Although it tops out at under 6,000 feet above sea level – low by mountaineering standards – Mt. Index in Washington State’s central Cascade mountain range is a technically challenging chunk of granite, its near-vertical face looming dramatically more than 4,000 feet over the valley below. In 1949, Jim Whittaker was a speck high on the wall, hauling himself skyward while his twin brother, Lou, belayed below, waiting while “Big Jim” searched for a spot to place an anchor. But in those days, pitons cost 35 cents (each!) and he was loath to waste one on a less-than-ideal anchor-point, choosing instead to climb upward. That is, until the hand- and footholds ran out. “Louie! I’m stuck!”
With nothing within reach and nowhere to drive a spike - even though he’d now be happy to burn the pennies – Jim saw only one way out: A rocky outcrop jutting from the wall several feet away. But if he lunged for it and missed, he'd fall thousands of feet to his death, snapping Lou off the mountain with him.
So he jumped. Extending every inch of his 6'5" frame, he gripped the ledge with his fingers, pulling himself up and over to safety.
No big deal for a Whittaker, apparently. For all of its drama - it could be a scene lifted from an overcooked Sly Stallone movie - the Index story is almost a footnote in A Life on the Edge, Whittaker’s account of scaling Mt. Everest in 1963, becoming the first American to stand at the top of the world. (See our interview here.) And it's telling that his son, Leif, includes the tale in his own memoir, My Old Man and the Mountain, along with his own experience of climbing Everest. What was it like growing up a Whittaker, an heir to the legacy of one of our most adventurous families?
"Well, I had to write an entire book to get over it," he recently told me in Seattle, in between stops on his book tour. "I grew up in a family of tall, loud, competitive - you know, macho - climbers. Basically since birth, people have been asking me if I wanted climb Mount Everest. Peter [Leif's cousin, now the co-owner of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.] said the same thing: ‘Leif, I had people asking be that since I was born, just like you. This is just something that comes with being born as a Whittaker, the son of Lou or Jim.’"
Like any teenager seeking his own identity (or more specifically, running from his father’s), Leif was reluctant to measure himself against his dad’s accomplishments. Usually that means pursuing law instead of medicine, rather than high-altitude ice climbing. But the Whittakers lived in Port Townsend, at the edge of Olympic National Park, where plenty of smaller-scale adventures await just outside the front door. Hiking is a gateway drug for latent outdoors enthusiasts; backpacks, kayaks, and off-trail scrambles often follow, and it wasn’t long before larger ambitions crept into Leif’s head. But he still needed a push, and he credits his brother, Joss, for stirring his interest in mountains by leading him up Washington’s glacier-capped Mt. Olympus. Its 7,980-foot elevation might not put it in the company of the world’s toughest peaks, but as with any mountain, treat it lightly at your risk.
“We were lost. We were in trouble the whole time. I had no clue what to do. If he got in trouble, we would have probably died or never come back.
“I totally blame [Joss] for teaching me how to tie into a rope. Climbing Olympus for the first time really galvanized my passion for climbing. It really gave me a love for the mountains. I climbed all over Washington State, which is a fantastic place to learn how to climb: Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier. Those are really Himalayan peaks in their features, their glaciers and crevasses. Of course, they don't have the same altitude, but they're the ideal training to go on bigger mountains.”
After college, he pursued those bigger peaks in Ecuador, pushing himself to greater challenges in the Andes, “and just kept progressing, going to higher altitudes and trying to continue to be a better climber.” Always in the back of his mind, the idea of Everest grew large, even if he didn’t know if, how, or when an opportunity would come.
With his reluctance to follow in his dad’s oversized footsteps came an aversion to trading on his famous name. But Everest is a pricey ambition, and when a sponsor appeared with an offer to fund an expedition – in part because he’s a Whittaker - he found a bit of the old man in him, after all. So he jumped.
Could he do it? “I felt confident, definitely. So much of it is just perseverance and desire, and I knew that I had those two things in spades. I knew I could put one foot in front of the other forever.”
* * *
Much has been made of the “commercialization” of Everest, and rightly so. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first successful summit in 1953, over 4,000 individuals have reached the top (while close to 300 have died trying). Most of those attempts have been made in the last 20 years, when established mountaineers realized serious money could be made leading guided expeditions for bucket-listers with deep pockets, exchanging logistics - and often a helping hand up the steep slopes - for hefty fees. In turn, publishing has witnessed a boom in armchair mountaineering narratives beginning with Jon Krakauer’s 1997 bestseller, Into Thin Air, with dozens of climbing tales following, the more disastrous the better. Additionally, sponsorships are key to any professional climber, and books are useful brand extenders.
