Whittaker, James W. (b. 1929)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 3/16/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9361
See Additional Media

Seattle native Jim Whittaker turned a love of nature and a thirst for adventure into a string of precedent-setting achievements. He was the first American to climb to the top of Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak; the first fulltime employee and eventual CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI); and the leader of the first U.S. expedition to successfully climb K2, the world's second-highest peak. At age 60, he led an International Peace Climb that ranks as the most successful Everest expedition in history. And then he went sailing –  for four years and nearly 20,000 miles with his family. He credited his accomplishments to the Boy Scouts, who fostered his concern for the environment and taught him to camp, hike, and climb; and his mother, who taught him to take chances. "As children, when we would climb up a fence or a tree she would never say 'Be careful' or 'You will fall.' She'd say 'Have fun' or 'Isn't that wonderful?,'" he said. "We never thought we would fail or fall" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1998).

Climbers from an Early Age

James W. "Jim" Whittaker was born on February 10, 1929, 10 minutes ahead of his twin brother Lou Whittaker (1929-2024). They grew up, with their older brother Barney, in the Arbor Heights neighborhood of West Seattle, the sons of Hortense Elizabeth and Charles Bernard Whittaker. Their father sold bank alarms and vault doors.

Full of energy, the twins joined Boy Scout Troop 272 when they were 12, the Explorer Scouts when they were 14, and The Mountaineers club when they were 16. They went from West Seattle High School to Seattle University, where Jim would earn a degree in biology with a minor in philosophy. But their minds were mostly on mountains. While still in college, they scaled many peaks, belonged to the National Ski Patrol, were charter members of the Northwest Mountain Rescue and Safety Council, and served as professional guides on Mount Rainier.

The Whittaker twins graduated from Seattle University in 1952, during the Korean War, and promptly were drafted into the U.S. Army. They spent one more summer guiding on Mount Rainier, then went to Fort Lewis for basic training. Neither was eager for combat. They were able to avoid it, thanks to their already considerable experience and contacts. They were assigned to teach skiing and mountaineering to Special Forces troops at Camp Hale, high in the Colorado Rockies. Before leaving for Camp Hale, Jim married Blanche Patterson, a University of Washington student he met while she was working at the soda fountain at Mount Rainier’s Paradise Inn. She moved with him to Colorado. There, besides skiing and climbing for the Army, Jim began weight training and added 20 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-5 frame. At a rock-hard 205, he was a formidable figure.

Blanche learned she was pregnant in the spring of 1954, allowing Whittaker to get an early discharge and return to Washington with her. He regained his guide job on Mount Rainier that summer and resumed working at Osburn and Ulland, the Seattle sporting goods store where he worked part-time before his Army stint. Their first son, Carl Bernard Whittaker, was born on October 3, 1954.

Working for REI

At age 25, Whittaker was offered a small job that grew into something big. Lloyd Anderson, a mountain-climbing friend, had founded something called the Recreational Equipment Co-operative in 1938 as a way for Northwest climbers to get hard-to-find European mountaineering equipment. It had grown to 600 members with annual sales of $80,000. Anderson asked Whittaker to be its manager for $400 a month plus half a percent of gross sales. Whittaker started on July 25, 1955, replacing a part-time employee who had departed on a climbing expedition. For seven months he was the co-op's only fulltime employee, working in a second-floor accountant’s office at 6th Avenue and Pike Street in downtown Seattle. He stocked shelves, packed orders, and swept floors. The business was incorporated as Recreational Equipment, Inc., in 1956, and soon began a period of phenomenal growth. In 1960, Anderson became fulltime general manager, with Whittaker remaining in charge of sales. When Anderson retired, on January 1, 1971, Whittaker became president and CEO. By the time he left eight years later, REI was a $46 million business with more than 700 employees, branches nationwide, and hundreds of thousands of members.

Invited to Everest

While REI was still operating out of a 20- by 30-foot room, the Whittaker twins already had been to the top of Mount Rainier dozens of times and to the summit of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet. They were ready for bigger things. They got their chance early in 1961. A mountain-climbing movie producer and director named Norman Dyhrenfurth invited them to be part of a 1963 expedition to try to scale Mount Everest, something no American had done. Only nine men had, starting with Edmund Hillary in 1953. Because of Jim’s connection to REI, he was picked to be the expedition’s equipment coordinator.

