing lives there for any length of time."

Nothing may live in the death zone, but Whittaker’s feat endures as an inspiring moment in the history of U.S. climbers. His accomplishment on Everest (as well as his work with Recreational Equipment Inc.) helped propel untold numbers of Americans into the wild and up into the heights. I still vividly recall as an 8-year-old at a Mount Rainier visitors center, staring at a mannequin of Whittaker in his climbing gear and listening to his recorded account of the Everest expedition.

“It was sort of the golden age of climbing that was started," Whittaker said. “We were behind Europe; the British, with Sir Edmund Hillary, were up Everest first. And we began to build from there, and climbing began to really catch on. Now climbing is really quite popular, rock climbing especially, but snow and ice too."

Climbing Everest has become so popular that the remote peak -- Whittaker had to hike 185 miles just to start his climb -- can become so clogged with hopeful mountaineers it’s as if they were in a security line at the airport. (Fortunately, they aren't required to remove their boots.)

"All the people on the mountain create bottlenecks and people get trapped high and they can’t move because of the bottlenecks and they run out of their bottled oxygen in the death zone," Whittaker said. “So that’s very dangerous, and people die. People died last year, and more people will be in trouble [again]. They have to regulate the people on the mountain, like we do on Mount Rainier. There can be only so many people in order to avoid those huge bottlenecks."

Not that Whittaker is discouraging anyone from climbing. Quite the opposite. When I asked Whittaker whether, at age 51, I was too old to climb 14,409-foot Mount Rainier, he was almost disgusted by the question. After all, not only did he climb Everest in 1990 when he was in his 60s, but the Seattle native has also climbed Rainier 80 times.

“It’s still there. It’s not going away," he said. “You should do it. You've gotta do it at least once so you can look at the summit of the mountain and say, 'Yeah, I’ve been up there.' You should do it once. C’mon, get off your butt and get that thing."

Listening to Whittaker still speaking passionately about his sport at age 84, it became clear that climbing takes you far loftier places than merely the top of a mountain.

“Oh, man, it’s wonderful. You learn about yourself," he said. “You leave your ego behind you. You become a frail human being. You’re in tune with nature. You are sublime, almost, on some of the peaks, looking down on the rest of the world. It’s a wonderful, wonderful experience. Climbing is a wonderful sport -- just to get out into nature and into this magical planet that we’re lucky to be on.

“I tell people when they get out onto the edge, it’s where you learn the most. Because you’re pushing yourself and learning your boundaries. You’re learning what you can do and what you can’t. It’s good to get out on that edge. If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space."

He’s right. I must get off my butt. I must climb Rainier. Wherever we reside, whatever our capabilities, we all must push ourselves as high as we can, just as Whittaker has repeatedly done. Not into the death zone, but into the life zone.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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