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Photograph of Jim Whittaker on the summit of Mt. Everest

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Identifier: A_NatGeo_Oct1963_500.jpg ...
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AMERICA, ATOP THE WORLD
 
It took nearly five weeks of route finding, load carrying, rope fixing and sitting out storms before a summit team (and a second, follow-up team) was positioned on the South Col. Finally, on April 30, “Big Jim” Whittaker, Nawang Gombu, Norman Dyhrenfurth, and Ang Dawa Sherpa established Camp 6, at 27,600 feet on the Southeast Ridge.
 
The morning of May 1, 1963, Big Jim and Gombu emerged from their wind-blasted tents. The weather was too harsh for a summit attempt, but their depleted oxygen supply wouldn’t allow them to wait another night. They donned every shred of their clothing and strapped on 50-pound packs stuffed with camera gear, oxygen bottles, and water. With their oxygen flow dialed to an austere two liters per minute, their rate of ascent slowed to only 700 feet in the first two hours.



“The morning of May 1, 1963, Big Jim and Gombu emerged from their wind-blasted tents. The weather was too harsh for a summit attempt, but their depleted oxygen supply wouldn’t allow them to wait another night.”


 
At 11:30 a.m. they reached the South Summit, and beheld the grail-like apex only 287 vertical feet above. Whittaker was as thirsty as he was exhausted, but his water bottles had frozen solid. He harvested some precious fluid by breaking off the icicles that formed by condensation inside his oxygen mask.
 
“You go first,” Whittaker said just before they reached the top. “No—you go first,” Gombu responded. At one o’clock, they stepped onto the summit together. “I slapped Gombu on the back,” Whittaker recounted. “We hugged each other. It was very windy, very cold, and my fingers and toes were numb.”



“‘You go first,’ Whittaker said just before they reached the top. ‘No—you go first,’ Gombu responded.”


 
Only four people had touched Everest’s summit before them (not counting the claim that three Chinese summited in 1960, disregarded by some as specious). Whittaker unfurled the American flag—which had flown from the cupola of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.—and planted it into the summit snow. He took photos of Gombu holding flags of India, the United Nations, and India’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Gombu photographed Whittaker with the National Geographic and Nepal flags flapping from his ice ax. At the base of the American flag Gombu gently placed a kata blessing scarf given him by his renowned uncle, Tenzing Norgay. As Whittaker stood on top of the world, he described feeling “not expansive, not sublime. I felt like a frail human being.”



“‘I felt like a frail human being.’”


 
At Base Camp, radio operator Al Auten was able to hail a ham operator in Ceylon. He asked the ham to relay a coded message to Kathmandu:Two mail runners left Base at 1300 hours on May one. Expedition scribe James Ramsey Ullman heard the message and immediately understood: the expedition had placed two climbers on Everest’s summit at 1 p.m. of May 1. The next morning, the team heard congratulations from President Kennedy delivered via the BBC, on a shortwave radio.
 
Norman Dyhrenfurth had insisted, and the team concurred, that disclosure of the names of summiters be delayed until all of the attempts were concluded. But the porter grapevine had reached Kathmandu. To quash further rumors and leaks, during the May 9, 1963 evening radio call, the names of Whittaker and Gombu were released. America was back on the map of the world.  



“The next morning, the team heard congratulations from President Kennedy delivered via the BBC, on a shortwave radio.”



Jim Whittaker’s subsequent trajectory as CEO of REI, Inc. coincided with the development of the Kelty frame pack, and with other bold innovations in outdoor travel—equipment that would lure a fast-growing number of sedentary Americans into the mountains and remote places. Nawang Gombu became known and respected throughout India, and he assumed the directorship of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, in the footsteps of his uncle Tenzing.

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Description Iconic photograph of Jim Whittaker on the summit of Mt. Everest. Whittaker was the first United States citizen to reach the summit as a member of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition.
Date May 1 1963
Rights and Intellectual Property Under copyright protection.
Conditions Governing Reproduction See copyright description for reproduction information.

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