The Everest climbing window is fairly short, with May being the prime summit month, so most of the feats, triumphs, and tragedies on the mountain are all packed into a few weeks each year. Just so happens, May 1 has seen two significant events on Everest, one brought a bit of closure and poignancy, one was one of the most important moments in American climbing.
On May 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker, a climber from Seattle, became the first American to summit Everest, climbing with Sherpa Nawang Gombu. Everest had only first been climbed a decade earlier, and at that point Whittaker and Gombu were only the seventh and eighth people to reach the summit, part of only the third successful expedition there; in 1956, a Swiss team of climbers were the first to reach the summit after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had in 1953. Whittaker’s climb was part of an expedition led by Norman Dyhrenfurth; upon return to the States, they were celebrated as adventuring heroes.
Adventure Journal spoke with Whittaker in 2013, 50 years after his climb. You should absolutely read the whole interview, but here’s a lovely snippet:
AJ: In the months leading up to the climb, a journalist asked you if you thought the team would summit, and you said, “I will.”
I was probably being a little overconfident [laughing]. But at that time, I was strong as hell. The year before we went up, I was 33. I guided on Mount Rainier, and I’d done the summit about 80 times, and I’d taken people up, and I worked out with weights, and I was very active doing stuff besides working at REI, but my life had been you know really in the mountains.
I also knew that it had been climbed, so I knew that if somebody could get up it, then what the hell, we could get up it. I just felt pretty positive about it for some reason and said, “Yeah. Damn right, we’re gonna climb it.”
What piece of gear would you take now that you didn’t have at the time?
The biggest thing, I think, is boots. I don’t want to fault the company; Lowa was a great company and made a great product. They provided us with the boots we wore almost all the time on the mountain and I wore to the summit. But it was a leather boot, and it was called a Triplex because it had three layers of leather. An inner and outer, and then it had a leather slipper for it, which was good, because you could take the inner piece of leather out and dry it, and have another one to put on. But you know, the leather, it got wet. Just walking into base camp, it got wet. Hell, they never did dry out. You know, they weighed about 3 1/2 pounds apiece, and so you’re just lifting that heavy boot with every step. You’re climbing the mountain about six times before you get to the summit because you’re shuttling back and forth getting supplies up and stuff, so you’re walking in these wet boots.
And now, they’ve got these beautiful – and Lowa does too – beautiful plastic, you know, it doesn’t get wet for god’s sake, and it’s lighter … God, they’re beautiful. I see the guys walking around and I just think, son of a bitch, they’re really lucky to have such a nice product. So that’s the big change.
But it’s funny, you know – the clothing we wore, basically, we had wool, but the down clothing we got from Eddie Bauer – there’s nothing any better now than what we wore 50 years ago. You know, nature’s a pretty good designer.
The food is better, too. That stuff was freeze-dried cardboard. It wasn’t that good. We did carry in Spam. We had Rainier beer, too. God that was good.
On May 1, 1999, Conrad Anker was part of a BBC-sponsored expedition, the “Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition” to locate the bodies of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, the British climbers who neared Everest’s summit 75 years earlier. While speculation swirled for years about how far Mallory’s expedition had made it up the mountain, their bodies had never been found. That May 1, Anker was climbing the northern slope of Everest when he spotted what he first assumed was a flat white rock. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be Mallory’s body, amazingly well-preserved. The video below is from the film crew joining Anker on the expedition once they’ve found Mallory.