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Famed mountaineer offers his story

Tim Mutrie

World renowned mountaineer and businessman Jim Whittaker attributes much of his success in life to luck.

Whittaker – who on May 1, 1963 became the first American to reach the 29,028-foot summit of Mount Everest – said in a phone interview yesterday from his Seattle-area home, “I’ve been lucky. I call it a lot of luck. And, being in the right place at the right time.”

The charmed Seattle native, now age 71, was the first full-time employee of the outdoor gear co-op Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) back in 1955, when it occupied a cramped upstairs space in downtown Seattle. As luck would have it, Whittaker stayed on with REI over the years and became its president and CEO in 1970. Nowadays, REI does $750 million in annual sales and boasts 62 independent outlets throughout the world.

If luck led Whittaker a climbing career, though, it was climbing that showed him how lucky he is.

“When you climb, you’re exploring yourself, too,” Whittaker said, “and you’re more aware that you’re mortal and that means you appreciate life more, I think. You know for a fact you’re lucky to be on the planet.”

Last August, Whittaker published his memoirs, “A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond,” that will serve as the basis for an upcoming presentation in Aspen.

On Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Red Brick Arts and Recreation Center, Whittaker will present a slide show chronicling much of his life, from his early climbing days to recent adventures with his family circumnavigating the Earth on a 55-foot ketch, the Impossible. The $5 admission fee will benefit the Red Brick’s climbing wall.

“I’ll try to hit most of it,” Whittaker said, including 1963 on Everest, a failed expedition to K2 in 1975, followed by a successful return in 1978 that put the first Americans on the summit, a first ascent up Mt. Kennedy in the Canadian Yukon with Robert Kennedy, the 1990 Russian-Chinese-American Everest Peace Climb and his experiences with REI. “It’ll cover more or less my whole life.”

During the 1963 expedition to Everest, Whittaker and Sherpa Gombu were the first of six climbers from the team to summit over a three-week period in May. Whittaker says he and Gombu remain close today.

“He’s a hero over there, they made a stamp for him and he’s got a chauffeur to drive him around,” Whittaker said. “He comes to Mt. Rainier once and a while to guide for my brother Lou. We want to go back to Everest base camp together, and I want to take my two youngest kids, so he said, `Let’s do it before we die.’ And I aim to.”

Jim’s twin, Lou, has operated a guide service on Rainier since the 1960s, and it was guiding on Mt. Rainier in the late ’40s, early ’50s with Aspenite and accomplished mountaineer Bil Dunaway when the Whittaker twins got their start.

“It all started with Dunaway,” Whittaker said. “He’s the one who started us guiding on Mt. Rainier, and I’d compliment him on that, because when you guide, you learn how to climb better. And Bil certainly taught us that.”

Of Mt. Rainier, which is visible from Whittaker’s Port Townsend home, “they say you’re crazy not to climb it once, but you’re really crazy to climb it more than once,” Whittaker said. “I’ve done it 80 times, so go figure.”

Whittaker’s latest adventure pits him against the high seas, as he and his wife Dianne Roberts and their two sons, ages 15 and 17, are attempting to sail around the globe – but not all at once.

“The saying up here in Port Townsend is that you sail south until the butter melts and then you head west,” Whittaker said of the family’s navigational inspiration. “We made it to Puerto Vallarta, the butter melted and we headed west out into the South Pacific.”

Currently the boat is near Brisbane, Australia.

“We’re going to sale the Great Barrier Reef this summer and into New Guinea, but we’ll see,” he said. “We don’t have a plan to finish. We’ve found that the best plan is no plan – the journey is the reward, not the end of the journey, simply the journey itself. And believe me, we’re enjoying the planet. We spent eight months in Fiji, a few months in French Polynesia; who knows where we’ll hole up next.”


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