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Backpacker Magazine – May 2013

First Night Out: Essays

Three authors write about the moments that changed their impressions of the backcountry forever.

by: Tracy Ross, Bruce Barcott, and Jim Whittaker

Catch Fire
by Jim Whittaker

I spent my first night in the wilderness in November 1941. I was a 12-year-old Tenderfoot Scout in West Seattle’s Troop 272. Scoutmaster Ray Meyers organized a camping trip to the base of Mt. Si in the Cascade foothills, 30 miles east of the city. The mountain loomed over our campsite as we cleared away leaves, staked down tents, blew up air mattresses, and shook sleeping bags out. We peered into the woods and wondered, half scared and half curious, what was out there to “get us.” We told ghost stories around the fire. A classic scout’s poem recalls that night: “Have you ever watched a campfire when the wood has fallen low And the ashes start to whiten round the embers’ crimson glow. With the night sounds all around you making silence doubly sweet And a full moon high above so that the spell may be complete. Tell me, were you ever nearer to your land of heart’s desire Than when you sat there thinking with your feet before the fire.” The next morning, we explored the trails and terrain around camp. It was a glorious adventure. We discovered crisp ferns, rough Douglas fir bark, and tiny mushrooms protruding from dark humus—the newness and purity of nature. And that was just the start. I climbed Mt. Olympus in 1945, and five years later began guiding on Mt. Rainier. In 1963, with my Sherpa partner, Nawang Gombu, I became the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. I have seen the teeming beaches of the Antarctic Peninsula; I have tasted the thin air of the Himalaya; I have smelled the richness of the Serengeti. But I will never forget that first night, nestled into the foothills of the Cascades, listening intently to the deep silence of the forest. So go ahead, take your first overnight. Who knows where it might lead?

Whittaker has just released a special edition of his book, A Life on the Edge: Memoirs of Everest and Beyond, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Everest. Get a signed copy ($25) at

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