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From Mountaineering Stock: An Interview With Leif Whittaker

Leif Whittaker is an author, an athlete, an environmentalist, and a general mountain badass. He currently resides in Bellingham, WA, in the shadow of Mt. Baker, but his adventures have taken him all over the world, from the islands of the South Pacific to the frozen top of Mt. Everest. I caught up with Leif in between excursions and exchanged a few words.


Leif Whittaker. Photo Credit: Freya Fenwood

You‘re the son of Jim Whittaker, one of the most famous American mountaineers of all time. How influential was he in your initiation into the sport? And do you think you would have ended up pursuing the same passions otherwise?

Honestly, my dad and mom never really taught me much about mountaineering when I was growing up, but when I was 11 years old they took my older brother and me on a four-year sailing voyage throughout the South Pacific. I think being out in the middle of the ocean, weeks from land in every direction, taught me to love adventure and solitude. It certainly showed me how to explore the world. Mountains have always fascinated me, and I suspect I would have found my way into them regardless of my upbringing.

You have now climbed Mt. Everest twice and are writing a book about your experience. Tell me a little bit about the book and what inspired you to write it.

My book is an exploration of Mount Everest 50 years after the first American ascent. It is partly a father-son story and partly a story about how Mount Everest has changed since Dad climbed it. It weaves together anecdotes from the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition and personal accounts of my experiences on Everest in 2010 and 2012. It’s got everything—comedy, tragedy, heartbreak, action, and triumph. I’ve been a writer for far longer than I’ve been a climber, and this book is just the first of many more to come.

During the summer months you work as a climbing ranger on Mt. Baker. Tell me about some of the challenges  you’ve faced with this. Environmental, people, regulations, etc.

The climbing ranger gig is wonderful for me because I get paid to spend time in the mountains, but it can be challenging to balance recreation with protection, as is always the case on public lands. I spend a lot of time picking up after careless people, making sure people are not disrespecting the environment, and looking out for inexperienced climbers on the glacier. It makes me feel very proud when I hear a guide or professional athlete comment about how clean the mountain looks. It takes a lot of work to keep it that way and people could certainly be more conscious about the impacts they cause.

I saw your video on how to effectively remove waste from the mountains. What was the idea behind this, and how effective do you think it’s been?

The idea with the video was to give people a quick rundown on how to use blue bags and dispose of their own waste. Unfortunately, a lot of human waste is left on the glacier, which negatively impacts the quality of our water. Not to mention it’s disgusting and ruins everyone’s experience. I hope the video reminds people to take care of our mountains so we can all enjoy them. Remember, clean up your poop!

Waste Management on Mt. Baker from Ian Couch on Vimeo.

What are your  next goals in the world of mountaineering?

I still haven’t been up Denali, and I would love to ski from the summit. Perhaps next spring. I’ve also been thinking a lot about a trip that incorporates a number of different sports—skiing, mountaineering, kayaking, sailing, biking. The grand idea is to paddle the Inside Passage north, skin into an Alaskan peak, summit, ski down, bike south to Vancouver Island, and sail back to Washington. That would be one hell of an adventure.

Name your dream trip and crew: any place, mountain, etc. Any climbers (at their peak) from any time in history.

A first ascent or new route on an 8000-meter peak with Tom Hornbein, Willi Unsoeld, Jim Whittaker, and Nawang Gombu in their primes. They were unstoppable in 1963, and I suspect I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with them, but I’d try.

You grew up in the PNW, traveled all over the world, and now once again call the PNF (Pacific NorthFresh) home. What brings you back to the area, and what do you look forward to coming home to most after a long trip and expedition?

The PNF has it all—mountains, ocean, forests, wild food, and cool people. There’s no other place I have found that has the same sort of combination, but traveling for a long time makes me appreciate coming home even more. In particular, my family’s cabin on the Washington coast is where I go to recuperate. I always feel reinvigorated after walking the beach on a sunny day. I imagine all climbers dream of warm beaches when they are cooped up in a snowy tent for weeks on end.

What do you do to help you maintain balance in your life when you frequently have to be training so much in preparation for the “next big one”?

I’m imbalanced all the time, probably more than most people, but I find it’s important to do some sort of maintenance on my body at least once a day, whether it’s stretching, weight lifting, running, climbing, or whatever. Maybe it’s as small as taking 10 minutes to roll out tight muscles with a foam roller, or maybe it’s a nine-hour ski tour. Doing something each and every day is really important. And if that doesn’t work, eating ice cream is always an excellent way to relieve stress.

What’s the scariest experience you’ve had in the mountains? Do these types of experiences help to motivate you going forward?

I’ve been involved in several rescues of other climbers and I’ve also had near misses with avalanches or other objective hazards. These experiences don’t motivate me so much as they remind me to be careful and conscious of my surroundings and my own decisions. I’m obviously willing to take risks, but I also try to mitigate unnecessary risks as much as possible. If there weren’t risk involved, climbing wouldn’t be fun. Being scared is good sometimes, but there’s a way to be smart about it. I’d like to be able to keep scaring myself for a while longer.

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