004: Climbing Legend Lou Whittaker
I’ve got a great guest. I actually flew from LA to Seattle and then drove two and a half hours to a little teeny-tiny town called Ashford, Washington which is just outside the Mount Rainier National Park entrance. As you drive into this town, it’s really not noticeable by a whole lot except for Whittaker’s Bunkhouse. I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing and talking with Lou Whittaker, famous climber, 88 years old young. This guy is an absolute stud. He started a climbing adventure, a mountaineering service called RMI, Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated. He’s got his integrated Whittaker’s Bunkhouse right next to that. I just had a fun conversation, sitting out on a couple of picnic tables, lots of people around drinking some beers having a good time. It’s a great lesson.
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Climbing Legend Lou Whittaker
I’m so excited because I’m sitting here in Ashford, Washington with one of my all-time great heroes and idols growing up. Truly, Lou Whittaker is an icon in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the world for climbing and doing a lot of things. I can’t believe I’m sitting here right at the base of Mount Rainier. Lou, welcome. It’s an honor.
Thank you, Mark. Good to be here.
I’ve got to tell a quick story to you. I was in Sun Valley and I walked into this old bar and this restaurant called The Pioneer and I sat down with another couple. All of a sudden I saw you walk by and I turned to everybody and I go, “Do you know who that was?” I played with a lot of famous football players but I was star-struck. They go, “You’ve got to go talk to him.” As you know, I ran after you and I turned around in the bar area and I gave you my 30 seconds of whatever I said to you. You were so gracious of turning around and engaging with me. You knew I was going to Denali. I’m so appreciative of that.
If you don’t mind, I want to go back a little bit because you didn’t wake up years and years and years ago and say, “I want to become a climbing legend.” It just organically happened with you and your twin brother. When did you start climbing? How old were you?
We are fortunate to have a Boy Scoutmaster who was a climber. He was in the mountain troops in World War II and lost an arm early in the war. He had a hook. He’d unscrew his wooden hand, then he hook up and screw on the hook. He’d climb with us and climb a cliff with his hook on one hand and a regular hand on the other hand. He taught us climbing as an ex-veteran but a scoutmaster. Really great guy, Tom Campbell. Tom got us kicking in at about the age of twelve and then we joined the Explorer Scouts and started climbing more seriously. We went from scouting to Seattle mountaineer climbing schools and then guiding in college.
Was this all locally in the mountains of the Cascades?
It was locally but by 1960, by the time I was 30, we did McKinley and we were doing other peaks. Then we skied down Chaston and a few of the mountains up and down the coast. We skied down Rainier and I had a good time doing that. Those days we had a ski rope. Now, you can ski without a rope on. Skiing with a rope, when a guy stops in front of you or behind you, you better stop too. We had some bad falls.
Now, they’ve got skins. For people who don’t know about skins, you put this sandpaper-type stuff and go up and you walk straight up. Were you doing that back then?
We did. There wasn’t a heel lift binding so you’re picking up the heel with the ski with every step. It was a lot harder then. Mostly, long thong bindings. We didn’t have a heel lift. Now, you’ve got a heel lift binding with the skin so you can take a long step, the heel lifts up, and you can then strip the skins off, clamp the heels down, and you’ve got a good downhill ski.
That’s what I’ve actually done the day before I saw you. Where I had skinned up at the top of Sun Valley, Warm Springs and skied down. It was wonderful. It was awesome. All the way without stopping.
Good for you. That’s a good workout right there.
It’s a great workout. People don’t know this but actually when you’re going up, you sweat a lot. I almost want to peel things off. When we got at the top, it was pretty cold. You’ve got to layer up and put it back on.
That’s cardiovascular. That’s the health that the doctors say you need for mountaineering. It’s the heart and lungs. You don’t need a lot of skeletal structure, although you’re good at it, you’ve got a good build. I’ve seen anemic-looking gals run around the crater rim on my climbs. I said, “Where does she get that from?” It’s cardiovascular, heart and lungs and a good circulatory system. If you’ve got that, you can learn to work the body right with less oxygen.
