Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Life on the Edge, by Jim Whittaker

Jim Whittaker, the first American to stand on the summit of Everest, writes his memoirs in A Life on the Edge. Early on, he and his twin brother, Lou (see Lou's Memoirs of a Mountain Guide), discovered a passion for the mountains, and focused their lives on climbing, skiing, mountain rescue, guiding, and gear. While Lou focused on guiding and eventually started up his own gear shop, Jim was hired in Seattle as the first employee at the Co-op, later to become REI. Jim's decision to work at the Co-op was fortuitous, as business boomed, and later it provided the financial security necessary for him to participate in the 1963 American Mount Everest expedition, whereas Lou couldn't bring himself to leave his family for four months without an income and declined. Jim climbed strongly on the Everest expedition and was chosen for the first summit team, along with Nawang Gombu. Theirs was a stormy ascent, very early in May, that preceded later summit attempts by several weeks, including an traverse from the West Ridge to the South Col by Tom Hornbien and Willi Unsoeld and another traditional ascent by Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop. Jim happened to be wearing some of the Vibram-soled boots that he sold at the Co-Op during his summit climb, and the president of the American manufacturer decided to offer him an endorsement deal that ended up making him more money that his job at REI.

Jim famously led two expeditions to K2 in 1975 and 1978 as well as the 1990 International Peace Climb of Mount Everest. The 1975 expedition was riddled with storms, both physical and interpersonal, in addition to great difficulties even getting to the mountain. The 1978 trip still had the interpersonal storms, but four climbers made it to the summit. The 1990 Everest climb was a logistical marvel, with three nations with quite a bit of bad blood between them sending climbers to scale Everest from the north together. The climbers got along marvelously, though the Russians did lie about their oxygen use on the first summit climb. Amazingly, six climbers, two from each nation, made it to the top on the first summit attempt, and several other climbers followed. This climb was Ed Viesturs first successful climb of Everest (see his No Shortcuts to the Top) with many more to follow.

I found it fascinating to read Lou and Jim Whittaker's memoirs back-to-back. Many of their shared experiences, such as their close call on Mount Index, their speed ascent of Mount McKinley, and the 1975 K2 expedition, have different details in their telling. I was amused that in the episode in which Jim saved some people in a car after an avalanche that overtook the road, he mentions that afterward he had a great time skiing. He fails to mention that the car Lou was in happened to be on the other side of the debris and had to return home. For the 1975 K2 climb, Jim, the expedition leader, singled out Galen Rowell as the major negative influence on the team, whereas Lou, just a climber, felt that it was more of an us-versus-them situation. The perspectives of the books are different as well, with Jim focusing inward on his family, his career, and finances, and Lou talking more about his associates and the business of guiding. I'd recommend either, as they are both entertaining and enlightening accounts of great men.

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