The team assembled in September 1962 for practice on Mount Rainier. Then, with departure time nearing, Lou Whittaker decided he couldn’t go because he and some partners were about to open a sporting goods store in Tacoma. Jim got the word from one of Lou’s partners rather than from his brother while they were all on a camping trip. After having done almost everything with his twin to that point, including planning and training two years for Everest, Jim reacted angrily. "I felt betrayed," he wrote in his autobiography. "It was a stunning blow" (Whittaker, Life on the Edge, 91).

Big, Strong, and Determined

Jim Whittaker was not the most accomplished of the 20 members of the American Mount Everest Expedition, but he was the biggest and probably the strongest. And he might have been the most determined. Early in January 1963, during psychological testing a month before their departure, each team member was asked to write whether he expected to reach the top. The others, acknowledging the vagaries of high-altitude conditions, wrote that they might or they hoped so. Only Whittaker wrote that he would. "I was strong and powerful and optimistic, and I didn’t know anyone that was any stronger in mountaineering than I was," Whittaker said in a 2010 interview with HistoryLink.org. "And I figured if Hillary could do it, then what the hell, I could do it."

The expedition headed out from Katmandu February 20. It was a massive undertaking, costing more than $400,000, roughly $2.8 million in 2010 dollars. More than a quarter of the costs were paid by the National Geographic Society, by far the biggest backer. There were 27 tons of food and equipment, about 900 porters, and 32 Sherpas, ethnic Tibetans who lived at about 12,000 feet in Nepal and were legendarily strong climbers. The expedition rode by truck for 15 miles, then walked the remaining 170 miles to Everest, forming what Whittaker described as "a mile-long millipede." The hike took a month.

Struggle to the Summit

Two days after they established base camp at 17,800 feet, tragedy struck. Climber John E. Breitenbach of Jackson, Wyoming, was killed while picking his way through the steepest part of the glacier. He was buried under giant blocks of ice. Stunned, the other members of the expedition pondered their loss, then resumed their quest. On April 17, they began stocking upper camps, with Whittaker often the one breaking the trail. His ropemate was Nawang Gombu, a 5-foot-3, 120-pound Sherpa and nephew of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who had summited with Hillary. This was Gombu’s third Everest expedition, including the historic one in 1953.

Whittaker, Gombu, expedition leader Dyhrenfurth, and Sherpa Ang Dawa were the first to attempt to summit. On April 30, they staggered into the highest camp – 27,450 feet, less than 1,600 feet from their goal – and spent the night in a terrible storm. Despite 60 mile-per-hour winds and temperatures as low as minus-30, Whittaker felt he had come too far to stop there. At about 6:15 a.m. May 1, he and Gombu left their tent and headed into a ground blizzard so ferocious that they couldn’t see their feet. Soon they were half-climbing, half-crawling. "No one gave us much of a chance to reach the summit," Whittaker said in 2005. "I didn't know what was happening below. Do you go up or down? All I knew was what I had to do. You were so committed, working for years on this, being halfway around the world. We wanted to summit so bad. You can see how people die" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2005).

On Top of the World

At 1 p.m., they reached the top, stumbling the last 50 feet side-by-side. They were out of oxygen. Whittaker’s two water bottles were frozen solid, and he had frostbite in one eye, despite wearing goggles. He planted an American flag in the ice, and he and Gombu took photos of each other. "It wasn’t sublime or a moment of clarity," Whittaker said in 2010. "I just suddenly thought, we’ve got to get down" (Whittaker interview).

After a scant 20 minutes on the summit, they staggered back to 27,450 feet where Dhyrenfurth and Dawa were waiting. Dyhrenfurth later described what Whittaker had done under the circumstances as miraculous and superhuman (Ullman, p. 190). Conditions were so severe that no more attempts were made for three weeks.

Dyhrenfurth had insisted in advance that names of climbers reaching the top be released only after all assault teams had their chance. News was radioed from base camp to Katmandu on May 2 that two climbers, identified only as a big one and a little one, had reached the top. With media clamoring for details and the expedition stalled by bad weather, Dyhrenfurth relented. On May 9 he radioed Whittaker’s and Gombu’s names, and wire services spread the news.

