Mountaineering: Still a few mountains left to climb

Conquering the Earth's highest peaks has been a predominantly white sport. Local heroes and a new expedition are making inroads.
Crosscut archive image.

In 1963, guided by Sherpa Nowang Gombu, Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. In this photo, Whittaker and Gombu embrace during a reunion at Whittaker's home.

Conquering the Earth's highest peaks has been a predominantly white sport. Local heroes and a new expedition are making inroads.

I remember the excitement of 50 years ago, when Seattle hosted a space-age world’s fair visited by astronauts and President John F. Kennedy boosted the budding Apollo program with the pledge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. But we had our own high-flying heroes back then. They hadn’t gone into space or orbited Earth like astronaut John Glenn.

Instead, they had climbed to the top of our own world. On May 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker, a mountaineer who made his home in Redmond, became the first American to summit Mount Everest. Days later, more members of the team reached the top, but it was Whittaker who ascended to the top of public consciousness.

He returned to a hero’s welcome: newspaper headlines and a motorcade through downtown Seattle. The United States Everest expedition team was honored by President Kennedy at the White House and immortalized in the pages of National Geographic and Life magazines. Long before Neil Armstrong, in his spacesuit, posed with Old Glory on the moon, we saw pictures of local boy Whittaker, in his puffy parka and goggles, planting the American flag in the frozen crust of Everest.

I’ll never forget hearing Whittaker lecture about his adventures in a packed-to-the-rafters Pantages Theater. Tucked in the balcony, I was stunned by the arduous nature of the enterprise, the need for oxygen at high altitudes, the superhuman abilities of the Sherpas and the pictures of frostbitten toes. Climbing in the Himalayas seemed like traveling to an alien world — without the benefit of spacecraft.

In practical terms, the Everest climb might have had as great an impact on young people as the space program. Writing about the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Everest expedition for the National Geographic’s Adventure blog, Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, put it this way: “Climbing Everest ... inspired a whole generation to get outside. To this day I encounter climbers who were originally inspired by that expedition.”

The main impact, Powers says, was that the U.S. Everest expedition, composed of ordinary people — a mountain guide, a doctor, a teacher — “humanized mountaineering by proving that anyone could attain the world’s highest summit.” Exponentially more people have summited Mount Everest (around 4,000) than have ever been to the moon (12).

But that sense of possibility didn’t reach everyone. Today, race remains an obstacle to further “humanizing” the face of U.S. mountaineering. The outdoor recreation community is well aware that people of color are not prevalent in its sport. A 2010 survey revealed that 80 percent of Americans who engage in outdoor activities are white. (The first African-American summited Everest only as recently as 2006.)

In the Northwest, we have had something of a head start. In 1964, a black Boeing employee, Charles M. Crenchaw, a member of The Mountaineers, became the first African-American to top Denali (also called Mount McKinley) in Alaska — the highest point in North America.

To celebrate the centennial of the first ascent of Denali, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is mounting the first all-black expedition to the mountain. With the slogan “Inspiring Diversity in the Outdoors,” the Expedition Denali team is made up of African-American climbers from around the country. They’ve made a training run on Mount Baker, and a documentary and a book about the climb are in the works.

The effort has exciting potential. Whittaker helped motivate a generation to get outdoors, which, in turn, helped spawn environmental awareness and a democratization of outdoor sports.

Writer and Denali expedition member James Mills says this Denali climb could extend the impact. Writing in The Alpinist magazine, Mills said, “A feeling of expanded possibilities arises from the bird’s-eye view on summits, from overcoming the physical effects of gravity and altitude and the psychological burdens of doubt and fear. Not only will African-American climbers encounter the life-affirming experiences of the mountains, but they will also bring more vibrancy to the pursuit.” These historic climbing anniversaries celebrate the extension of the “freedom of the hills” to more people than ever before.

This article is reprinted from Seattle Magazine, where the author writes a monthly column, "Grey Matters." The article was published in the April edition. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.