Friday, January 22, 2010

Mountain Man

Remember back when the new $20 bills came out? About six years or so ago? My job at the time had me in charge of the Seattle launch of these bills. (I was but one of a large team of folks doing this all over the country.)

Since it was a day of history, I thought it'd be cool to have an American hero buy the first latte with a snappy new Andy Hamilton, funky colors and all.

Luck led me to Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest (on May 1, 1963). Not only was he game for my little media shindig but he showed up to the event on time, with his lovely wife, Diane Roberts, and was the happiest fellow ever. He cheerfully did whatever I asked of him - say a few words, whip out the new $20, buy a coffee, pose for photos, etc. - and did it amiably.

Now here's a fellow who not only was the first to plant the American flag at the summit - after having run out of oxygen - but he went on to do it 250 more times.
When President John F. Kennedy presented him with The Hubble Medal for the initial ascent (after his hometown, Seattle, threw him a parade), Jim famously uttered what has now become a bumper sticker philosophy:

"If you aren't living on the edge, you are taking up too much space."

Two years later, Kennedy's brother, Sen. Robert Kennedy, visited the Northwest and developed an interest in climbing Mount Kennedy, an unconquered Canadian peak named for his late brother.

"I said, 'Has he ever climbed before?' No. 'Does he know this peak has never been climbed before?' Yes, but he still wants to go...We stopped 50 feet below the summit and he walked up and became the first human being to stand there....That was a wonderful experience. It was one of those times when the tears freeze on the front of your parka. He was in better shape than some of the guys I had on Everest. I couldn't believe it."

--Jim Whittaker, on guiding Robert Kennedy to the first ascent of Mount Kennedy

Jim and Sen. Kennedy instantly became buddies and would take off on climbing, skiing and rafting trips together. Unfortunately, Jim was head of Kennedy's campaign in Washington when Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. Jim was a pallbearer at Kennedy's funeral.

"I'm telling you, he would have changed the planet,"
Jim has said in interviews. "That was a very tough time."

And if that weren't all enough for historical credentials, note that Jim was also the first full-time employee of Recreational Equipment, Inc., what we know now as REI. I've read that he was also its CEO for a time. Not shocking.

But after all these accomplishments and things he'd seen, you know what he talked to me about? His wife. He just kept bragging about her and her own climbing accomplishments. My brain has lost track of specifics but I recall hearing the phrase "the first woman to climb ..." quite a few times. He beamed at her and she gave a cute, "Aw, shucks" look. Totally endearing.

Anyway, I recently conducted some business at the Colorado Mountain Club in Golden. One of the lovely gals I'd met with happened to have one of Jim's boots from the original Everest ascent in 1963. (They were adding it to the Mountaineering Museum a floor below.)

That monster weighed at least 3-4 pounds, and that is without crampons. It was huge - I could have lost an arm in there. Here is my foot in comparison:

Literally and historically, those are some big ass shoes to fill.

1 comment:

Heidi's heart said...

Isn't that beautiful when really fantastic men talk endearingly of their wives? Wow, it gives me hope--and makes me jealous