This week we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jim Whittaker’s first American ascent of Mt. Everest on the Eddie Bauer-outfitted American Mount Everest Expedition. All spring, Whittaker’s epic 1963 story has been retold in compelling detail by media outlets from Outside Magzine and The Seattle Times to Rock and Ice and National Geographic.
But to celebrate the anniversary on the Live Your Adventure blog, we asked his nephew, Eddie Bauer guide Peter Whittaker, about the impact that Big Jim’s climbing partners on that expedition had on his own climbing career. In this report, the co-owner of America’s largest commercial guiding operation reflects on his memorable mountain interactions with Willi Unsoeld, who completed the first ascent of the West Ridge with Tom Hornbein on the AMEE, and with Nawang Gombu, who walked shoulder to shoulder with his uncle to the summit of Everest in 1963.
Words by Peter Whittaker, Images courtesy of the Bishop archives and Keith Gunnar
The Presence of Unsoeld
Outside, the wind roars. It sounds like a freight train, blowing steady at 50 mph and gusting up to 80. As the blizzard rages on, 20 of us are safe and warm inside the wooden hut cabled down at 10,000′ on Mt. Rainier. But I’m scared. I’m only 14 and have never experienced a storm like this. Suddenly the door kicks open and a large, rime-iced figure lurches into the bunkhouse and slams the door shut. The abrupt entrance startles our group, as all eyes settle on the hooded form. Then the hood is shoved back by a snow-crusted mitt, revealing a burly beard and big smile.
“She’s really showing off today!” the man says with a chuckle.
I’m confused. Even in the face of danger, this guy is completely relaxed and jubilant. His enthusiasm immediately has an effect on us all. Tensions ease and a feeling of relief washes over us. The man sheds his parka, walks over to the crowded wooden bench, and sandwiches himself between climbers. Then the stories begin. We sit there mesmerized as he tells of Himalayan expeditions, remote peaks around the world, even the summit of Mt. Everest. This guy has been everywhere. As he continues he pulls off his boot, sets it on his lap, and retrieves a small bag from the toe. Twenty sets of eyes watch as he reaches into the bag, pulls out a handful of M&M’s, and pops them into his mouth. There is a dead silence inside the hut. Who IS this guy?
It was Willi Unsoeld, Everest West Ridge pioneer and alpine climber extraordinaire. That first memory of him is one I will never forget.
The Patience of Gombu
The steps in the snow are simply too far apart for my boots to reach, and it ticks me off. It’s hot, and sweat trickles down my forehead and into my mouth. The sun is baking the backs of my legs; I wish I had listened to my dad and not worn shorts. A man pulls up alongside me. He is short, powerful and making the snow fly with each kick step. He looks at me, smiles and gestures to drop in behind him. I leave the line of climbers and fall in. His steps are perfect for my 15-year-old stride. I start to relax and find a rhythm, following my strong and silent mountain savior. We spend the next hour together, efficiently climbing our way to Camp Muir.
I was following Nawang Gombu, climbing partner to my uncle Jim on the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition and the first man to summit Everest twice.
I didn’t know it then, but Willi and Gombu would have a great impact on my life and climbing career. Growing up and learning how to climb on Mt. Rainier, both men mentored me and taught me valuable life lessons.
Willi and Gombu each possessed what I refer to as “mountain soul.” Their eyes twinkled, they were wise, calculated, and they listened to their clients with patience and empathy.
They taught me how to listen to the mountain and how to become more efficient when climbing. They showed me how to endure hardship, the bitter cold and grueling physical exertion. They reminded me to laugh, and most importantly, to live life to the fullest.
Sadly, Willi was killed by an avalanche in 1979 on a winter climb of Rainier. My father recovered his body.
Gombu lived a long and adventurous life, climbing and guiding on Rainier through early 2000. I was fortunate to guide and work with Gombu for over 30 years. He passed away at his home in Darjeeling, India, two years ago.
These two exceptional men stood on top of Everest on the 1963 American expedition with my Uncle Jim 50 years ago this week. I am grateful to have climbed with Willi and Gombu at such a young age, as they would ultimately help shape my guiding career and teach me how to take care of myself and others in the mountains. I think of them often and say thanks. For the stories and support. For adventure and for my love and respect of climbing. And for not allowing me to view M&M’s the same way ever again. By the way, the M&M’s stored nicely in the front of Willi’s boot due to the extra room he had after losing all of his toes on Everest. What most would have viewed as a disability, Willi conveniently used as a storage compartment.
To learn more about the historic 1963 Eddie Bauer-outfitted American Mount Everest Expedition visit our Everest microsite at www.eddiebauer.com/everest.
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