CLIMBER REMEMBERED AS "LIFE ARTIST"
The first Oregonian to reach the summit of Mount Everest
and one who loved a steep challenge, dies while trekking in Nepal
|LUTE JERSTAD, the first
Oregonian to reach the summit of Mount Everest, was remembered by the leader
of the 1963 expedition as a "witty, well-educated man who could be the life
of the party when he wanted."
Jerstad, 62, who ran Lute Jerstad Adventures from his home in Southwest Portland, died of a heart attack while trekking in Nepal.
In 1963, three weeks after Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the top of 29,028-foot Everest, Jerstad and Barry Bishop repeated the feat.
"Lute was a life artist. He lived life right. He gambled a lot and made some mistakes, but he was always on the go," said Norman Dyhrenfurth, 80, of Salzburg, Austria, leader of the expedition that put five Americans on the summit of the world's tallest mountain. The American expedition was the third, following the British and Swiss.
Jerstad died while leading a nine-member trekking team up 15,000-foot Mount Kalapatar. He was 500 feet below the summit of the nontechnical trekking peak, which is famous for its view of Everest.
His body was taken by helicopter to Katmandu and cremated along the banks of the Bagmati River after his wife, Susan, arrived in Nepal's capital. His ashes will be spread at Tengboche, a Nepalese monastery, alongside those of two of his friends.
Jerstad received world acclaim in 1963 when he reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 22, the same day as three other Americans. Jerstad was the first person to take movie film from the highest point on earth.
Whittaker, of Seattle, had become the first American to climb Mount Everest three weeks earlier, but the expedition remained together long enough to send two more teams for attempts at the summit.
Willi Unsoeld of Corvallis and Thomas Hornbein of San Diego became the first to climb the West Ridge route, while Jerstad and Bishop of Washington, D.C., repeated Whittaker's route via the South Col. The four climbers met as darkness set in during their descent. They spent the night together in the open without sleeping bags above 28,000 feet, huddled together to survive.
Jerstad suffered minor frostbite, losing the pads of flesh on his fingers and toes. Unsoeld lost nine toes, and Bishop, who was covering the expedition for the National Geographic Society, lost all 10 toes.
"I selected Lute for the expedition," Dyhrenfurth said. "He visited me in Santa Monica (Calif.) and I looked him over. We were walking along the beach when I asked if he wanted to join the expedition."
At the time, Jerstad was working summers as a mountain guide on Washington's Mount Rainier while teaching drama at the University of Oregon, where he later received a doctorate in Asian culture, arts and anthropology.
"Lute and I were considered the ice-climbing experts on the 20-man team," Whittaker said from his home in Port Townsend, Wash. "He was scheduled for an assault on the summit right after I came down but had to give up because of lack of bottled oxygen. He had to climb all the way back up again three weeks later.
"He was a tough climber. He wasn't big at 5-feet-8, but it doesn't matter how big you are in climbing. It matters how tight you're wound, and Lute was wound pretty tight."
When the two American climbing teams met that night just beneath the summit of Mount Everest, their survival was the most outstanding climbing feat at the time.
"There is no question that it was the greatest accomplishment in Himalayan mountaineering," Dyhrenfurth said. "The things they accomplished were absolutely incredible -- traversing the highest mountain in the world and surviving a night in the open. They spent the night higher than where eight climbers died in 1996.
"Their accomplishment was something the American public never understood. America made Whittaker the hero for being first, even though the others achieved a far greater feat."
Hornbein, who along with Whittaker is the only surviving summit climber from the expedition, said the four spent the night curled up in their own little worlds, letting the hours pass. Of the others to reach the summit, Unsoeld died in an avalanche on Mount Rainier in 1979, and Bishop died in an auto accident three years ago.
"All we could do was lie there and shiver. We were in it together, but each had his own struggle and couldn't ask for help from another," said Hornbein, who lives in Bellevue, Wash. Hornbein described the expedition in what became one of the best-selling American mountaineering books, "Everest the West Ridge."
"I remember Lute for his ebullience -- his outgoing energy and joy. We didn't have a lot of contact after Everest, but whenever we met it was like we picked up right from where we left off. He was a guy who lived a life where adventure was part of his diet."
Ed Viesturs of Seattle, the nation's current top mountaineer who has reached the summit of Mount Everest five times, said the 1963 expedition was amazing.
"I relate to those guys as heroes and mentors," said Viesturs, who met Jerstad for the first time a month ago at mountaineering day at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. "The film Lute made from the summit looks shaky and jiggly, but it was at the cutting edge in those days."
After returning from Everest to Oregon, Jerstad moved to Lewis & Clark College to become head of the drama department. He left academia in 1970 when he began his career in the adventure travel business. Lute Jerstad Adventures specialized in trips to India and Nepal, as well as river rafting in Oregon.
Jerstad split time each year between Oregon and the Himalayas, where he worked to persuade governments and local residents to set aside parts of the mountain range as national parks.
Born in Minnesota, Luther J. Jerstad spent his boyhood there before moving West. He received a bachelor's degree from Pacific Lutheran University and a master's degree from Washington State University. He moved to Eugene when he was 26 in the fall of 1962 to accept a teaching position at the University of Oregon.
In addition to Jerstad and Unsoeld, other Oregon-based climbers who have reached the summit of Everest are Stacey Allison in 1988 and Ian Wade in 1990, both of Portland.
Share YOUR Thoughts