Leif Whittaker blazes own trail by following in famous father’s footsteps

Leif Whittaker has climbed Mount Everest twice and is the author of “My Old Man and the Mountain.” His father, Jim Whittaker, was the first American to climb Everest, in 1963.
Leif Whittaker has climbed Mount Everest twice and is the author of “My Old Man and the Mountain.” His father, Jim Whittaker, was the first American to climb Everest, in 1963. Courtesy

As far back as Leif Whittaker can remember, people have asked him the same question.

Do you want to climb Mount Everest?

“What a terrible question,” Whittaker said. “I mean, I never knew how to answer that question.”

Whittaker, 32, is the son of legendary mountaineer Jim Whittaker. In 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American to climb Mount Everest. It’s a legacy from which it’s almost impossible to stand apart.

In 2010 and 2012, Whittaker blazed his own path by following in his dad’s footsteps. He made his own trips to the top of the world’s highest peak. On the second trip, his dad (83 at the time) trekked with him to base camp at 17,000 feet above sea level.

“I could see a little bit of that determination that got him to the top back then,” Whittaker said. “It was incredible.”

Whittaker writes about these climbs in “My Old Man and the Mountain” (The Mountaineers Books), published in October. He calls the book a coming of age story that also explores his relationship with his dad.

“It’s more than just climbing Everest,” Whittaker said. “It’s about how inside of all of us is the desire to make our parents proud.”

During his climbs, Whittaker read his father’s journal from the 1963 expedition with Sherpa Nawang Gombu.

“So I was steeped in history when I was climbing,” Whittaker said. “And I was reminded how much harder it was back then. It’s almost embarrassing how much easier it is now.”

Whittaker, who lives in Bellingham and works as climbing ranger on Mount Baker, is preparing to take a kayaking/book tour road trip of the western United States.

We recently caught up with Whittaker while he was waiting in line to catch a ferry from Coupeville to Port Townsend. He answered a few questions about his old man and the mountain.

Q: What advice did your dad give you before your first Everest climb?

A: He passed along some advice that he credits to Ed Viesturs (the only American to climb the world’s 14 highest peaks). He said, “The summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” … When I left, he was reminded of what his mother must have felt like when he left, how terrified she must have been.

Q: When did you climb your first mountain?

A: When I was 15, I climbed Mount Olympus with my older brother, Joss (17 at the time). That was my first glaciated peak. We (traveling without adults) were lost the entire time. I think if my parents let us do that today they’d probably be in jail. It was so fun. I still don’t know if I’ve had a trip that was quite as fun as that one.

Q: Did your dad want you to become a mountaineer?

A: People might think my parents would push me into it, but they didn’t. We climbed a peak together when I was about 8 years old. Pinnacle Peak in the Tatoosh Range at Mount Rainier (National Park). I remember scrambling up to the summit. I thought, “What a stupid sport.” I remember always complaining. My feet hurt. I’m sweaty. I don’t like carrying this backpack.

Q: How long did it take you to truly appreciate what your dad did?

A: To really, truly appreciate it took climbing Everest. I remember, there was a moment where we had to wait below the Hilary Step (a rock face near the summit) for about an hour and a half. We got stuck there behind a crowd of people that was coming down. It would have ruined the trip if it wasn’t a beautiful, clear day.

I looked up and I could imagine what it must have been like for Dad and Gombu. They were climbing through a storm. Seventy mph winds ripping across the ridgeline. There was no fixed rope. It was incredibly dangerous.

So three weeks later when I returned to Seattle, my dad met me at the airport. He gave me a hug and said, “How was it, son?”

I said, “Dad, you sure did some crazy (expletive).” And he did.

Q: Does your dad still climb?

A: He’s 88 so he jokes that he climbs onto bar stools and into bed.

Q: So why do you choose to work at Mount Baker instead of Rainier like so much of your family?

A: I wanted to do something a little different. I feel drawn to Baker. It’s a little more off the beaten path.

Q: What’s harder, climbing Everest or writing a book?

A: Climbing mountains is really a pretty simple thing when you think about it. It’s just one step in front of the other. One hand in front of the other. It’s not a complex thing. Writing a book is the opposite of that. So, yeah, I think it was more challenging to write the book.

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