Four other Americans reached Everest's summit during the same expedition. Barry Bishop, an Ohioan, and Lute Jerstad from Oregon followed Whittaker's route to the top by the South Col some three weeks after he and Gombu had conquered the peak. On the same day, Willi Unsoeld (1926-1979), who lived in both Washington and Oregon, and Tom Hornbein (b. 1930), a Washington anesthesiologist, reached the summit by the previously unclimbed West Ridge. All four had to bivuouac overnight at nearly 28,000 feet because darkness fell before they could reach base camp. Both Bishop and Unsoeld suffered severe frostbite, and each lost several toes. But Whittaker was the name people would remember. "Gradually it dawned on me," he wrote in his autobiography, "that my life had changed forever" (Whittaker, 117).

Hometown, White House Ceremonies

On June 24, Whittaker arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with two of the expedition’s other climbers – Luther G. "Lute" Jerstad, a Mount Rainier guide from Gig Harbor who had reached Everest’s summit on May 22, and Barry Prather, an aeronautics engineer from Ellensburg. They were welcomed as heroes, riding with their families in open convertibles through downtown Seattle, with crowds lining 4th Avenue and serpentine streamers flying from office building windows.

At the Public Safety Building Memorial Plaza, Whittaker was greeted by Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) and received a ceremonial key to the city from Mayor Gordon S. Clinton (b. 1920). At Seattle Center, Seattle University officials presented Whittaker with the school’s first athletic letter for mountaineering. The motorcade then crossed the Mercer Island Floating Bridge and wound its way through Bellevue and Kirkland to Redmond City Park. Because Whittaker and his family lived on Lake Sammamish at the time, he got a ceremonial key to Redmond too.

In a July 8 Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) presented the National Geographic Society’s highest award, the Hubbard Medal, to each member of the Everest expedition. Whittaker‘s photo was on the covers of Life and National Geographic magazines. Stories about him appeared in Newsweek, the Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere. He was recognized by The Seattle Times as the state’s top newsmaker of the year.

Close to the Kennedys

Whittaker’s celebrity status soon brought him into close contact with one of the nation’s most famous families. The National Geographic Society picked him to lead a 1965 expedition up Mount Kennedy, an unclimbed 13,095-foot peak in the Southwest Yukon Territory that had been renamed in honor of the assassinated U.S. President, John F. Kennedy. After accepting the job, Whittaker learned that the president’s brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) would be one of the climbers. They met March 21, 1965, in Seattle and flew to a base camp at 8,700 feet. Three days later, Whittaker let Kennedy be the first to summit. The mountaineer was impressed by the senator’s level of fitness and his quick, inquisitive mind. They established what Whittaker called "a deep and lasting friendship" (Whittaker, Life on the Edge, 127). They went to Washington, D.C., together after the climb, and Whittaker stayed for a while at Hickory Hill, Kennedy’s home in McLean, Virginia, swimming and playing tennis and touch football. The next winter, Whittaker and his family spent Christmas with the Kennedys in Sun Valley, Idaho, the first of several vacations they would share.

When Robert Kennedy decided to run for president, Whittaker became his Washington state campaign manager. They spoke often, including the night of June 4, 1968, when Kennedy won the California primary election. Minutes after they talked by phone, Kennedy was mortally wounded by an assassin. Whittaker flew to Los Angeles that night and joined Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, and younger brother, Edward, at the senator’s hospital bedside. Whittaker was holding Kennedy’s hand when he died, and was a pallbearer in services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and Arlington National Cemetery.

Changes at Home

Whittaker’s marriage had been in trouble since before he climbed Everest, partly, he wrote, because he was gone so often, working long hours during the week and climbing on weekends. And being in the heady company of the Kennedys and their friends added more stress. "The more I grew and the more my life expanded after Everest, the more Blanche seemed to retreat," he wrote (Whittaker, Life on the Edge, 144). The couple divorced in 1971. By then Whittaker was REI’s CEO and president, and they had three sons – Carl, 16; Scott, 14; and Bobby (named for Kennedy), 4. A year later, Whittaker was chairing a meeting of the U.S. National Parks Advisory Boad in Calgary when he met Dianne Roberts, executive assistant to the regional director of Parks Canada. She had graduated from college in three years, had hitchhiked alone around Europe, and had a passion for photography and the outdoors. They were 20 years apart in age, but like-minded in many ways. They married on June 9, 1974, on the deck of his new West Seattle home.

