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Lute Jerstad '58, an Everest hero, dies

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Lute JerstadCourtesy PLU Archives
Lute Jerstad '58 stands on Mount Rainier in this early 1960s photo.
Former Gig Harbor resident Lute Jerstad '58, one of the first Americans to climb Mount Everest, died Oct. 31 doing what he loved - climbing a mountain.
      Jerstad, a Portland resident, died in Nepal after suffering a heart attack just 500 feet short of the 18,192-foot summit of Mount Kalapatar, known as an easy climb. He was 62.
      A standout high school athlete who earned four varsity basketball letters at PLU, Jerstad became a national hero in 1963 when he was one of five Americans to summit the world's highest mountain.
      Three weeks after Washington native Jim Whittaker stood on the summit, Jerstad became the first man to carry a movie camera to the top of Everest. But he and three others nearly died on the way down. They ran out of daylight and were forced to bivouac overnight at 28,000 feet - the highest point at which humans had spent a night outdoors and survived.
      With no tent, stove or sleeping bags, the men hunkered down in their parkas and waited for morning. Two of them lost most of their toes to frostbite. The feat remains a mountaineering legend.
      Jerstad suffered frostbite that cost him feeling in his fingers and toes even 20 years after the climb, but he made it down with his movie camera. He donated his Everest climbing gear to PLU in 1967. It remains on display in the campus library.
      Standing just 5 feet 8 inches, Jerstad was known for his strength, determination and left-handed set shot on the basketball court. He once opened his backpack on the summit of Mount Rainier and pulled out a watermelon to share with his companions.
      "It shows what a strong guy he was," said alpinist Lou Whittaker, Jim Whittaker's identical twin brother. Lou Whittaker said he last saw Jerstad about a year ago at Camp Muir on the slopes of Mount Rainier.
      Lou Whittaker, who stands well over 6 feet tall, said Jerstad could jump as high as he could. Known as the Little Lute, Jerstad relied on his quickness as a reserve basketball guard at PLU in the late 1950s.

Many people still at PLU knew Lute Jerstad personally and will miss him. Among that group is Jim Van Beek '60, '69, major gift director in Development, who played basketball against Jerstad first in high school, then with him as a teammate at PLU.
      "I greatly respected Lute's ability and competitiveness," Van Beek said. "One thing I remember about him was his interest in Shakespeare and drama. On the way to and from road games he would sit in the back seat, reading and quoting Shakespeare. Lute was bright, articulate and probably the best 5-foot, 8-inch player I've ever played with or against."

      The team was good enough to make it to the NAIA basketball tournament in 1956, 1957 and 1958, finishing third in 1957. Jerstad was named the team's most inspirational player in 1958. He also lettered in football, basketball and baseball at Peninsula High School.
      Lou Whittaker said he wasn't surprised when Jerstad conquered Everest.
      "Lute was expected to go high and did," Whittaker said.
      Not bad for a guy who grew up on a Minnesota farm and didn't see his first mountain until his family moved to the Northwest when he was 13. Jerstad learned many of his climbing skills on Mount Rainier, where he worked as a guide during the 1950s. Jerstad also climbed Mount McKinley before setting out for glory.
      Everest changed his life. Climbing the mountain was a big deal, even 10 years after Sir Edmund Hillary became the first man on top. The 1963 American expedition was the third that put climbers on the summit.
      Upon their return, the American climbers were honored with a celebration at SeaTac Airport and a motorcade through downtown Seattle. Gig Harbor also put on a parade for its most famous son.
      Everest was Jerstad's last high-profile climb - he said such expeditions were too dangerous. But the mountain gave him courage.
      "It gave me the guts to go out and try something different on my own," he said in a 1983 interview. He eventually formed a guide service that led treks and rafting expeditions.
      Jerstad had received a master's degree from Washington State University and taught at Franklin Pierce High School before he climbed Everest. After Everest, he earned a doctorate in drama at the University of Oregon and later was a professor there and at Lewis & Clark College.
      After three years as a professor, Jerstad quit to guide rafting expeditions in Asia as head of his own business, Lute Jerstad Adventures. He also operated climbing schools on Mount Hood and Mount Rainier. He scouted tigers in Asia but still had time to take mental patients on river runs and cliff-climbing expeditions.
      Jerstad maintained his love for the Himalayas until he died. In 1971, he wrote about his fascination with the region for The News Tribune.
      "Whenever I set foot in the Himalayas, I am as a child opening the cover of a vast new book; pages of folklore, of mystery, of awesome beauty," Jerstad wrote. "I sense rather than see; visualize rather than look; communicate rather than talk."
      There were other adventures. In 1975, Lute Jerstad Adventures declared bankruptcy. Jerstad later blamed problems on poor decisions by his business partners. He bounced back and made the business profitable again.
      Jerstad was leading a nine-member trek when he died. At his request, his body was cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River [Nepal]. His ashes will be spread at a Nepalese monastery where the ashes of two of his friends have been placed.
      Survivors include his wife, Susan; daughters Kari Jerstad of Portland and Jana Cox of McKinley, Calif.; a sister, Kay Morton of Portland; and three grandchildren.

This Nov. 3, 1998, article was reprinted with permission from The News Tribune.

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