First American to top Everest still living on the edge at 84

(CBS News) PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. - You might think climbing the world's tallest mountain would be enough of an achievement to satisfy anyone. But not Jim Whittaker. Fifty years ago this Wednesday, he became the first American to reach the 29,000-foot-high summit of Mount Everest. He's now 84 and still looking for new challenges.

Jim Whittaker made history as the first American to reach Everest in 1963. President John F. Kennedy called him a national hero.
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It was a grueling, three-month, 185-mile trek uphill that allowed Jim Whittaker to make history.

"There was no feeling of exhilaration," Whittaker now recalled of that moment of stepping on the top of Everest, "no feeling of, 'Boy we pulled it off.' I was just a frail human being. We were just hanging on to life."

One member of his team died on the way up. Whittaker spent only 20 minutes on the summit.

Video: Mountain brawl breaks out on Everest, climbers say

"Fear is a good thing to have," he said. "You have to be afraid of heights or you're gonna kill yourself. But that's the fun of it in climbing. You overcome that."

He returned to a ticker-tape parade and an invitation to the White House, where President Kennedy called him a national hero. When the president was assassinated a few months later, his younger brother Bobby asked Whittaker to help him climb Mount Kennedy in Canada.

"I said, 'Yeah,'" said Whittaker. "'Does he know the mountain has never been climbed?' They said yes. I said, 'Has he ever climbed before?' 'No.' I said, 'Okay, we'll take him.'"

Along the way Whittaker and Kennedy became close friends.

Jim Whittaker with Robert Kennedy. The two climbed Mount Kennedy in Canada named after President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.
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"He walked up, stood on the top," remembered Whittaker. "The first human being on the peak named after his brother. That's where the tears freeze on your parka. It was just so emotional. I loved him like a brother."

Now a half-century later, Whittaker is 84 years old with two artificial knees, but he celebrated his birthday last year by hiking to the Everest base camp.

"I only walked 40 miles," he said of that hike. "But it was high, that's the difficulty." Reminded that he hiked 40 miles at high elevation in his advanced age, Whittaker said with a laugh: "Yeah, you gotta keep moving."

Now from his home near Seattle, he can see the Olympic mountains, where his life of adventure began as a teenager. His advice to kids today who seem to spend most of their time indoors in front of a video game or computer screen: "Get off your butt! They've got to get outside. Nature's the best teacher. You gotta enjoy it before you check out."

This summer, Whittaker plans to follow his own advice, hiking in as many national parks as time will allow.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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