Return to the Himalayas

Whittaker’s next big mountain challenge came when Jim Wickwire, a Seattle attorney, asked him to lead a 1975 expedition up K2, in the Karakoram range between China and Pakistan. At 28,250 feet, it was only about 800 feet shorter than Everest and considered more difficult to climb. Four previous U.S. efforts had failed to reach the top. Included in the expedition were Roberts, Whittaker’s wife, who would photograph the climb for National Geographic, and Lou Whittaker, who in 1969 had founded Rainier Mountaineering Inc., the guide service on Mount Rainier. Finally, the Whittaker twins would climb in the Himalayas together.

It didn’t go well. The expedition was plagued by problems with the porters, terrible weather, avalanche danger, and squabbling among the team members, including complaints that a woman shouldn’t be on the trip. After about five weeks on the mountain, Whittaker declared the expedition a failure.

Determined to learn from that outing, Whittaker assembled another expedition with Roberts in 1978. Lou Whittaker was invited but declined. This time Jim made sure porters understood in advance the terms of their employment. He also added two more women. Although there was some friction about that, the weather was better, the logistics smoother. After 64 days on the mountain, with Whittaker and Roberts cheering from a camp at 22,300 feet, Wickwire and Lou Reichert became the first Americans to reach K2’s summit. Two more made it the next day. The expedition was a history-making success.

New Directions

By then Whittaker was nearly 50, and he and REI were growing apart. Under his guidance, the company had added four stores outside Seattle. Sales and membership were booming. But the bigger the business, the more businesslike it became. Whittaker returned from K2 to what he described as a "somewhat chilly reception" from his board members. They were concerned about how much the K2 expedition had cost them. For his part, Whittaker was increasingly unhappy on the job. "I was tied to my desk, inside, with meetings, paperwork and more meetings. Just sitting," he wrote (Whittaker, Life on the Edge, 205-206). He told the board in December 1978 that he was resigning as CEO and president. After 25 years at REI, he retired when his successor arrived in August 1979.

Retirement meant not inactivity but new directions. Already bluewater sailors, he and Roberts bought a new boat in 1979 and spent more time on the water. They started a family with the birth of Charles (Joss) Roberts Whittaker in 1983. They also bought 35 acres on a bluff west of Port Townsend overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They moved onto that property after the birth of their second son, Leif Roberts Whittaker, early in 1985, and began building a big log house.

During the move, they were blindsided by bad financial news. Whittaker’s co-owner of an outdoor equipment manufacturing company, Whittaker-O’Malley, Inc., admitted to falsifying invoices. Their bank recalled all the company’s loans. Whittaker had to sell many of his assets, including 25 acres of the Port Townsend property, before reaching a settlement. He and Roberts still were able to build their dream home, a 6,000-square-foot structure dubbed the Log Mahal. They got a boost in 1986 when Whittaker took a paid position with stock options to be chairman of the board for Magellan Navigation, a prosperous company making hand-held global positioning devices.

Peace Climb on Everest

Not yet done with mountains, Whittaker agreed to head an international expedition on Everest in 1990. The idea was to bring together mountaineers from Cold War enemies – China, the Soviet Union, and the United States – to demonstrate what could be accomplished through trust and cooperation. As Whittaker wrote in the 1991 American Alpine Journal, "This was before glasnost, before perestroika, before the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, before Gorbachev went to Beijing. We would hold the summit of all summit meetings, enemies becoming friends."

