Jim Whittaker: Pioneer Everest-climber works to get people off the couch, outdoors
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Jim Whittaker of Port Townsend is still enraptured by the landscape: “You look over there and can see Mount Baker on a clear day. Over there, you can see Rainier. This view is like a broken drum. You can’t beat it.” -- Photo by Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest, wants to see young people get off the couch and enjoy the outdoors.

“We’ve got to get people outside and learning about the planet,” said Whittaker, a Port Townsend resident.

“If they learn about it, maybe they’ll take care of it.”

Whittaker refers to this informal effort to get youth interested in nature as “no child left inside.”

Whittaker, 84, climbed Mount Everest in 1963 and has spend the intervening years bringing a naturalist message to the public, using his expedition as a jumping-off point to get people interested in nature.

Whittaker published a book about his experiences, A Life on the Edge, in 1999, and has updated the book to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Everest expedition.

He hopes that people who read the book or hear him speak come away with a respect for nature and the outdoors.

“We’ve got to work harder to get the kids outside,” he said.

“It used to be that kids would have gym class and recess where they would go outside and jump around every day,” he added.

“I don’t know if they do that anymore.

“A lot of kids can’t tell an alder tree from a cedar tree,” Whittaker said.

“How are you going to preserve it if you don’t know anything about it?”

Whittaker said that a lot of people are ignorant about nature and need to learn its value.

“There are a lot of uneducated people who are relying on the old values,” Whittaker said.

“They don’t know any better and insist there is no such thing as global warming, so we have to educate the bastards.”

Whittaker said he has witnessed global warming firsthand, saying that ice formations that were on Mount Rainier when he started climbing no longer exist.

In the updated A Life on the Edge, Whittaker has added information about his son Leif Whittaker’s two trips up Mount Everest, the latest in May.

He also fleshes out the original story with excerpts from his diaries and recollections.

While the first edition included some pictures, the new version is considerably more visual, interspersing the text with pictures that supplement the story.

Whittaker wrote the book with no ghostwriter, using a conversational tone.

“This is like sitting around the campfire. This is how I tell stories,” he said.

The Port Townsend City Council passed a resolution in his honor on Monday night and he had a lunch scheduled with Gov. Jay Inslee this week.

A longtime Democrat, he was close friends with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who he took on an expedition up Mount Kennedy in Kluane National Park in the Yukon in Canada.

Whittaker told how the two scaled the mountain and developed a friendship, and how Whittaker spoke to the senator moments before Kennedy’s June 1968 assassination.

Whittaker admires the Kennedy family, saying they would “stick their neck out” on social issues.

“Bobby had such compassion for children and other people and would have been a great president,” Whittaker said.

“Instead, we got Nixon and it was a real difference.”

Whittaker said that “Bobby wanted me to run for Congress in 1966.”

“I didn’t want to,” he said. “I spent some time in Washington but I thought it would have killed me back there.”

He enjoys what he finds in Port Townsend.

“You look over there and can see Mount Baker on a clear day. Over there, you can see Rainier,” he said while on the outer deck of the Northwest Maritime Center.

“This view is like a broken drum. You can’t beat it.”

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 16. 2013 6:07PM
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