Around 800 people attempt to climb Mt. Everest every year, but not everyone makes it to the top. Instead, they stop halfway up the mountain, or they suffer catastrophic injuries or accidents. But on May 1, 1963, James Whittaker became the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. How did he accomplish this incredible feat?

The world’s tallest mountain

Mt. Everest is every mountain climber’s dream. Located in the central Himalayas on the border of China and Nepal, the mountain stands 29,028 feet above sea level. Referred to as “Mother Goddess of the Land,” it requires great skill to reach the summit. In May 1953, explorers Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal reached the mountain’s peak together. Queen Elizabeth II knighted Hillary for his achievement. But it would be another 10 years before an American finally reached Mt. Everest’s summit.

All about teamwork

On May 1, 1963, American James Whittaker, of Redmond, Washington, joined his Sherpa (native of Nepal) climbing partner, Nawang Gombu, to reach the top of Mt. Everest. It was a miraculous feat, but Whittaker said it wasn’t just him. In fact, the secret to climbing Mt. Everest comes down to teamwork. “It was a team thing. I was lucky enough to do the ‘slam dunk,’ but there was 19 Americans, plus all the Sherpas, who busted their butts to get somebody to Earth’s highest point,” Whittaker, now 90, said. “If you’re going to have a successful expedition, the team has to get at least one person up there. A lot of people know they can’t get to the top but still make the necessary carries between camps to get the equipment up the mountain. Without all of them, we never would have been successful.”

Making other expeditions

Whittaker didn’t want to only be known as the first American to reach Mt. Everest’s peak. Instead, he made a career of mountain climbing and being a guide for others. He has climbed the world’s second-highest mountain, K2, also known as Mt. Godwin-Austen. Whittaker’s successful climb also inspired others to make the trip to Mt. Everest. This includes Stacy Allison, who became the first American woman to successfully climb the mountain in 1988.