You’ve built this amazing Whittaker’s Bunkhouse, which for anybody who doesn’t know, it’s this beautiful place where you can stay. A lot of the people are going to go climb and use your guiding service, RMI. You should rename the town, Whittaker’s, not Ashford.
We saw the need. What happened was people would come up to me and ask me if I’d take them up Mount Rainier. This was back when I was sixteen, seventeen. I had people ask if we would take them up. I knew the route and I feel good about it and there were no restrictions in those days, I would take them up. Then I want to get it going into a business, I thought, “I’ve got a real support in this business. I’ll do stuff like this.” Once a week at least, somebody would come up, some were millionaires and they’d say, “If you can get off and I’ll make you be able to afford it, I’ll pay for you to take me up Mount Adams and then Mount Rainier.” I was motivated not by me saying, “I bet I could take people up Mount Rainier and I should start a business.” I was motivated by the people coming up to me and saying, “Can you get off next week? I’d like to climb Mount Rainier. I’ve been training for it and I hear you guys are good.” I’d say, “I don’t know if I can get off work.” They said, “I’ll make it worthwhile for you.” These guys would pay megabucks to go up a mountain. I thought, “You could almost make a business out of that.”
What year did you found RMI? For those that don’t know, RMI is Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated. It’s a guiding service not for just Mount Rainier but all over the world.
We started mainly on Rainier and McKinley. I started guiding in college 1950, 1951. Then I was drafted in the Mountain Troops, 10th Mountain, got out in a couple of years.
What is the Mountain Troops?
The Mountain Troops or the 10th Mountain Division is a military mountain-trained infantry. I was an instructor that taught them winter survival in the wintertime at Camp Hale, 40 below, snow caves, rock climbing, and some snow and ice in Wyoming. I taught climbing for two years and then came back out. I was better by then, both my twin and I, because we’d made some scary mistakes on Mount Index and some different mountains we had some real close calls on. I got smarter in the military and learned how to do it safely. Then teaching people in the military that were never climbers but we made them climbers. I figured we could then turn that into a guide service training school as well. We started our schools up here on the mountain. We started guiding in the ’60s and more full-time. Pretty soon at ’68, I had an attorney friend who was a night watchman or a bellhop or something up in Mount Rainier at Paradise. I said, “Would you go into a business with me or incorporate? I’m getting too busy.” He said, “I’d love it.” We corporated in ’68 with about eight guides. Now, there are 72 guides working in the mountain.
Where do you find these guides?
It used to be that I would train them. There were not many climbers in the old days. If they like people and were good with people and didn’t mind getting rained on and liked the outdoors, I’d hire them and tell them, “I’ll teach you how to climb but you’ve got to be good with people.” A lot of people aren’t. A lot of good climbers aren’t. I thought, “I’ll teach them how to climb,” which I did. That’s true with the staff of guides now. Some have been up Everest seven times without oxygen. Some have been up fourteen times without oxygen. They were guides that I started learning how to put a rope around them. We didn’t use harnesses in those days. It was just a Bowline on a bight or a Bowline or Middleman’s Knot. I taught them that. I taught them how to guide. They were good with people and that’s what it takes.
One of the most famous guys that you’ve had is Ed Viesturs. He came through your whole system.
He’s the one that did Everest seven times without extra O2s. He’s a veterinarian. He learned from the animals he took care of. We call him an animal too. I took him on his first Himalayan expedition, third highest in the world, the Kangchenjunga. I was 60 then. It was 1989 that I took the last Himalayan peak, third highest in the world. It’s just about 200 feet under Everest and about 100 feet under K2. K2 is the second highest. Viesturs made it. He did good. We got six up the mountain and that was his first climb. Then my twin took him on Everest, the Peace Climb after that.
I’ve had the pleasure of climbing with Ed one time up on Mount Rainier. It was such a great experience. This was after the whole Into Thin Air thing that happened. It was funny because I was with Jim Mora, head football coach at UCLA and at the time the CEO of the Seahawks, Tod Leiweke. All Ed wanted to talk about is football and all we want to talk about is Everest and these other climbs that he’d done.
