Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On route with Lou Whittaker

Express Staff Writer

Lou Whittaker

"Everything I know, everything I believe in, I've learned from the mountains," writes famed mountaineer and glacier-travel guide Lou Whittaker in his memoir, "Lou Whittaker, Memoirs of a Mountain Guide" (written with Andrea Gabbard).

On Thursday, Jan. 20, at 3 p.m. at the Sun Valley Opera House, Whittaker will present a slide and video presentation featuring some of the lessons and triumphs from his lifelong pursuit of mountain peaks, from Mount Rainier in Washington, where he was chief guide for 30 years, to the Himalayas. He is the founder of the guiding company Rainier Mountaineering.

At 82, Whittaker has a lot to look back on. A veteran of the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division, he's known as "Rainier Lou" for having climbed 14,411-foot Mount Rainier 250 times.

Mount Rainier, a snow-covered volcano near Seattle, is the highest peak in Washington and the Cascade Mountains. Whittaker developed a group of successful climbing-related businesses at the Rainier Base Camp in Ashford, Wash., and led the training of several generations of Rainier guides, many of whom continue to guide and climb elsewhere.

In 1963, Whittaker's identical twin brother, Jim, led the first American team ascent of Mount Everest in Nepal. After the climb, when Jim grew tired of attending the many parades and celebrations required of him by the media, Lou would sometimes stand in for him, leaving members of the public and the press none the wiser.

Nepalese Sherpa Nawang Gombu (a nephew of Tenzing Norgay), who also reached the summit of Everest with Jim, worked for 17 years as a guide for Lou on Mount Ranier and elsewhere.

In 1984, at age 55, Lou led the first American team to summit Everest's north face. In 1989, at age 60, he led the first American team to the summit of the Himalayan peak Kanchenjunga, the third highest in the world. Though Whittaker did not summit the peak himself, six others did.

"It was a team effort," he says, but one that is emblematic of the climber's reputation for supporting others in their mountaineering quests.

Whittaker has lost climbing partners and friends on expeditions, and several of his company's clients have died on Mount Rainier. He has known about the perils of mountaineering since he worked as a search-and-rescue professional early in his career. In response to the dangers, he quotes Hellen Keller in his memoirs:

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

When Robert Kennedy Jr. spoke at the Sun Valley Wellness Festival three years ago, he singled out Lou Whittaker as a close family friend before delivering a keynote speech on the perils of industrial pollution in America.

Whittaker has been a friend of the Kennedy family since the 1960s, ski racing on Bald Mountain with Ted and Bobby Kennedy and their children.

"After Robert Kennedy was killed, Ethel (his widow) was looking for something for his son Joe to do, so I hired him as a mountain guide on Rainier. He did great."

Some years later, Joe Kennedy had twin boys of his own. He called Lou Whittaker to take them up Rainier.

"After they got home, Joe called and said, 'Lou, you made men out of my boys on Mount Rainier,'" says Whittaker. "The Kennedys are a great family."

Whittaker doesn't climb anymore, but he still skis, hikes and treks, thanks in part to double knee-replacement surgery by Boise surgeon Dr. Richard Moore. Last year, Whittaker led a group of a dozen Sun Valley locals on a trek in Bhutan, hiking 50 miles and climbing to an elevation of 14,000 feet.

Along on the trek was his surgeon.

"It's a good idea to take a doctor along," says Whittaker. "I told him that the only thing that didn't hurt was my knees."

The mountaineering tradition continues in the family of Lou Whittaker and his wife of 27 years, Ingrid Whidman. They have two sons and a daughter.

In 1995, Peter Whittaker, the eldest son, organized Expedition Inspiration, in which he led a group of breast cancer survivors to the summit of 22,841-foot Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the Americas. The climb raised more than $2 million for breast cancer research. Peter also served as the guide for both the oldest man and the oldest woman to reach the summit of Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

Win Whittaker, the younger son, has been a guide at Rainier Mountaineering since 1982, and has reached the summit of Rainier 144 times on various routes. He has also led many other trips around the world. Win's been a filmmaker for the past 10 years and is in the process of completing a documentary on the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in India, a climbing school for Sherpas.

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