Who Was the First American Man To Climb Mount Everest?

After Mount Everest was climbed, mountaineers around the world scrambled to be the first from their country to climb the world’s highest mountain.

The first American man to climb Mount Everest was Jim Whittaker, reaching the summit by the South Col route on May 1, 1963. He was born on February 10, 1929 which made him 34 years old at the time. This is the average age of Everest summiteers.

It was ten years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had climbed Mount Everest, and Jim Whittaker was the tenth person to climb the mountain. I climbed with Jim Whittaker on his last Mount Everest expedition, the 1990 Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb, so I got to meet the great man. Read on to find out more about “Big Jim” Whittaker…

The First American To Summit Everest: Jim Whittaker

Jim Whittaker wasn’t only the first person from North America to climb the world’s highest mountain, he was also one of those Everesters with an interesting back story. I was attached to his 1990 expedition with American cameraman David Breashears, the first American to reach the summit twice.

“Along with Willi Unsoeld, Jim is far and away the most interesting of the American mountaineers, because he’s done so much else.”

Louis Reichardt (source National Geograpic)

We were filming Galahad of Everest, the story of actor Brian Blessed following George Mallory’s doomed climb of the mountain. See Climbing Mount Everest With Brian Blessed – The Story We got to talk to Big Jim in the mess tent, and he told us his life story.

Before he climbed Everest, he told us, he was a soldier and before that a mountain guide in the Pacific North-West. He was drafted into the US Army during the Korean War, along with 1,529,538 other soldiers. All that remains in the public imagination is the M*a*s*h film and TV series, and most people now seem to think that M*a*s*h was something to do with Vietnam.

“As college graduates with minors in philosophy, it didn’t take us long to figure out the philosophy of the military during the Korean War: Forget thinking; learn to kill.”

Jim Whittaker (source: A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond. (1999))

His twin brother Lou and he were accomplished alpinists so they were sent to the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command at Camp Hale, Colorado to be instructors:

“In addition to skill training, we played war games, chasing and being chased by ‘enemy’ patrols, ‘dynamiting’ (with wooden blocks) the railroad tracks that ran over the pass, being ‘captured,’ and ‘escaping’ into the woods for a week and building shelters out of fir trees and aspens. For the most part, it was a lot more like fun than work.”

Jim Whittaker (source: A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond. (1999))

After the Army, Jim became a businessman. He helped a friend to build REI into a top outdoor equipment company from a single shop with a flooded cellar into a multibillion-dollar retail chain with 168 stores in 39 states (source: freerangeamerican.us). Of course, Jim’s climb of Everest helped sales no end. He was a multi-millionaire by the time I met him. But he was still modest, and acknowledged that Everest is a tough call:

“We knew we had not conquered the mountain. Our team struggled for months. We had lost one man in an ice fall; others lost toes and fingers. We were survivors of the mountain. To claim we had conquered this monument of nature would have been flagrant arrogance, for there was no enemy up there to be conquered…no enemy but ourselves, our weaknesses and errors.”

Jim Whittaker (source: A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond. (1999))
Jim Whittaker speaking in 2005. Photo (c) Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0

Funnily enough, Whittaker’s summit success wasn’t the high point of the 1963 US expedition. That has to be the quite remarkable traverse of the mountain by Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein, ascending Mount Everest’s unclimbed West Ridge and descending the “standard” South Col route, just three weeks after Whittaker’s summit. It was the first ascent from the peak’s West ridge, and the first traverse of a major Himalayan peak (source: wikipedia). The climb cost Unsoeld nine of his toes, but it remains one of the most remarkable climbs in the annals of Himalayan mountaineering. On the decent they were benighted and had to sit down on the South Ridge:

“The night was overwhelming empty. The black silhouette of the Lhotse Mountain was lurking there, half to see, half to assume, and below of us. In general there was nothing – simply nothing. We hung in a timeless gap, pained by an intensive cold air – and had the idea not to be able to do anything but to shiver and to wait for the sun arising.”

Tom Hornbein (source: Everest: The West Ridge)

There was more to come on Everest. Jim Whittaker’s 1990 Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb was a genuine attempt to make the world a better place. The plan was to bring together mountaineers from Cold War hostile nations to show what could be accomplished through cooperation.

As Whittaker wrote in the 1991 American Alpine Journal, ‘This was before glasnost, before perestroika, before the Reagan–Gorbachev summit, before Gorbachev went to Beijing. We would hold the summit of all summit meetings, enemies becoming friends.’

