In 1963, my father, Jim Whittaker, became the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Now, 47 years later, armed with his original journal and some very warm boots, I’m attempting to follow in his footsteps and to share this adventure with all of you.
Mountains have always played a huge role in my life. Photographs of Himalayan peaks cover the walls of my parents’ home; rare and ancient tomes and histories of vertical endeavors fill the bookshelves. Since climbing Pinnacle Peak in the Tatoosh Range near Mt. Rainier with my father when I was eight years old, I’ve developed a love for the mountains that has propelled me to many summits and many humbling moments along the way. Still, I wasn’t ever sure if I wanted to climb Everest until 2003, when my father, mother, older brother and I trekked into base camp to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that legendary American Mt. Everest Expedition. There at base camp, sitting on a boulder and staring at the Khumbu Icefall, I was overwhelmed by the powerful beauty and almost spiritual force that emanated from the mountain. I knew I wanted to come back. I knew I wanted to give the summit a shot.
Saying goodbye to friends and family transforms the idea of climbing Everest—such an unimaginably grand journey that all visualizations fall short—into a reality. Hugs, kisses and perhaps a few tear-stained eyes accompany the checking of heavy bags, the paying of fees and the shuffle through metal detectors and scanning devices. There’s no turning back.
Soon, the sadness of goodbyes wears off and in its place, excitement blooms. In almost the same instant that I say farewell to my parents—my father, Jim, hugs me and it’s hard to let go—I’m saying hello to Seth Waterfall and Casey Grohm, two of the guides on our expedition, both of whom were on Everest last season. I’m dying to ask them all sorts of questions: How many people will be at base camp? What are the other climbers on our expedition like? How many days will we spend in Kathmandu? Have you ever seen a yeti? I blurt out a few of these, unable to restrain myself. I’m caught up now, entranced by what will come. We still have 21 hours in the air before we even reach Nepal. I’ll find answers, and more questions, soon enough.
Arriving in Kathmandu
Kathmandu: car horns, bustle, heat, smog, chaos. I’m exhausted and disoriented from the travel, the microwaved food, ubiquitous beverages and disorganized immigration officers that ignore me. “The climb is just like this,” jokes Dave Hahn. “You’ll be waiting in the same line at the Hillary Step. The only difference is it will be a lot colder.”
Never has emerging into open air made me feel more claustrophobic than walking out of this airport and being surrounded by half-buttoned shirts, old women and young boys with open palms that beg for a shard of charity. We squeeze past bodies, unable to think of anything but escaping this insanity, this close-knit jumble that, if it weren’t for jet-lag, wouldn’t be so bad. It is quite difficult to bear in this sleep-deprived state. We pile into a van, our heavy duffels strapped to the roof, and motor on the left-hand side of the road towards the hotel.
The Yak and Yeti hotel is our haven. A lukewarm shower (the city’s electricity goes on and off throughout the day) almost makes me forget about the perpetual insanity going on outside these walls. Our team enjoys a buffet dinner in the hotel; I have seconds and thirds. Dave reminds us to be careful of what we eat and to wash our hands often. The most important thing at this juncture in the trip is to avoid getting sick. Given the turbid atmosphere, the contaminated water and the exhaustion from jet-lag this is no simple task.
All I want is to start walking into the mountains. We spend two nights in Kathmandu exploring the tourist district of Tamel, napping and being instructed on the use of our “Top Out” oxygen masks by Ted Atkins, a British gentleman whose manner of speech reminds me of English comedian and actor, Michael Palin. Then it’s a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call, a box of pastries and fruit for breakfast, a drive to the domestic airport and a flight to Lukla, where we will begin our 10-day trek to base camp.
Altitude Takes its Toll
Apparently, Kathmandu has taken its toll because as we board the 15-seat Dornier 228, I’m searching for the air sickness bag. This flight is already heart-wrenching enough: sharp turns into narrow fog-filled valleys, turbulence and a bouncy landing on a short, uphill runway carved into the mountainside. More than a few arrivals have ended badly here but our flight, thankfully, is fairly smooth. The barf bags are still empty when we are greeted by hundreds of smiling Sherpa in the village of Lukla at 9,000-feet.
Nearly 50 years ago, my father, Jim Whittaker, and the American Mt. Everest Expedition had already been hiking for 15 days before they stomped through the same village. Back then, there was no knuckle-biting flight. Instead, there was a meandering and dusty trail that began on the rough and tumble outskirts of Kathmandu. Their team, comprised of 19 mountaineers and more than 900 porters, gradually climbed into this beautiful valley, this magnificent setting in which my team and I have now been deposited.
We must hike for 10 days to get to base camp and the last thing I want to do is sprain an ankle while distracted by nausea. After three hours walking, I can’t keep my guts down any longer. Cresting a steep set of stone stairs finally ruins me. I dash to the side of the trail, lean over a granite wall and vomit. Trekkers stare as they pass, perhaps snapping a memento of my suffering for their scrapbooks. “This is what trekking to Everest can do to a strong young man,” they’ll say to their grandchildren. Little do they know that I’m not just trekking, I’m climbing.
Having expunged the contents of my bowels, I genuinely feel much better. Seth Waterfall and I catch up to the rest of the group and we all mosey into Phak Ding, the river-edge village where we will spend our first night together.
Before I left for Nepal, my father was kind enough to lend me his original journal from the 1963 expedition. Reading entries by headlamp, laying in my cozy, tea-house room with personal toilet and firm mattress, I find a passage that strikes a chord. This from March 3, 1963, “Had a hell of a nite last nite. Woke up sick at 10:30 and threw up all over the tent. What a mess. Then got sick in a pot about five more times during the nite—dry heaves at the last.” Knowing that my father went through a similar experience and that he was still able to climb the mountain, and climb it handily, is a comforting thought. It may take my body a few days to recover, but I know I’m on the mend. It was one hell of a tough day, but I still put one foot in front of the other, I could still push through. I’m not easily giving up.
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