This spring marks 50 years since Jim Whittaker stood as the first American on the summit of Mount Everest. The American Alpine Club honored the achievement at an event in the Bay Area last month.
In addition to the banquet, the AAC took the anniversary year to get some gear from the 1963 expedition in a studio for a photo shoot. This included a jacket made by Eddie Bauer that’s among the most iconic in the history of outdoor sports.
Bright red and equipped with a fur ruff on the hood, the jacket was state of the art in its day. It was insulated with enough down to be protective to minus-85 degrees F.
Whittaker kept the jacket packed away for most of the ascent in 1963. It was too warm until the climbing team got high on the mountain’s face.
I have long been intrigued by a famous photograph of Whittaker on Everest’s summit clutching an ice axe adorned with flags. The red jacket frames his body, a silhouette against clouds at the top of the world.
In January, at an event in Utah, I had a chance to hear Whittaker give a speech. He stood tall clutching an ice axe and spoke loud, almost shouting. At age 84 he presented with passion and intensity, stating that if he were to climb Everest again he’d wear the same parka.
Made with a rip-stop nylon face fabric and insulated with goose down, Eddie Bauer based the design off lessons learned from years of stitching insulated outerwear. This included flight suits worn by servicemen in World War II.
Velcro, a new invention of the era that NASA used, was stitched onto the pocket flaps. The ruff, made of wolverine fur, was picked because it could remain frost-free in extreme cold.
About 50 were made for the 1963 expedition. Only a handful remain in museums today. But look at a jacket in your closet now and you might still see traces of the Eddie Bauer design, the Everest parka a hallmark in the evolution of the modern “puffy” coat. (See my recent article, “Puffiest ‘Puffy’ jacket of all time launched this week by Patagonia,” as one example.)
The jacket — official name: Style #088, Mt. Everest Parka — to me is the epitome of gear from a lost era when mountaineering was wild and fringe.
Everest was untamed still in 1963. Whittaker and his crew, including co-summiter Nawang Gombu Sherpa, bundled up and pushed into the wind. They climbed in light suits until they got cold. Then they pulled on red parkas. They kicked steps and made it to the top.
—Stephen Regenold is the editor of gearjunkie.com. See the post “Studio shots of Mount Everest expedition gear” for more images for the 1963 climb.