Leif Whittaker stands on the summit of Mount Everest 47 years after his father stood in exactly the same place
Story by Leif Whittaker ('07)
Our team climbs steadily through the fresh white powder that reflects our headlamps, illuminating the night. Steps and breaths go uninterrupted for hours. My toes are numb, but I can still move them. Am I willing to sacrifice a toe to get to the top? Depends on which toe. I focus on maintaining the rhythm.
A dark red sun rises in the sliver of horizon that remains unclouded. The color and light energize me at the perfect time; we’re approaching a rock wall that looks extremely difficult. I clamber up, breathing with deep and frequent intensity. I feel like I’m going to suffocate. When I finally surmount the obstacle, I’m forced to my knees. Something is wrong. I can’t slow my breathing. The ambient-air valve on my oxygen mask is clogged with frozen spit. I rip out the valve. Thin air mixes. I can breathe again.
Approximately eight hours after leaving the South Col, I reach the South Summit (28,700 feet). Gaining a view of the last 300 feet—the cornice traverse and the Hillary Step—I can’t help but think that my father must have been crazy. A foot to my right, the Kangshung Face drops 10,000 feet to the Tibetan plateau. An inch to my left, the southwest face drops 8,000-feet to the Western Cwm. I can hardly imagine my father straddling this ridge 47 years ago and ascending the Hillary Step without the fixed-lines that we now rely on for safety. Only now do I truly understand what an amazing feat he performed.Shortly, the true summit comes into view. I know I’m looking at the true summit because it is decorated with a massive tangle of prayer flags. Tears come to my eyes as I climb the last few feet and Tendi, our lead Sherpa, embraces me. I’ve dreamt of this moment for what seems like forever; the reality is more extraordinary than I ever could have imagined. For one small moment when I plant my crampons on the summit, I’m standing above everything. Everything. And there is no possible way to describe the elation I feel and the gratitude I have for the people who have made this possible.
But our climb is only half over. My father’s Sherpa, Nawang Gombu, said it best when asked what his first thought was upon reaching the summit. He spoke for every past and present Everest climber when he said, “How to get down.”
Leif Whittaker of Port Townsend is the son of Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb to the top of Mount Everest. WWU’s 2007 Outstanding Graduate in English, Leif Whittaker spent the spring of 2010 on Everest with a climbing expedition sponsored by Eddie Bauer First Ascent. He’s preparing a multimedia presentation of his expedition as well as a book proposal and hopes to climb Denali in Alaska next spring. Visit "Born Out There The First Ascent Blog," to see more photos and videos about the expedition.