BELLINGHAM — Sheltered in a tent with a Himalayan wind shrieking around him near the summit of Mount Everest, Port Townsend native Leif Whittaker and his climbing companions were running out of time.
“We were in the death zone, about 26,000 feet,” Whittaker said. “That’s the height that human life doesn’t function. You can’t sleep for any extended period, you can’t digest food.
“We were getting to the point we couldn’t rest there any longer. We were running out of fuel, running out of food, we hadn’t slept. We only had about an hour to go before we would have to continue climbing through the storm or make the decision to descend.”
That choice is agonizing for any world-class mountaineer. For Whittaker, whose father Jim became the first American to summit Mount Everest in 1963, a curtailed climb would have certainly marked the lowest point of his climbing career.
“I was lying there thinking about all the things I would have to explain,” Whittaker said. “How we didn’t reach the summit, how rough the weather was. And I was thinking about all the pressure I had put on myself to make this climb.”
A combination of anxiety and exhaustion put Whittaker to sleep for a short period, maybe 10 to 15 minutes total.
“The thing that woke me up was the silence,” Whittaker said. The tent stopped shaking, the wind had calmed, so I unzipped the tent I saw the weather had cleared and we had our window. And taking that look out the tent, I knew I was going to reach the summit.”
Whittaker and his team did successfully summit all 29,035 feet of Mount Everest, and Whittaker achieved the feat once again in 2012, following in his father’s footsteps each time.
The younger climber and adventurer has written a memoir, “My Old Man and the Mountain,” which tackles his life “growing up Whittaker,” how he carved a path out of the shadow of his father’s many accomplishments, and intersperses his accounts of his two trips up Everest with his dad’s famed 1963 climb.
The book is available for preorder now on Amazon.com in advance of its Saturday’s release, and Whittaker said the work will be available soon at North Olympic Peninsula book stores.
Save for a four-year chunk spent sailing around the South Pacific with his father, his mother Diane Roberts and his older brother Joss as a youngster, Whittaker grew up in Port Townsend and said that Olympic Peninsula upbringing had a sizable impact on his wanderlust.
“Growing up on the Peninsula truly did shape my passion for adventure and my love for the outdoors,” Whittaker said.
“I always say the best choice my parents ever made was to raise us in Port Townsend.
“My first overnight backpacking trip we went up [the Upper Dungeness River Trail] to Boulder Shelter. And to have that freedom to just walk out our back door and get out into true wilderness is a wonderful thing.
“There’s not that many places left in the world where you can find true wilderness, those places where very few of us have been, and that’s a special feeling.”
His love of climbing was spurred by an ascent of Mount Olympus with his brother at age 15.
“Most people assumed my parents would have pushed me into climbing,” Whittaker said.
“I always wished that they had, but maybe if they did I wouldn’t have taken to it as naturally.
Whittaker credits his brother for the climbing itch.
“I blame my brother for teaching me how to tie into a rope,” Whittaker joked.
“Honestly, man I had no idea what we were doing. We were often lost, often off-route, but somehow we made it through. That form of adventure was so fun and so rewarding, I still look for that in my life.
“There’s this moment, he climbed around a corner toward the summit on this really exposed rock ledge, he cruised up, put me on belay [exerting tension on the rope so a climber doesn’t fall far] and I got to the spot, a sheer drop down to a glacier how many thousands of feet below, and the only thing that made me want to climb higher was the knowledge that he’d climbed and summited.”
A 2003 trip to Nepal for the 50th anniversary of his father’s climb left Whittaker with the desire to ascend the mountain for himself.
He’d been asked if he would attempt such a feat his whole life.
“People have been asking me if I wanted to climb Everest since I can remember,” Whittaker said. “How does an 8 year old know if they want to climb Mount Everest? So, I’d say ‘Maybe, someday’, just to get people to leave me alone.”
Getting a glimpse of the mountain was a life-altering experience. The trip occurred in May of Whittaker’s senior year in high school and before he set sight on the peak, he was nervous that the journey across the World would cause him to miss his senior prom.
“We trekked to Mount Everest Base Camp, I saw the mountain and it changed my perspective,” Whittaker said.
“Hearing the stories from Nawang Gombu, the Sherpa who climbed with my dad in 1963, sharing the history, the heritage of what that place was like made me want to make the climb.
“I felt a special connection with the landscape, the people there. It was a transformative experience for me. I made it back in time for prom, but I really wasn’t worried about that anymore.”
Whittaker continued climbing while in college at Western Washington University.
A microdisectomy surgery to correct a herniated disc in his back, derailed Whittaker’s climbing career when he was 23.
“I woke up with little to no function in my right leg or foot,” Whittaker said. “I had feeling, but no mobility. It Took me years and years to get to the point where I could climb efficiently, and my foot and leg will never be completely healed.”
At a low point in life, he took inspiration from his parents.
“Just keep moving,” Whittaker said. “That’s something my parents have always said, something my dad has always taught me on the trail, ‘You can’t slow down, you can’t stop.’”
In advance of his 2010 Everest ascent, Whittaker climbed 16,050-foot Mount Vinson on Antarctica and Argentina’s Aconcagua, second only to Everest at 22,838 feet.
When it was time to make his climb, Whittaker carried a valuable memento of his fathers.
“He was kind enough to give me his original journal from 1963,” Whittaker said. “And I’d always refer to it during the climb. I read it many different times.”
Whittaker also leaned on a passage during a particularly upsetting period.
“I got really sick on the trek into base camp,” Whittaker said. “I was feeling bad worried I wasn’t going to have the strength for the climb, that I’d be too weak for the entire trip.
“And I’d always had this perception of my dad as indestrucible. But I found a passage where he woke up at night, completely sick to stomach, and he couldn’t help it and puked all over his tent. I read that and made me feel like, well, if he was sick I could do it, too.”
Whittaker successfully made the summit of Everest twice, but he said he’s never conquered the mountain.
“I’ve never had the sense you can conquer the mountain,” Whittaker said.
“I’ve seen that in print, ‘Whittaker conquers Everest,’ and what an arrogant frame of mind.
“The mountain allows you to get up and down. When I reached the top my overwhelming emotion was gratitude. I was so grateful for the support, our team sponsors and grateful to the mountain.
“It’s not about reaching the summit, it’s about many more things than that. The summit is the least important. I try to remind myself that taking risks can be a good thing, not unnecessary or thrill-seeking risks necessarily, but being able to get outside of your comfort zone, and that’s how we learn and grown as people.”
Whittaker has now spent the last five years working as a climbing ranger from May to October on the faces and glaciers that make up Mount Baker, whose snow-covered peak is visible from much of his hometown.
During those stints, he’s had the opportunity to foster a sense of wonder and well-being derived from nature with groups from the North Cascades Institute.
“It’s been really fulfilling to be out on the mountain with people who had never experienced the wilderness before,” Whittaker said.
“Some of these people have never even been camping, so to see nature through their eyes, to share in that experience and watch how they transformed and changed has been amazing.”
He considers Baker his home mountain. And the view from the summit offers a glimpse of the area that helped mold him.
“On those clear summer days it’s pretty cool to look out and see PT and see the Olympic Peninsula,” Whittaker said.
Sports reporter/columnist Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected]