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Seattle climbing legend recounts record Everest summit 50 years later

Seattle's Jim Whittaker stands atop the summit of Mt. Everest on May 1, 1963. Whittaker was the first American to reach the peak of the world's highest mountain. (AP image)

It was 50 years ago Wednesday that Seattle climbing legend Jim Whittaker became the first American to summit Mt. Everest. Today, the 84-year-old is still going strong.

Whittaker tells KIRO Radio Seattle’s Morning News that in the last year, he skied Sun Valley, skied up in Canada, and keeps active hiking. “I’m still moving around.”

Speaking with CBS, Whittaker recounted the feeling as he stood on top of the world.

“There was no feeling of exhilaration, no feeling of ‘boy we pulled it off’. I was just a frail human being we were just hanging on to life,” he said.

Whittaker spent a mere 20 minutes atop the world’s highest peak before heading back, the thought of a team member who died on the way up at the forefront of his mind.

“The second day on the mountain we had one of our team killed, and that was a tough one, then we really had to reexamine the whole thing,” he tells Seattle’s Morning News. “We thought well it’s half way around the world; we’d worked for two years; we’ve got all this equipment; we’ve walked 185 miles to get to the base of the mountain, let’s climb it for Jake.”

He admits there was plenty of fear in the journey.

“Fear is a good thing to have. You have to be afraid of heights or you’re going to kill yourself. But that’s the fun of it in climbing. You overcome that.”

Whittaker remains an active hiker, and celebrated his birthday last year by hiking to Everest Base Camp, a 40-mile, week long journey to over 17,000 feet in the Himalayas. And he did it on two artificial knees.

“You gotta keep moving, right?” he laughed.

Whittaker says he hopes to inspire others to keep moving as well. Especially the current generation of kids who he says spend way too much time on the couch or in front of a computer.

“Get off your butt. You know, they gotta get outside. Nature’s the best teacher. You’ve got to enjoy it before you check out,” he said.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the climb, Whittaker says his plans to celebrate at his home in Port Townsend are a little more mellow.

“I’m going to put my feet up on the railing, breathe the salt air with my feet up on the bench, and just relax and enjoy being here in this beautiful Northwest, and have a Mai Tai.”

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