American Firsts

This weekend the outdoor industry had a local public event. My magazine was there and I gave a talk about Nepal on day two of the expo. It’s mostly business, but I love my industry and the people in it, so it’s also an occasion where I get to smile and reconnect with the core players in the local outdoor industry, since they are all manning their own booths, too.

On day one of the expo, I got to meet the first American to summit Mt Everest, Jim Whittaker. He summitted the big E, as you would expect, with a trusty Sherpa guide, Nawang Gombu at his side as his climbing partner. After a full month of marching 19 climbers, 32 Sherpa guides and over 900 porters (carrying over 27 tons of gear and food) from Kathmandu to the base camp (185 miles over Himalayan ridges), the climbing team spent another 2 months on the mountain getting to the top. That was 50 years ago this May 1. So it seemed appropriate to have such a person give the keynote address for the expo this weekend. He’s a local guy, was one of the founders of REI, grew up climbing Mt Rainier and led the International Peace Climb of Everest in 1990, when he was over 60 years old. He’s been here, in my neighborhood and in my industry forever. I finally caught up with him on Saturday.

I expected an 84-year old man to show up a half hour before his talk, hang around for a few autographs afterwards, then dash for the couch and let his staff sell the rest of his books. Not Jim. He was scoping the show floor Saturday morning before the doors opened to the public, and he stood post at his booth display all day, both days, cordially answering questions for each expectant fan.

When I walked over to shake hands late morning on Saturday, A bubbly lady in her sixties greeted me. The two of them were bantering like an old married couple, just friendly pokes and smiles. I was caught in the middle, she was unloading books on one side of me, as I shook hands with Jim. “How do you two know each other?” I said, not sure who they had paired with Jim to complete his book’s purchase transactions. “Oh, she and I’ve been married over 40 years.” Jim offered. Aah, of course it would be his wife in the supporting role. But I didn’t know who she was.

As it turns out, Dianne Roberts has been paired with Jim since they met in climbing circles in the golden age of climbing, and she’s a photographer. I realized that once she took my camera from me and said in a playful tone, “Yeah, I think I know how to run one of these.” She framed the first shot of Jim and me. I was intrigued spent a couple more minutes talking with her. Jim wasted no time shining the light on her as soon as I asked. “How did I not know this about you?” I said. “Oh, I fly mostly under the radar.” She returned without missing a beat. And that’s certainly true. She has no Wiki page, no Google results that aren’t encircled with Mr. Whittaker, and no photo webpage. But now, at that moment, she became the more interesting of the pair and I listened as Jim spelled out some of her credits.

A National Geographic photographer, she was also on the first American K2 climb with Jim and Lou (Jim’s twin brother), when they didn’t summit. She returned again when the team tried for a second (and successful) climb of The Savage Mountain, where she made it to 26,000 feet, herself. Dianne Roberts was the first woman to attempt to climb on K2. Ever. It’s a fact that is underscored by the following: Only four women have ever successfully climbed K2. None of them are living today. She said that back then, many of the Pakistani porters and guides didn’t know how to handle her, since they had never seen a Western woman before. She was tasked with photographing the climb for National Geo. I marveled.

Not that Jim doesn’t have an endless list of credits of his own. You tend to get attention when you are “the first” and Jim has had that. I purchased a book and offered Jim something in return.

He agreed to pose with it.

Turnabout is fair play, right? But after the photo shoot and our chat, and the book signing and trade, the thing that stuck in my head all day and the next was, the first female K2 climber, Nat Geo photographer, and downright kind, sweet, and obviously extremely supportive lady, held my camera and took this photo.

K2 Climbing Update: One female K2 summiter has posted since I last checked my facts.  Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner summitted and returned to tell about it in 2011.