There are few places left on Earth that have not been discovered, conquered or claimed by man, but the spirit of exploration and adventure is alive and flourishing thanks to pioneers such as Jim Whittaker, author of “A Life on the Edge.” Few names carry as much resonance among outdoor enthusiasts as that of Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest.
The re-release of his memoir coincided this year with the 50th anniversary of his legendary climb, and the new edition has been updated with numerous color photos and an afterward detailing Whittaker’s latest adventures, which are a marvel, considering he is older than 80. The anniversary edition also includes a foreword by modern climbing legend Ed Viesturs, as well as the original foreword by John Glenn.
Though Whittaker’s fame came from climbing his way into the Everest record books, it is far from what makes his life story so fascinating. From his early years, Whittaker embraced the outdoors, doing his time in the ranks and gaining experience in mountain rescue and ski instruction, as well as acquiring reliable guiding know-how that placed him, along with his twin brother, Louie, in a class of elite guides leading climbers up Mount Rainier and beyond.
Soon, this stalwart outdoorsman was rubbing shoulders with the famous, being lauded at the White House and vacationing with the American Camelot clan, growing especially close to Robert Kennedy, guiding him to the summit of Mount Kennedy, named in honor of the senator’s lost brother, President John F. Kennedy. Devastated by the loss of his friend and mentor, Whittaker served as a pallbearer at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral and named his youngest son after his hero.
Determined to move his life forward, Whittaker continued to take the small outdoor gear cooperative he had helped get off the ground to new heights, and now REI is a household name, a company at the forefront of outdoor adventure, equipping an entire generation of explorers.
Having reached the highest point on Earth, some would have called it a day, but Whittaker returned to his beloved peak several times, sometimes to climb, sometimes to simply pay his respects. Not to be ignored, K2 became a special goal, luring him to its slopes twice and earning the team he led a much-respected summit. When age eventually pulled him from the icy slopes of remote peaks, Whittaker never sat back to rest, unless one counts the time he spent feeding his new passion, sailing. In true adventuring spirit, Whittaker took to the seas with his wife and their children, sailing around the world for two years. To many, the years of retirement should be spent in front of a warm fire with a stack of good books. To Whittaker, “the key to a life well lived — as distinct from the ‘good life’ — is discomfort ... the discomfort of stretching yourself beyond what you already know or know how to do, of struggling with adversity — is what creates the pearls in a well-lived life ...”
No one would argue that Whittaker has lived, and continues to live, a life well-lived. Stretching his strengths and abilities to the limit, Whittaker has touched the marrow of the Earth, finding beauty in the stark landscapes and the swells of the vast oceans. “A Life on the Edge” allows the rest of us a glimpse of that beautiful essence of this glorious world we inhabit.