Jim Whittaker becomes first American to reach Mount Everest summit on May 1, 1963.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 6/07/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1281
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On May 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker of Seattle becomes the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Whittaker works for Seattle-based Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), where he was the first full-time employee and will later serve as CEO.

Jim Whittaker, expedition leader Norman Dyhrenfurth, and two Nepalese guides left Camp 6 at the 27,300 foot level at 6 a.m. They climbed into a howling wind with temperature of 35 degrees below zero. By about 7 a.m., Dyhrenfurth had dropped out and returned to Camp 6 with one of the guides. At 1 p.m., Jim Whittaker and his guide Nawang Gombu reached the summit. They remained at the top of the world for 20 minutes before beginning their return.

Four other Americans reached Everest's summit during the same expedition, which was sponsored primarily by the National Geographic Society. Barry Bishop, an Ohioan, and Lute Jerstad from Oregon followed Whittaker's route to the top by the South Col, some three weeks after he and Gombu had conquered the peak. On the same day, Willi Unsoeld (1926-1979), who lived in both Washington and Oregon, and Tom Hornbein (b. 1930), a Washington anesthesiologist, reached the summit by the previously unclimbed West Ridge. All four had to bivuouac overnight at nearly 28,000 feet because darkness fell before they could reach base camp. Both Bishop and Unsoeld suffered severe frostbite, and each lost several toes.


Don Duncan, Washington: the First One Hundred Years, 1889-1989 (Seattle: The Seattle Times, 1989), 98; "Lute Jerstad," EverestHistory.com website accessed January 3, 2012 (http://www.everesthistory.com/climbers/jerstad.htm); "Willi Unsoeld," Wilderdom website accessed January 3, 2012 (http://wilderdom.com/Unsoeld.htm).
Note: This essay was supplemented on January 3, 2012, expanded and corrected on March 18, 2014, and revised on April 30, 2015.

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