He was a motivational speaker for the Seahawks. He’d go and give them a pep talk before the game.
He’s good buddies with Jim Mora. That’s why Jim would bring him in and do those things. I know that he enjoyed that. Tell me if I’m wrong on this, but you’ve been on the top of Mount Rainier 250 times?
Where do you stop?
There are a lot of different routes on the mountain. Gibraltar Ledge used to be a common route; it isn’t now. We don’t guide on Gib but it was my main route in those days. It’s steep and there’s a lot of rock and it needed a fixed rope and a lot of rock fall from above. That route has been pretty well eased off and now we go Disappointment Cleaver. That’s our most popular route or the Emmons.
Do you still climb?
No. I mediate. I quit about ten years ago.
You’ve still got it. I’ve bragged about you to many people that when I grabbed on to you and you push me back and give me a few flippers. I was wearing a tighter shirt. I was like, “This guy still has it.” My inspiration of where I want to be when I’m 88 is your physical fitness.
That’s what helped me, Mark. I had people from Europe mostly who’d come over and taught us climbing and how to survive in the mountains. They’re great people and that’s what motivated me. One just died. He’s 104. Wolf Barr, a neat guy. I’ve got a memorial back here in the back just a block away of the guides. I’ve lost about a dozen guides in falls and I put them on a rock memorial back here. I’ve also lost just through natural death some fun climbers. I put them on an arch with ice axes back here so they’ll be remembered for many years after I’m gone.
Out of your 250 and other rescue missions that they used to ask you to come up on, is there one that stands out which was the craziest rescue where bad things happen?
They all have their unique aspects. Some were disappointing because the people didn’t survive or even died on the way out as we’re bringing them out. We learned we had to stop and feed them and warm them up and get them before we even moved, traveling once we find them if they’re still alive. I’ve saved a few kids that their dad died on the mountain and we got there in time to save them. That was satisfying. We dug them out. That was satisfying. I lost eleven people in one icefall up there. I lost one guide and ten clients. That’s a huge death toll, biggest in the US in mountaineering. I thought I’d lose the guide jurors. I thought the lawsuits would come in but we had a good release form and we were found that it was an act of nature. The icefall broke off and killed eleven. They’re still up there. It was too hard to retrieve them and they’re under the ice. Maybe we’ll come out some day. It was 1981 so it’s been a long time. They’re moving down the mountain if they’re in the glacier. We’ve figured it out that it could possibly come out. It was a deep crevasse. If they’re real low, they’d be ground up on the way down by the glacier rubbing against the Earth. We’ll see what happens. They’ve come out on Everest after fifteen years. My twin lost a teammate in ’63 and he came out about fifteen years later out of the ice and is buried there now.
Does Jim still climb?
No. We’re 88.
Let me shift over to K2. I have these aspirations of climbing the Seven Summits. I’m more than halfway through that quest. There’s one mountain that I just don’t want to mess with. It scares me. That’s K2. You’ve been on it.
K2 is incredible. It’s not that far to hike. It was 140 miles. Now, it’s just 60. You can drive to within 60 miles of it. It’s still a hike on the Baltoro Glacier up to the base. It took us four months and we didn’t summit. I got to high point with Jim Wickwire. He and I made the high point in ’75. Jim went back three years later. I didn’t go back but he took a team back and he got four on top. Wickwire was one of them.
What makes K2 so difficult?
K2 is not in the monsoon category. It doesn’t have a fixed schedule of storm events like McKinley and Everest does. There are windows before and after the monsoons so you can pick good weather times. K2 makes its own weather all the way and has no routine for monsoon or for clear weather. The storms can be incredible. We had eight days storms there and lived above 20,000 feet for a month. We didn’t realize you should go back down to base once in a while. I lost 50 pounds from what I weigh right now. I’m 210 right now. What do you weigh?
I’m right around 200 and 196. I came off of Denali, I lost seventeen pounds. That’s a lot of weight for me. Let’s talk about Denali. You’ve summited Denali or McKinley, it used to be called.
