Whittaker memoir takes on mountains and manhood

“My Old Man and the Mountain” by Leif Whittaker

In the second half of the 20th century, the mountain-climbing Whittaker twins of Washington State were stars. Jim Whittaker was the first American ever to bag the world’s tallest peak in 1963. A few years later he led Robert Kennedy up the Canadian mountain named in honor of President Kennedy after his assassination. Meanwhile, Lou Whittaker established Rainier Mountaineering, guided hundreds of climbs up our state’s tallest peak, and finally led the first American ascent of Everest via Tibet and the North Col.

With this kind of pedigree, it seemed inevitable that the Whittaker progeny would take up mountaineering, too. Now Leif Whittaker, Jim’s youngest son, has written a memoir about growing up in the shadow of these pioneering mountaineers. “My Old Man and the Mountain” is a bluntly honest assessment of a life shaped by physical prowess, mental toughness, outdoor adventure and celebrity.

Whittaker spends little time on his childhood. Never mind that he, his brother and his parents spent four years living aboard a sailboat and plying the oceans of the world – that rates one paragraph. When they eventually land back in Port Townsend and Whittaker returns to school and excels in his classes, he pronounces that “the American public school system just sucks.”

A few years later, when his parents haul him out of school again for a monthlong trip to Nepal to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his dad’s Everest climb, he hopes he won’t miss prom.

Whittaker is an evocative writer, and he captures his callow, flippant youth in details that will perhaps make mature readers shake their heads in bemusement.

But he isn’t completely clueless as to his privilege, and in some ways he finds himself stymied by it.

It doesn’t come as a huge surprise when he is presented with a plum opportunity to climb Everest himself. But to his credit, Whittaker understands that if he undertakes this, the family name will not be enough to get him up the mountain. To reach the world’s highest summit, it will take his own physical fortitude, and his own mental resolve.

But then an unforeseen wrinkle – his parents ask if they can accompany him for the first part of the trip. It’s another extraordinary chance to bond with his parents, but certainly the reader wonders how young Leif will ever become his own man.

In this memoir, the scion compares his 21st century climb of Everest with the expedition led by his dad. Much has changed in half a century, but even now it remains an arduous grind interspersed with occasional moments of terror and exhilaration. Whittaker does a laudable job of capturing this essence.

Along the way, he grapples with deeper questions of meaning. “In a world full of real violence, real poverty, real disease, and real environmental catastrophe, how can climbing be considered anything but a wholly shallow and selfish endeavor?”

That question haunts these pages – and in this reader’s opinion, “My Old Man and the Mountain” fails to provide a satisfactory answer.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com