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Kings of the Hill: Q & A with Ed Viesturs, The Whittakers, Seth Waterfall, Dave Hahn, & Melissa Arnot

Three generations of American mountaineering royalty discuss their sport, their fears, and their new mission: design great gear.

Let’s talk gear. Jim, what’s one item you see these guys using today that you wish you’d had on Everest?
Jim Whittaker: Brains.

How about old-school gear? Dave, is there anything you refuse to part with?
Hahn: A standard-length ice axe [because of its versatility]. A lot of climbers are using a waterfall tool in an alpine setting, or just a hammer.

Worst piece of gear ever?
Viesturs: When I was starting out on Rainier, I couldn’t afford a rain jacket. So on one of my first winter attempts, I wore a bicycle poncho that kept blowing up into my face. It was horrible.

Have design advances made climbers better in the mountains, or just softer?
Lou Whittaker: The equipment doesn’t make the climber. It’s knowing how to live in the outdoors.

What’s been the biggest leap in mountaineering gear and technique?
Jim Whittaker: The use of fixed ropes was a jump from what happened back in the ’50s. With fixed ropes, people have access to difficult terrain that they couldn’t have negotiated otherwise.

Peter Whittaker: The transition from leather to plastic [has created] boots that are vastly superior. Windproof fabrics that breathe really well are huge. And I love the JetBoil stove–really cool, trick-willy awesome.

Lou Whittaker: One thing that hasn’t changed: Down clothing is still the best insulation for the mountains.

Talk about designing gear for Eddie Bauer. How did the process work?
Peter Whittaker: We sat down with a blank piece of paper and built exactly what we need up high. Among us, we spend 1,200 days outside a year, so it was pretty simple.

Arnot: We wanted to achieve firsts, but not by introducing crazy technologies. Our goal was to create core gear that doesn’t require any compromises.

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