Five Miles Up with … Jim Whittaker

Bekah Wright
five miles up

Fifty years ago, on May 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American to climb Mount Everest. To celebrate, the 84-year-old mountaineer is releasing a special edition of his memoir, "A Life On The Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond." “The summit of Everest is 29,000 feet, about five miles up, so this interview seems appropriate,” he said when we spoke with him. As one would expect, the avid adventurer has covered a lot of territory. “Nature is a great teacher,” he said. “People need to step into it to learn about the planet and themselves.” When it comes to favorite destinations in nature, Whittaker doesn’t play favorites. Indeed, he can’t seem to pick just one.

What’s something you never fail to pack in your suitcase/backpack?
A toilet kit packed with the usual accoutrements – medications, sunscreen, toothbrush, razor -- is essential.

Carry-on or check-in?
I do both – a fast trip carry-on, a long trip, check-in.

Window or aisle?
I love the window. You can look at out at the magical planet and see the country as you fly.

Do you catch sight of places you’ve hiked to?

Oh yeah. When flying out of Sea-Tac Airport (Seattle), I look at Mount Rainier, which I’ve hiked up 80 times or, when flying north, Mount McKinley. When flying into Bangkok you can see the Himalayas. And then there’s the Antarctica … We really do live on a magical planet

What’s your idea of the perfect vacation?
A vacation that’s close to nature – in the mountains or at the seashore – topped off with a visit to a big city. There are so many different varieties of landscapes to see.

Tell us about a vacation you’ve taken that’s come close thus far.
There are the short ones that last two weeks to places like Sun Valley, Idaho, for great skiing. Then there were the four years we sailed our 50-foot pilothouse ketch, "The Impossible," through French Polynesia. Bora Bora is a helluva spot. But then, so is Kicking Horse up in Golden British Columbia.

What’s the worst mishap you’ve had while traveling?
I’ve had close calls and been in avalanches. You learn something each time. Last May, I was trekking up Everest in Nepal and, at 17,000 feet, got the worst diarrhea I’ve ever had. I had to turn around and head back down to Base Camp, where the sanitation and toilets are still pretty primitive. The good part was heading to the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok where, after no shower for 10 days, there was hot water and all the comforts of home. I’ve stayed there several times; it’s my favorite hotel.

How would you describe Mount Everest?
The summit of Mount Everest is the roof of world. It’s incredibly beautiful and majestic. It was well-named by the Tibetans and Sherpa as Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World. It’s the highest point on the planet; above that you step into air.

Where has been a favorite trekking destination?
Antarctica. I’m used to snow and ice at altitude in the death zone, where nothing lives. Antarctica was a surprise. It’s all ice, so you’d think there’d be nothing there, but it’s teeming with life – penguins, seals, whales ...

What's the most unusual souvenir you’ve ever brought back?
An ivory Buddha from Everest before the ivory curtailment, a palm tree from Hawaii, which we planted in the backyard, and rugs from Tibet.

Ever try a food that you wished you hadn't?

Recently, the Explorers in New York City had their annual dinner and honored me, Don Walsh and John Glenn as the first American to climb the highest, the first to dive the deepest and the first to orbit the Earth. As appetizers, they served rats, scorpions, worms and goat. I tried everything. The goat was OK

Biggest regret you've ever had while on vacation?
Not wearing enough sunscreen in Auckland, New Zealand, where, because of the ozone layer, the sun is so much more intense. I got terribly sunburned when there attending the funeral of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first mountaineer to climb Everest.

The one thing you're willing to splurge on above all else.
A good meal and a local excursion into the natural environment.

Three artists on your travel playlist?
From Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. to Mud Honey and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Where would you take someone visiting your hometown of Port Townsend, Wash., for the first time?
I’d bring them to the house for the view of the Olympic Mountains, where I first started to climb. They’re only 8,000 feet high, but they have glaciers year-round on the peaks. Next, we’d go to the Boat Haven or Point Hudson marinas for boating to look at orcas, seals and blackfish. Then, deep into a forest, where it’s so quiet, you can’t hear anything but true silence.

You only get one more trip in your lifetime. Where will it be?
I’d take as many friends and family as I could to Antarctica.