Renamed Whittaker trail honors American climbing legend
October 1, 2013
By Peter Clark
It may not be Mount Everest, but it’s still an honor.
King County Executive Dow Constantine stood with the first American to climb Earth’s tallest mountain to unveil new names for the Wilderness Peak Trail that winds its way up the southeastern side of Cougar Mountain on Sept. 26.
Jim Whittaker, a Seattle native, whipped the burlap off the wooden signs that led the way to the new Jim Whittaker Wilderness Peak Trail and the Nawang Gombu Wilderness Cliffs Trail, named after Whittaker’s Sherpa, who braved all 29,000 feet with him. This year marks the 50th anniversary since the historic ascent. A year later, Gombu climbed to the summit again, becoming the first person to make the trip twice.
On a simple wooden bridge, extending over a calm stream, Tibetan prayer flags flapped as Constantine praised Whittaker and Gombu’s bravery.
“Today, we are here to honor two men who stood on Earth’s highest point and came back heroes,” Constantine said. “They ran out of oxygen but managed to make the summit. It took courage, perseverance and teamwork. Their accomplishments are not dimmed by the passage of time.”
The Jim Whittaker Wilderness Peak Trail travels for 1.9 miles and the Nawang Gombu Wilderness Cliffs Trail climbs around for 1.3 miles before meeting at the top of Wilderness Peak in the southeast corner of the park. The Wilderness Creek Trailhead will also be renamed the Jim Whittaker Wilderness Peak Trailhead.
Whittaker said the prayer flags were meant to honor Gombu, who died in 2011, and he spoke of the guide fondly.
“Gombu was a wonderful person,” Whittaker said, describing the first press conference the two mountaineers held after their descent. “I asked Gombu, ‘What was the first thing you thought of when you got to the highest point in the world?’ and he answered, ‘How do we get down?’”
As the first employee of REI and CEO of the outdoor recreation company in the 1960s, Whittaker praised his hometown and the surrounding area.
“We’re really blessed to be from the Northwest,” he said, remarking on the perspective he earned on his climb up Everest. “You just realize how precious life is and how everyday is a gift. We are really lucky.”
Constantine said he wanted to inspire hikers with the renaming of the trails.
“My hope is that the tens of thousands who use this trail every year will remember Jim and Gombu,” Constantine said.
Whittaker said he simply wished to promote a healthy, outdoor life for the children of the future.
“Let’s create a beautiful world,” he said. “And let’s have no child left inside.”
The trails are among the most highly trafficked and popular in the King County Parks system, with an average of more than 100 hikers a day.