Photograph of Jim Whittaker (right) with photographer James Balog, copyright Merrick Chase / TELLURIDEPHOTOGRAPHY.NET
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Yesterday we caught up with Jim Whittaker, now 80 years old, at the Mountainfilm in Telluride Reading Frenzy, which is basically a book fair filled with impressive adventure authors—Ben Skinner, James Balog, David Breashears. No surprise, Whittaker stood tall (he's almost 6'6") next to an empty box that once held copies of his autobiography, A Life on the Edge. After graciously volunteering to mail us a signed copy, Whittaker answered a couple questions about Everest, risk-taking, and how to avoid taking up too much space.
Q: This past week your nephew, Peter, made it to the top of Everest. You must be one proud uncle.
Jim Whittaker: Absolutely. And I was glad that he was able to climb with Ed Viesturs. You see, Ed’s smart. He used oxygen this time. He’s done it without oxygen many times. But he used it this year to keep an eye on Peter. To help him get up the mountain safely. I really appreciate that.
Ed knows Everest.
He sure does. His first ascent was on the 1990 Everest Peace Climb, a multinational expedition that I organized. I picked Ed to go up with the Chinese and the Soviets on the first team. But he surprised me when he asked to go with the second group. You see, he knew that I wanted the first group to use bottled oxygen to assure their success. Ed wanted to climb the mountain without it.
What did you see in him?
I knew he was a strong climber. That’s why I picked him. But he was also smart. He gave up his bid to get up the mountain first so that he could go without oxygen. He realized there was a risk there, so he went in the second group.
So it doesn't surprise you that he has gained a reputation as one of the best climbers in the world at managing risks?
Not at all. You've got to be a smart climber to summit all 14 8,000-meter peaks without bottled oxygen.
On the other end of the intelligence spectrum, we’ve seen some films this weekend of people doing seemingly crazy things—like free climbing the Eiger and BASE jumping off of it. What do you think of the risks climbers are willing to take today?
James Ramsey Ullman, the author of Americans on Everest, put it this way: Challenge is the core of all human activity. If there's an ocean we cross it. If there’s a record we break it. If there’s a disease we cure it. If there’s a wrong we right it. If there’s a mountain we climb it. These guys want challenge. The human character is to push a little bit farther all the time. These guys are doing things that I would never do.
But you were certainly pushing the limits when you became the first American to climb Everest in 1963.
That’s right. And we still need people to challenge themselves, to push a little bit, to live on the edge. After all, if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.