Leading the International Peace Climb required extensive diplomacy. For starters, it would be in Chinese-controlled Tibet, and the Chinese had not allowed Soviets on their soil in 30 years. Whittaker went to both countries to persuade dubious officials of the project’s merits and gain their support. Finally, a party of 30 was assembled, with five designated climbers from each country. A leg injury forced Whittaker off the mountain for about two weeks while camps were being established. When he returned, he was kept busy settling disputes over tactics and negotiating compromises involving multiple languages. Despite those conflicts, the Peace Climb ultimately was the most successful Everest expedition in history. Going up in small groups, 20 climbers reached the summit. One was Ed Viesturs, 30, a Seattle veterinarian and Mount Rainier guide who later became the first person to climb the world’s 14 highest peaks without supplemental oxygen. "Jim Whittaker’s leadership was the glue that held our expedition together," Viesturs wrote in 2006 (Viesturs, 90). Senator Edward Kennedy, in a forward to Whittaker’s autobiography, called him "our first high-altitude diplomat."

Cleaning Up, Sailing Away

Before leaving the mountain, Whittaker’s three-nation group burned, buried, or packed out nearly two tons of trash accumulated from previous expeditions. That had a special appeal to Whittaker, who began developing an environmental consciousness as a Boy Scout. Through the years he had seen evidence of nature being "loved to death" by growing numbers of hikers and climbers. From the early days of REI, he tried to minimize the damage. He organized cleanups and promoted practices such as staying on switchback trails and packing out anything you packed in. "My thought was that if people get out in nature, it’s like going to church," he said in 2010. "I realized we were (negatively) impacting that" (Whittaker interview).

In 1996, Whittaker and Roberts sold their Port Townsend home, bought a 53-foot steel-hulled ketch named Impossible, loaded up their sons – Joss, 13, and Leif, 11 – and set sail. They traveled for four years and nearly 20,000 miles, with extended stops in Fiji and Australia, studying the cultures of the places they visited. And then it was time for reflection. Forty years after their historic climb, Whittaker, 74, and Gombu, 69, met again on Mount Everest. This time their families were with them. They hiked 40 miles to base camp, then climbed to about 18,000 feet for a toast.

Celebrating a Still Active Life

In 2009, the Whittaker twins celebrated their 80th birthday with nearly 300 friends and relatives at the Space Needle. Jim was the one with a successful summit of Everest, but Lou had him beaten substantially on at least one count. The score for number of times to the top of Mount Rainier was Lou 250, Jim 80. Lou died on March 24, 2024, at the age of 95.

Even after double knee replacement surgery, Jim Whittaker was still skiing at age 81. He also was an active public speaker. He liked to stress that life is an adventure and that nature is the best teacher. "My thrust," he said, "is to get the people out. I tell them there should be ‘no child left inside’" (Whittaker interview).


Jim Whittaker, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1999); Robert L. Jamieson Jr., "Mountaineers’ Mother Hortense Whittaker Dies," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 9, 1998, p. B-6; James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest: The Official Account of the Ascent Led By Norman G. Dyhrenfurth (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1964); Sherry Stripling, "At His Peak: Twenty-five Years Ago on Everest, Jim Whittaker Defined the Northwest Hero," Pacific Magazine, April 17, 1998, pp. 10-19; Glenn Drosendahl interview with Jim Whittaker, March 9, 2010; Dan Raley, "Forever First: Ascent of Everest in 1963 Made Jim Whittaker a Seattle Icon and a Lasting American Hero," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 26, 2005, p. D-1; "Welcome Mat Set For Hero of Climb," The Seattle Times, June 23, 1963, p. 43; "Whittaker and Jerstad Receive Civic Welcome: Families Greet Conquerers of Everest," ibid., June 24, 1963, p. 1; Sally Ryan, "Whittaker Was Top State Newsmaker," Ibid., December 29, 1963, p. 9; Jim Whittaker, "Everest International Peace Climb," American Alpine Journal, 1991, pp. 47-51; Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, "No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks" (Portland: Broadway Books, 2006); David Andriesen, "A Great View From the Top: The Whittaker Boys, Seatttle Climbing Legends, Turn 80," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 11, 2009, p. C-1; "Lute Jerstad," EverestHistory.com website accessed January 3, 2012 (http://www.everesthistory.com/climbers/jerstad.htm); "Willi Unsoeld," Wilderdom website accessed January 3, 2012 (http://wilderdom.com/Unsoeld.htm); "REI History,' REI website accessed April 30, 2015. Note: This entry was supplemented on January 3, 2012, and March 18, 2014, and corrected on April 30, 2015.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You