He went on:

“We thought, what can we do that would be a worthwhile payback to the world? What’s the biggest threat? Nuclear war. And who has the most bombs? The Soviets, the Chinese and the Americans. Why don’t we form a team, get these guys together and stand on Earth’s highest point with their arms around each other demonstrating friendship and co-operation?”

Jim Whittaker (source: forbes.com)

This expedition put two Soviet, two Chinese and two American climbers on the summit. It was the first time that the three nations had collaborated to climb a mountain.

The International Peace Climb certainly required diplomatic leadership! We were in Chinese-controlled Tibet, using Mallory’s North Ridge route and the Chinese had not allowed Soviets on their soil in 30 years.

Whittaker had been to both countries to get their leaders’ support, and it was a laudable effort on his part. But it wasn’t exactly peaceful. Whittaker had to leave the expedition early on with a medical problem and returned from Kathmandu two weeks later to find several disputes brewing.

The American flag with a mountain backdrop

Some of the Soviet climbers – who, quite frankly, were prima donnas – objected to doing the washing-up, presumably because back home they would have staff to do that sort of thing. Chinese climbers were seen hiding food up the hill behind boulders, and some of the Americans complained that they were paying for everything.

I witnessed one actual fistfight, but the trip was successful in that it got 20 climbers to the top – the highest number on a single expedition thus far. Ed Viesturs, a 30-year-old veterinary surgeon from Seattle, was there on his first Everest summit, and he would go on to climb all the 8,000m peaks without supplementary oxygen.

One day we walked up to the main camp with our team to film a satellite phone call that Whittaker was due to make to President George H. W. Bush (the father). This must have been the first satellite phone on Everest as they were invented in 1989. As we approached we saw a cluster of concerned looking climbers standing around the vital petrol generator that was supposed to power the presidential call.

One by one they would pull on the starter-cord and the engine would run for a minute. Then it would die. Apparently, they had tried everything: fresh fuel, fresh oil, new plugs, and so on. But it wouldn’t keep running, so the phone call was off.

As the crowd melted away I decided to take a look, being something of a mechanic. I noticed there was a pair of wires disappearing into a switch mounted on the oil-pan that was designed to turn the engine off if the oil level fell dangerously low. The level was OK on the dip-stick, but what if the sensor switch was faulty?

I removed the wires and joined them. Then I pulled the engine into life. It ran – and kept on running. The crowd regathered, and so our filming was back on.

In the end, David Breashears, Brian Blessed and I, carrying an Arriflex 35mm film camera, film magazines and a tape recorder, managed to get to where Somervell sat down to die of asphyxiation on the North Ridge, at approximately 25,500ft (7,750m). See How Oxygen Was First Used in Mountaineering and on Everest.

I was very conscious that the body that Frank Smythe saw was just a few hundred yards away, but there was nothing I could do. It turned out to be the body of George Mallory that my expedition went on to find in 1999 (source: Last Hours on Everest)

Who Was the First American Man to Climb Everest Without Oxygen?

Larry Nielson, a 36-year-old school teacher from Olympia, Washington was the first American man to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen. He reached the summit Everest on May 7, 1983 with David Breashears and the famous Sherpa, Ang Rita.

His conclusion was pithy, but the same as that of many Everest summiteers:

“You don’t conquer it, you survive it.”

Larry Nielson

Theirs was an American-German expedition led by Gerhard Lenser, and eight men made it to the summit. Nielson had also climbed Kangchenjunga, Mount La Perouse in Alaska, Lenin Peak, Denali (or Mount McKinley) and Rainer not once, but 180 times!

He had been an athlete in his youth, competing in five sports at his Tumwater High School in Washington State.

“His was an act of great courage… Nielson was taking a great risk going to the summit without oxygen and he knew it.”

Expedition leader, Rodney Korich (source Wikitia.com)

Who Was the First American Man to Die on Everest?

Jake Breitenbach was the first American man to die on Everest. He was killed on March 23, 1963, by a serac collapse in the infamous Icefall . It was only the second day of the 1963 American expedition to the mountain. (source Wikipedia).

Breitenbach was a 27-year-old Teton guide from Wyoming. Two men on the same rope, Sherpa Ang Pema and Dick Pownall were slightly injuried.

“We went up and couldn’t get to Jake…We cut the rope that led down to him, and I carried Ang Pema down in a fireman’s carry. We came down that night very demoralized.”

Jim Whittaker

The expedition members considered abandoning the expedition but decided against it:

“We knew that the best memorial for Jake would be just clobbering the hell out of the mountain.”

Barry Bishop, expedition leader

Jake Breitenbach’s wife of just three years, Lou, was notified of his death by a Wyoming sheriff.

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.