Trailblazing Couple Celebrates 50 Years Together With Hip Replacement Surgeries

Jim Whittaker

Dianne Roberts and Jim Whittaker, 2021 (left); Jim Whittaker on Mount Everest, 1963 (right) | Photos Courtesy of Whittaker family collection

After 50-plus years of adventure-seeking, Jim Whittaker and his wife Dianne Roberts had chalked up challenging and record-making feats. But scaling mountains and sailing oceans around the world had left them with a new challenge in their 90s and 70s.

"We wore out our joints," says Jim.

Hip pain was keeping them from enjoying life the way they wanted. Jim, retired CEO of retailer REI, and Dianne, a photographer, certainly "earned" their painful hips. As an elite mountaineer, Jim was the first American to summit Mount Everest. He led the first ascent of Mount Kennedy. He led the first American summit of K2 and the Mount Everest International Peace Climb.

Dianne set a high-altitude climbing record for women as a team member on two K2 expeditions. She’s also a competitive rower, skier and blue water sailor — someone who sails across open oceans. Adventure-seeking even became a family affair. They enjoyed a four-year, 20,000-mile journey sailing to Australia and back with their two teenage sons.

Jim and Dianne knew joint replacement was often the best path to living with less pain. (Jim had returned to skiing 10 months after double-knee replacements at age 78.) But they were slow to admit how bad their hip pain was.

"I’m used to pain from the life I’ve led, so I tried to ignore it," Jim says.

After watching Jim painfully hobble up steps, his 90-year-old Mount Everest climbing partner, Tom Hornbein, gave Jim some advice: get that hip replaced.

"I was going to end up in a wheelchair if I didn’t," says Jim.

Hornbein, who’s had three hip replacements, recommended UW Medicine Orthopedics. But before Jim could make an appointment, his path to less pain took a detour. Jim had a stroke, and medics airlifted him to Harborview Medical Center, which is part of UW Medicine.

"Their brilliant neurosurgeons undoubtedly saved his life," Dianne says.

Next challenge: hip replacement surgery

Jim fully recovered from his stroke. His UW Medicine heart specialist then put Jim and Dianne in touch with UW Medicine orthopedic surgeon Navin Fernando, MD, at the Hip & Knee Center at Meridian Pavilion. Jim wasn’t Dr. Fernando's first 90-plus-year-old hip replacement patient.

"Someone in their 90s with the medical health of someone in their 70s and 80s may still be a good candidate for hip replacement," says Dr. Fernando. "The surgical risks for a healthy person in their 90s in many cases may be similar to someone younger."

Jim and Dianne felt good about putting their hips in Dr. Fernando’s hands. Based on Jim’s treatment for his stroke, they knew they'd receive excellent care. They also liked knowing Jim would have immediate care and support from UW Medicine’s extensive network of specialists if heart or other health issues developed.

"Jim and Dianne led active, healthy lives, but joint pain was limiting their quality of life," says Dr. Fernando. "That tends to be when surgery is the most effective option."

Jim's successful hip replacement in September 2020 was the nudge Dianne needed to take her turn.

"I wanted to continue rowing, but the hip was giving me grief," Dianne says.

A dear friend she rowed with was dealing with the same problem. COVID-19 had delayed her surgery.

"By the time my friend had the surgery, she was in terrible pain and could barely function," Dianne says. "I didn’t want to go through that."

Dr. Fernando replaced Dianne’s hip in May 2021. She was back to rowing in three months and was hitting the ski slopes by winter. Though Jim now enjoys skiing as a spectator by the fire in the lodge, he’s working out with weights and walking again. They’re ready to get back to road trips and traveling.

"Most people who’ve been married almost 50 years are happy with matching sweaters," Dianne says. "We went for new matching hips. Considering what Dr. Fernando did and the reduction in pain, it’s truly a miracle."