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Willmar notebook: From Bonanza Valley to the Top of the World

Tribune file photo by Rand Middleton Lute Jerstad’s cousin Erling Baalson, with wife Zona, holds the October 1963 National Geographic with a cover photo taken by Barry Bishop showing Lute nearing the peak on May 22, 1963. The flag was staked by expedition partner Jim Whittaker on May 1 while the rest of the expedition waited to resupply supplemental oxygen tanks. This photo was taken on May 2, 2004, at the Baalson farm north of Brooten.

Next Wednesday, May 1, will be the 50th anniversary of the first American to summit Mt. Everest.

It was “Big Jim” Whittaker, a Seattle resident who owned an outdoor store that would grow in to the REI chain.

Three weeks later, May 21, two more Americans from the same expedition reached the peak, then measured at 29,028 feet but since re-calibrated at 29.035 feet

One was Barry Bishop, a geographer and photo/journalist for National Geographic. The other was Luther Jerstad, who was born on a farm near Brooten.

Lute, as he was known by everyone, was a  graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, where he played basketball four years and was named “Most Inspirational.” The Jerstad family had moved from Willow River, near Duluth, to Gig Harbor, Wash., when Lute was 13, though he would return each summer the next four years to a Brooten farm.

Lute and three companions nearly died the night after summiting. They spent six hours huddled at 28,200 feet without tents, camp stove, food or water. Bishop and Willi Unsoeld, who summited from the West Ridge two hours later with Tom Hornbein, would lose all their fingers to frostbite and many toes. Jerstad suffered lifelong numbness in his digits from the highest successful bivouac in history.

It was widely reported that the only reason the four survived was that the eternal winds near the summit had miraculously stopped, making the 18-below temperature barely tolerable.

Later in the summer, President John F. Kennedy in a ceremony in the Rose Garden presented Lute with National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal for Expedition. Among his accomplishments, he was the first to take moving pictures from the top of the world.

The reason I bring up Lute Jerstad today is that there is sure to be occasional pieces in the next month noting the 50th anniversary of the initial quest of Everest by American explorers. I wrote extensively of Lute and his area relatives, including first cousin Alys Barr in Willmar, in a full-page article in the May 22, 2004, edition of this paper.

Today, I still find it fascinating that the second American, arm-and-arm with Bishop, to reach the legendary peak came from the level farmland and swales of the Bonanza Valley.

 He was born on his grandparents farm on Sedan Creek and would die from a heart attack at age 62, on Oct. 31, 1998, on the side of a 15,000 foot mountain in Nepal guiding an expedition that included his grandson Marshall.

Today the five-mile-high-plus summit, yet still dangerous and demanding, is a virtual tourist destination thanks to high-tech equipment and well-paid guides.

It took 2½ years to organize and find financing for the accent which selected 19 Americans and one Brit for the expedition. Some 300 adventurers had applied.  Lute’s experience as a guide in the Cascades, particularly Mount Rainier, a combination of athleticism, wit, and education brought the affable, 5-foot-8 native Minnesotan to the forefront.

He returned here each summer through age 17 to help with the haying and, occasionally, a scout for girls along Brooten’s main street, according to a relative.

In the book “Everest Diary,” based on Lute’s notes of the climb, author John McCallum writes of the two men first sighting the American flag planted three weeks earlier by Whittaker:

“Now they had reached the elevation where each step required minutes of rest. They crossed hard, steep snow. Lute chopped steps until he thought his arm would drop off … At 2 p.m., under a piercingly blue sky, they were standing on the southern threshold of Everest’s Main Summit. They stood there too tired to move.”

They stayed on top for 45 minutes. Lute would never climb the mountain again but the boy from Brooten had secured his place in mountaineering lore.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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