Fifty years ago today, West Seattle native Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The clip above – shared on Whittaker’s Facebook page – includes an interview with him, and historical footage. And today, another West Seattle native announced new honors for the climber:
On the 50th anniversary of the summiting of Mt. Everest by the first American, King County Executive Dow Constantine today honored fellow West Seattle native and legendary climber Jim Whittaker by announcing the renaming of trails in Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park for Mr. Whittaker and his climbing partner, Sherpa Nawang Gombu.
“Jim Whittaker’s achievement 50 years ago today remains a triumph of perseverance and teamwork,” said Executive Constantine. “It is an honor to recognize both Mr. Whittaker and Mr. Gombu on their historic accomplishment, and I hope it moves us all to get out and experience our own hiking and climbing opportunities closer to home.”
“I’m honored to have my name on a wilderness trail, and I encourage people to get outside and enjoy this magical planet,” said Whittaker.
On May 1, 1963, when Whittaker and Gombu reached the summit of 29,028-foot Mount Everest, they each set or foreshadowed a record: Whittaker was the first American to stand atop the world’s highest peak, and Gombu later became the first person to summit Everest twice.
Executive Constantine said King County will add the names of the climbers to three backcountry trails that lead to the highest point in Cougar Mountain park, in ceremonies to be scheduled. The Wilderness Creek Trail and the Wilderness Peak Trail will together become known as the 1.9-mile Whittaker Wilderness Peak Trail, and the 1.3-mile Wilderness Cliffs Trail will become the Gombu Wilderness Cliffs Trail. Both lead to the top of Wilderness Peak in the southeast corner of the park, which at 3,100 acres is the largest park in King County’s system of more than 200 parks.
The trails are among the most highly trafficked and popular in the King County Parks system, with an average of more than 100 hikers a day. Cougar Mountain is the County’s most popular hiking destination, and serves as a springboard for novice hikers working up to more challenging opportunities within the Cascades and Olympic Mountain ranges.
“This is a very fitting tribute to the accomplishments of Jim Whittaker and Nawang Gombu. I’m grateful to Executive Constantine for taking this action,” said King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, whose district includes Cougar Mountain. “No one will ever confuse Wilderness Peak for Mount Everest. Aside from its lush forest and easy access for people throughout King County, Wilderness Peak is also slightly lower in elevation than Everest – by 27,430 feet!”
“Renaming Cougar Mountain’s summit trails after legendary King County native mountain climber Jim Whittaker and his climbing partner Nawang Gombu adds to the rich historical gems that can be found at this regional park,” said Councilmember Larry Phillips, Chair of the Transportation, Economy, and Environment Committee. “From trail names, to mature forests, to remnants of the mining and logging heritage, Cougar Mountain Park preserves many aspects of our proud Northwest history, so it is a fitting place to honor Whittaker and Gombu’s legacy.”
Born in Seattle, Whittaker was the first full-time employee of Recreational Equipment Incorporated, and eventually served as its CEO before his retirement. In addition to summiting Mount Everest, Whittaker was also in charge of the first American expedition to successfully climb the world’s second-tallest mountain, K2, in 1978. He currently lives in Port Townsend. Gombu died in April 2011.
“I’m glad that through this recognition, tens of thousands of hikers every year will be reminded of ‘Big Jim’ Whittaker and Nawang Gombu and their historic achievement,” said Executive Constantine.