The Mount Everest Earth Day 20 Peace Climb: Wild Dreams and Steps to Reality

Climbers from the United States, the USSR, and China undertake an expedition on Earth Day to climb Mount Everest for world peace and environmentalism.

| March/April 1990

Earth's highest peak is mostly granite, often climbed, and badly littered as a result. But it is also still a pure symbol of reaching high. On Earth Day, a joint Russian-Chinese-American team will attempt the summit of Everest. This time, the symbolism will be more mixed. And richer. Peace and environment.  

Jim Whittaker: Expedition Leader

The thing about Jim Whittaker is not that he's big, even though he was big even when he was little. It's that he's so damned strong. Somehow, forces such as gravity that challenge us every day net out as a bit weaker around Whittaker.

Once I visited him at a 40-foot-long cabin he had built out of tons of logs and driftwood he hauled up a cliff from the beach on the Washington coast. The cabin was slightly atilt on its pilings, so he simply jacked it up. All by himself. I looked around for a large blue ox.

Sports Illustrated was right when it gushed that Whittaker was America's strongest mountaineer. That was in 1963, after he had stood on the 29,028-foot summit of Mount Everest, the first American to do so. That seems long ago. It was a year after Silent Spring was published, the same year that civil rights demonstrations erupted in the South, a "hot line" was established between Washington and Moscow, atmospheric nuclear tests were banned, and Kennedy was shot. Jim Whittaker's achievement brought him fame in a time needing heroes. He was lionized: Americans had conquered Mount Everest. Indeed, had it not been for the Revolutionary War, Whittaker might well be known these days as Sir James.

But, as he wrote later, "We knew we had not conquered the mountain. Our team struggled for months. We had lost one man in an ice fall; others lost toes and fingers. We were survivors of the mountain. To claim we had conquered this monument of nature would have been flagrant arrogance, for there was no enemy up there to be conquered…no enemy but ourselves, our weaknesses and errors."

A big man with big ideas, he looked around for another challenge, and his eye lit on the summit of K2 in Pakistan, the second highest peak on the planet. After one attempt that failed, he led the first American team up that mountain too, in 1978. Then, during descent, it struck him that he was running out of mountains to climb.

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