Highest Adventure


The connections between the AMEE and this consumer revolution were not hard to detect. “Our flag flies atop Mt. Everest!” the Eddie Bauer company proudly declared in an advertisement in 1965, and it was apparent that it was not the Stars and Stripes the clothing manufacturer had in mind: “Every member of the American Mt. Everest Expedition 1963 was outfitted from head to toe with Eddie BAUER 100% northern goose down insulated parkas, pants, underwear, mitts, booties and sleeping bags.” Eddie Bauer saw its sales of outdoor gear go up dramatically. But the greatest commercial beneficiary of the Everest climb turned out to be Jim Whittaker’s employer, Recreational Equipment Incorporated, which increased its membership from 50,000 to a 250,000 between 1965 and 1972. From its lone Seattle outlet, where Jim Whittaker’s Everest ice ax was proudly displayed, REI expanded its marketing empire across the country in the 1970s; by century’s end the co-op had grown to a chain of 46 retail outlets, plus a catalogue order business that together brought in a half-billion dollars a year. New retailers also entered the market, including Eastern Mountain Sports, which opened its first store in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1967, and spread its retail outlets westward just as REI was spreading eastward.

In the decades that followed, more and more Americans, baby boomers and their children, made their way to the Himalayas. Many went as trekkers, making their contribution to the prosperity of the new adventure-travel industry. Some had their eyes set on higher goals. In the early 1990s guides began leading commercial expeditions of paying clients up Himalayan peaks, including Everest. A day after Jim Whittaker reached the summit of Everest in 1963, someone asked Norman Dyhrenfurth why he was so drawn to Everest. “Well,” he replied, “there is altogether too prevalent an idea that Americans are soft and rich or, let’s say, fat and happy. In the Himalayas money can’t help you.” But as subsequent events would prove, money could. The going rate for a client on a commercial expedition on Mount Everest during the 1990s was $65,000, which bought a lot of fixed ropes, bottled oxygen, and Sherpa assistance. The clientele of the commercial expeditions, many of them Americans, accounted for a large part of the human traffic jams that by the end of the twentieth century were a regular feature on Everest’s summit.

In a recent interview, Tom Hornbein reflected on the changes that had taken place on Everest since his first encounter with the mountain. The 1963 expedition, he acknowledged, could be seen as the turning point. “I feel fortunate that I was born when I was. I was in the right place at the right time. You could go to Everest, and it could be an isolated adventure. Now, sadly, that’s no longer the case.”

Less than a half-century ago American mountaineers regretted that most of their countrymen didn’t give a damn about mountains or mountaineering. Now, obviously, they do. You’ve got to be careful what you wish for.

The Greatest Moments in American Mountaineering