How the 1st American To Summit Everest Trained Special Forces and Grew REI

June 10, 2021Mac Caltrider
Jim Whittaker memoir first American to summit Mount Everest

“A Life on the Edge.” Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

In 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the 29,029-foot summit of Mount Everest. The renowned mountain climber also helped launch the outdoor equipment company REI into the multibillion-dollar business it is today. But before Whittaker bagged the world’s tallest mountain or built an equally massive business, he was a soldier.

Whittaker’s 1999 memoir, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, explains how the mountain hippie unexpectedly wound up shooting rifles and machine guns in the US Army. He originally had no interest in serving in the military and was perfectly content to continue working as a mountain guide. Taking climbers up and down the peaks of the Pacific Northwest was where he was happiest, but Uncle Sam had other plans.

In 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Photo by Luo Lei on Unsplash.

At the same time Whittaker was earning a degree from Seattle University, the US Army was fighting its way to the 38th parallel. The Korean War proved costly, ultimately requiring 1,529,539 Americans to be drafted. Despite being a student and a full-time national park employee, Whittaker’s college deferment only bought him a few extra months of freedom. In 1952, Whittaker and his twin brother, Lou, were both drafted into the Army. 

“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,” Whittaker writes in his memoir. He didn’t appreciate the rough approach “battle-hardened veterans” used to prepare him for the rigors of combat. But after briefly contemplating fighting his instructors, Whittaker and his brother found a niche within the Army where they excelled.

Whittaker spent his time in the Army teaching Special Forces how to operate at high altitude. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gregory Summers, courtesy of DVIDS.

They were already both accomplished alpinists, so after a brief stint in the Signal Corps, they were sent to the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command at Camp Hale to be instructors. The brothers spent their full enlistments teaching Green Berets skills like skiing, climbing, and mountain maneuvering. Despite originally hating the Army, Whittaker came to enjoy his role as a mountain warfare instructor.

“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,” Whittaker wrote. 

In the warmer months, Whittaker would train soldiers in rock climbing and rappelling near Fort Carson. There, he became especially fond of watching those soldiers terrified of heights overcome their phobias and learn to rappel down sheer cliff faces.

Soldiers perform basic and advanced mountain warfare skills like ice climbing, mountain movement techniques, and nighttime navigation as part of their mountaineering winter bivouac, March 5, 2016. Photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Rivard, courtesy of DVIDS.

Not even war games or the pride that came with watching his trainees gain confidence could keep Whittaker in the Army though. And in 1954, he returned to Seattle to continue guiding climbers up Mount Rainier. 

Once he was out of the Army and back in Seattle, Whittaker helped take his friend’s side business and turn it into a premier outdoor equipment company. He was REI’s first full-time employee and watched the company transform from a tiny shop with a flooded basement to a multibillion-dollar retailer with 168 stores in 39 states.

Then in 1963, Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. By the time he and Nawang Gombu (the first man to summit Everest twice) reached the top together, they were out of bottled oxygen. Both men still managed to descend safely and continue their impressive careers as professional climbers.

Fifteen years after summiting Everest, Whittaker led the first American expedition to reach the top of K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain. He went on to head the 1990 Mount Everest “Peace Climb,” which included climbers from all over the world who helped haul some of the accumulated trash off the mountain. But before the world knew Jim Whittaker for shattering mountaineering records, he was sharpening his alpine skills by teaching soldiers how to fight and win at high altitude.

Read Next: Frequent Wind: How the US Evacuated 70,000 Refugees From Vietnam 

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Dear Jack: I'm Retiring From The Military — Help!

In this installment of “Dear Jack,” Marine veteran Jack Mandaville helps a career service member figure out life after retirement.

March 31, 2023Jack Mandaville
navy chaplains suicide prevention
US Navy Deploys More Chaplains For Suicide Prevention

Growing mental health distress in the ranks carries such grave implications that the U.S. chief of n...

March 31, 2023Associated Press
ukraine lessons learned
Opinion & Essay
Nolan Peterson: Lessons From Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

After living in and reporting from Ukraine the last nine years, conflict journalist Nolan Peterson h...

March 30, 2023Nolan Peterson
black hawk crash kentucky
9 Killed In Army Black Hawk Helicopter Crash In Kentucky

Nondice Thurman, a spokesperson for Fort Campbell, said Thursday morning that the deaths happened the previous night in southwestern Kentucky during a routine training mission.

March 30, 2023Associated Press
richard stayskal act military medical malpractice
DOD Denies Most Stayskal Act Malpractice Claims

Master Sgt. Richard Stayskal was diagnosed with lung cancer long after military doctors missed a tum...

March 29, 2023Maggie BenZvi
ukrainian wounded soldiers
‘On Tour In Hell’: Wounded Ukrainian Soldiers Evacuated

With bandaged heads and splinted limbs, the wounded soldiers are stretchered into the waiting medica...

March 27, 2023Associated Press
US oil mission
US Launches Airstrikes in Syria After Drone Kills US Worker

While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded airstrikes in Syria, the attack and the ...

March 24, 2023Associated Press
The Gift jason dunham
‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham

"The Gift" tells the story of the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor after the Vietnam War. ...

March 24, 2023Mac Caltrider
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved