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Jim Whittaker’s Mount Everest advice: Come back

Thu., Oct. 28, 2010, 9:10 a.m.

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — When Leif Whittaker left home last winter on his way to scale Mount Everest, his father — who was the first American to make the trek to the 29,000-foot summit in 1963 — had some important advice.

“He told me that it was important get to the top,” said the Port Townsend native.

“But that it was crucial to make it back down.”

The younger Whittaker talked at the Northwest Maritime Center on Tuesday night, presenting details about his trip, which culminated with the 25-year-old spending less than 30 minutes at the top of the world on May 25.

The 200 people present turned the evening into a sellout event, necessitating the scheduling of a second presentation at 7 p.m. Nov. 11. at the Northwest Maritime Center, 431 Water St., Port Townsend.

Whittaker was shooting to get to the summit on May 1, which would have been the 47th anniversary of the accomplishment of his father, Jim Whittaker.

He spent a week at the closest camp to the summit waiting for the weather to change, but it didn’t cooperate.

When it looked like the weather window was closing, he began to think he might never reach the top.

“I began to think about why I was there, and wasn’t sure that I would get a chance to make the climb,” he said.

“I began to wonder what it would be like to disappoint all of you, and whether I could get (sponsor) Eddie Bauer to pay for another trip.”

The weather was so cold “the only reason you ever wanted to leave your tent was to empty your pee bottle,” he said.

But that changed.

“I was in my tent and started to say a prayer to the mountain, that I would get one good shot at the top,” he said.

“I went to sleep for about 20 minutes — which was the longest that I had slept in several days — with the prayer on my lips, and when I awoke, the weather was clear and clean and I could see Mount Everest.

“So I laced up my boots and climbed to the top.”

Whittaker spoke for about 75 minutes, aided by slides, videos and a healthy dose of humor.

He provided some technical details, and told about the obstacles he overcame to get to the top, while providing anecdotal accounts about life on the mountain.

He said there was a lot of waiting, as the expedition went up the mountain a little more each day before returning to base camp, which had a lot of conveniences, relatively speaking.

Everyone had their own three-man tent, where they could get away from all the other people “and have a little mental down time,” Whittaker said.

There were games such as chess, Scrabble and Horseshoes.

“I was always getting beaten at chess, and I hoped that a combination of the altitude and my improving skill would get me a win, but that took a long time,” he said.

“And with Scrabble, I learned every Q-without-a-U word in existence.”

There was also a poker tournament in which Whittaker came in fifth, but the winner received an all-expense-paid trip to the Bahamas.

At the end of the presentation, Jim Whittaker joined his son in a question-and-answer session, where the two compared the trips and their respective differences.

Jim said the most substantial technical improvement was newly designed boots.

When he made the climb, his feet stayed wet for weeks.

Leif said he admired his father’s ability to make the climb without fixed ropes, something that he would never attempt.

Jim said the first thing that Leif said at the airport was, “Dad, you did some crazy —— up there.”

Leif said he rehearsed his public presentation about four times at home before taking it public, and he hopes to refine it and give it in other places if people are interested.

To book Whittaker for the presentation contact him at leif.whittaker(at)

Tickets to the Nov. 11 presentation are available at the Wildernest Outdoor Store, 929 Water St., and at the Wooden Boat Chandlery in the Northwest Maritime Center.

Advance tickets are $15 or $12 for Northwest Maritime Center members.

They will be $20 at the door, if space remains.

Proceeds benefit youth outdoor education programs at the Northwest Maritime Center, with a portion going to Whittaker.

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