And at first glance, My Old Man and the Mountain might seem unremarkable in such a crowded field; his attempt (two, in fact, combined into one account for the book), though obviously difficult, succeeded without extraordinary personal peril – no collapsing cornices, tumbles into crevasses, or High Altitude Edema, Cerebral or Pulmonary. Dave Hahn and Melissa Arnott, both accomplished high-altitude climbers, provided the sanity and experience necessary to maximize the odds of safety and success. But the climb is only half of Leif’s story.
As it turns out, Big Jim and Leif’s mother, Dianne Roberts, came along for the trek, hoping to reach Everest Base camp for “one more rum-and-Coke.” At 17,600 feet, the walk to EBC is no day hike, and the family knew the trip would challenge Jim, who, while still a bull, was now in his 80s.
And he struggled. Between the physiological effects of altitude and the difficulty of terrain, Jim suffered a series of setbacks that ultimately forced him to abandon the adventure, but not before Leif witnessed an aspect of his father’s character that he hadn’t fully understood, one that the elder Whittaker had carried with him in 1963:
“To see him just try to get to the top of that arbitrary hillside up in Nepal.... It really made me understand the determination that he must have had back then. I suspect it didn't matter if there were a storm, it didn't matter if the route was in or not. They would've summited regardless of the conditions - there was no stopping him. There was no stopping him and [his climbing partner] Gombu. They were going to summit no matter what that day.”
For Leif, the journey was no longer about proving a point - an escape from the twin shadows of his father and the mountain - but a station-to-station reflection on his own path overlaid on Jim’s. Everest’s formidable obstacles become rites of passage, from the building-sized seracs of the infamous Khumbu Icefall to the icy gales of the South Col and vertical exposure of the Hillary Step, just below the summit.
“I was constantly thinking about them up there and referring back to the 1963 trip. It was more about that than it was about reaching the summit. Being there and revisiting that history - and that heritage - was so special. Imagining what it was like to see your teammates across the mountain climbing the West Ridge as you're on the South Col. And the comparison between past and present was so interesting.
“We [got] stuck at the South Summit, just waiting for this crowd to pass. I looked up at the Hillary Step and the Cornice Traverse, and I imagined what it looked like through Dad and Gombu's eyes. No fixed ropes, the crowd disappeared. They're climbing incredibly dangerous, exposed terrain all alone through the storm with a single line connecting them. It really took than moment to understand how difficult it was for them and [what] an incredible accomplishment it was.”
* * *
Ultimately, My Old Man and the Mountain is an adventure story, and a capable one at that. A little backstory: Mountaineering literature presents unusual challenges. For one, reliance on standard adjectives won’t suffice and the lay reader may struggle to comprehend landscape and action at Himalayan scale. Second, climbers are paradoxically pragmatic bunch, and their prose often reflects a kind of conservatism that keeps them alive: writing as a means to an end, a step-by-step, hold-by-hold journey to a different kind of summit - the end of the book.
But as the maxim plainly states, the summit is only halfway. Fortunately, Whittaker brought a talent for inventive, unconstrained language along with his crampons and plastic boots. His narration breathes life into the country and its people, from the stupas, temples, lamas, and rituals along the trail from Kathmandu to Base Camp, where boredom, primitive accommodations, and altitude-related ailments compete with the camaraderie of other climbers and the simmering impatience to get on with the work. He might not have pioneered a route on the mountain, but his descriptions - the objective and emotional hazards of Icefall (“honestly the biggest emotion was sheer terror”), the exhaustion and drudgery of forcing himself upward into the ever thinner air, and the strangely anticlimactic pause at the top - provide a human element often buried in the tangles of old ropes and discarded oxygen bottles of other climbing tales.
“I've learned over the years that climbing mountains really isn't about standing on the summit - it's about all these other things that go along with it. And as I continue to climb more and more mountains I realize these truths more and more, and I think they existed in 1963 and they still do today. It's about friendship and teamwork … the bond that forms between people, the ability to work as a team together and accomplish things that you'd never accomplish on your own. If you want to get to know someone, go on a climb with them.
“It's not just going up there for the sake of thrill-seeking. It's about taking a few risks. It's being unwilling to stop, being unwilling to give up ... Like I said in the book, the overwhelming emotion I felt was gratitude. Grateful that the mountain even allowed me to climb, that it let me get up there and reach the summit. And that's true of any summit that I stand on.”
You might also like:
- A Life on the Edge: An Interview with Jim Whittaker
- High Exposure: Brendan Leonard on Sixty Meters to Anywhere
- Images from Yosemite in the Fifties: The Iron Age
- Excerpt: Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold and David Roberts
- Draw Your Own Maps: Jeremy Collins and the Art of Adventure
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