Slide Show

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'You don’t conquer a mountain'

There’s a disturbing trend in the media to use fleeting celebrity references as an excuse for responsible journalism.
It was never that way with Jim Whittaker and me. Whittaker was the first American to reach the summit of the 29,028-foot Mount Everest in 1963.
The image of Whittaker standing on the summit holding an American Flag became a source of national pride that was only matched when Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon in 1969. 
Climbing Everest was a lot like landing on the moon except as astronaut John Glenn said, Whittaker didn’t have a chimpanzee go first.
These two events were part of the rising tide of the post World War II boom that made people proud to be Americans at a traumatic time for our nation, when the nightly news was otherwise filled with riots, assassinations and war.
Whittaker and Armstrong showed Americans that they could do whatever they set their minds to. Mountain climbing was cheaper than space travel. That must be why our family decided to go backpacking.
That was the good old days when children were used as pack animals for family outings. We geared up at Whittaker’s co-operative outdoor equipment store, REI, with backpacks, sleeping bags and waffle-stompers and hit Olympic Mountain trails.
Never did I dream I would one day meet Jim Whittaker, but I did. This is my story.
I had just crashed a charity oyster bake catered by Mystery Bay Seafood. The Marrowstone Island-based company is an underwiter for my WildLife Radio Show on KSQM 91.5 FM in Sequim.
The event was being held for the Mar Vista Student Longboat Team at the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend. I thought  it might have a bounty on this journalist after unraveling the dirty linen from the seamy underbelly of the wooden boat cabal, to expose the inconvenient truth that wooden boats are made of … wood, old growth timber in fact.
I discovered that somehow a hemp-weaving, drum-circling bunch of destruction-of-the-rainforest protesters made an industry out of building boats from wood cut from the rainforest. 
I left vowing never to return to Port Townsend, unless it was for an oyster binge. Then I saw him, Jim Whittaker, sitting at a table. 
As a journalist there were so many questions I had to ask like, “Which way to the oysters?” 
After inhaling a bushel or so we got heavy into the pineapple seltzer.  I worked up my courage to ask a question about the old days, when he guided mountain climbers on Mount Rainier, “Did you serve oysters?”
No, he cooked instant oatmeal, otherwise known as mountain glue for breakfast after getting his clients up at one in the morning to climb the mountain.
“You don’t conquer a mountain any more than you can conquer a river,” Whittaker said. “The mountain lets you climb. The river lets you float down it. You have to have respect for them. Conquer is a word the journalists use.”
“Stinking journalists,” I said, “hanging’s too good for ‘em.”
Still I had to ask how an American icon fell in with the wooden boat bunch.
“It’s part of a program called ‘Puget Sound Explorers,’” Whittaker said.  Kids around here are surrounded by water but they have very few chances to go out on it.”
The Mar Vista Student Longboat Team lets kids row an exact replica of a long boat out on the salt chuck from Port Townsend to the San Juan Islands and back. Longboats are seaworthy boat you can sail or row with a crew of eight or 10. 
They were used by Captain Vancouver in 1792 to explore, map and name our local waters.
Student longboat teams are learning history by reliving it.
I wonder if they serve oysters.

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