We screwed up on it. We did a fall. We fell off of the Denali Pass just up at about 18,000.
Did you move from 17,000 up to 20,000 there?
Yeah. We went from 16,000 to 20,000. We’ve been up 24 hours, about the way back coming down, we had a fall just below Denali Pass on that steep wall where you come down. That was pretty level at 17,300. We fell at 17,300. We had about 800 feet somersaulting and tumbling, four of us on one rope. Jim and I came out pretty good but our client, John Day, the millionaire who’d financed it and wanted to make a record, fractured and dislocated both ankles, which means the ankles are not under the tibia and fibula. They were out to the side completely dislocated. He tore both of them trying to stop with his crampons to stop from falling and tore both his ankles off his legs.
How did you get him off the mountain?
Eventually, we had our highest lift in aviation history. The Hiller helicopter came up to 17,300. The guy hovered a while and then landed and said, “I just want the other guy with the broken legs.” We loaded him on and we helped him off the mountain. He was on the edge of a cliff. He said, “Can you lift me off and give me a push?” We thought he was kidding. He wanted more lift. Jim and I grabbed the pontoons, lifted the helicopter and pitched it off. It went down about a thousand feet. It was a huge cliff. Then we could see him start to get out from the cliff. He made it out. It was the highest lift in those days in aviation history at 17,300. His name was Link Luckett.
I just got off Denali and we were coming into that 14,200-foot camp. There was a German group that was right in front of us. I’d been conversing with these guys. We’re leap-frogging back and forth. This German group, this guy was out in front, probably 60 years old, and as we’re pulling into that camp, we were stopped. I was second guy behind our leader. All of a sudden this guy just dropped like a tree. He had a massive heart attack. Everybody is running over there and I guess they did the right things. What they told us, it was only life or limb that they’d fly in on a helicopter and pick up at that 14,000-foot level. That was the only helicopter and the weather has to be perfect and everything else.
Did he live?
He did live. They had to get him. It was life or limb. I don’t know how you get somebody down from there.
We were flown in with a fixed wing. John lined up an airplane to drop us down at 10,500 just before you turn up into the fourteenth camp, Windy Corner they call it. We were flown in by our ski plane. That’s where they picked us up to fly back out after the rescue, after John was flown off. John was lifted off and then he came back and picked up Pete Schoening who has lost most of his hand to frostbite. Pete had been injured too. Jim and I were okay and then we hiked out.
Some people are just blessed. The stars have all aligned.
We weren’t just blessed, Mark. I think it’s because we trained and stayed in good shape. When you’re in a car accident if you’re in top shape, you survive a car accident. The same with an avalanche, if you’re in a good shape, it doesn’t tear you apart as bad. That pays off. To be in the shape you are pays off as well.
I read in your book that you were on Denali and there was some crazy story where there were three of you. The third guy got separated. You and your brother made it back to your tent. Then you went back out to find him and then he’d gone way off and was wide out in awful weather. Where was that?
We did the fall. We fell to 17,200 level out and then went 3,000 feet into the Peters Glacier on the other side. We’re on the ridge coming back from the fall and John Day can’t move. We dig a pit for him. We always carry sleeping bags for our clients because you never know what’s going to happen. We said, “John, we’re going to leave you where you fell here. You can’t walk. We’ll pick you up tomorrow. Get in a sleeping bag and we’ll take off.” We put him in a sleeping bag and then Pete Schoening, Jim and I started down the mountain toward our tent which was on top of the ridge at 16,200. I’d say that blood is thicker than water here because Jim said, “No, we go to the left on this ridge.” Pete who doesn’t remember any of this said, “No, we go to the right.” They start arguing. Jim on ropes, my twin, wants to get to that tent. He unropes and starts down alone. I unroped and followed my twin. I said, “Jim, that’s the right way I think but we can’t leave Pete.” We did and we walked down just above the fixed rope that goes down to 14,000. That’s where the tent was. I laid down and I fall asleep. About a half hour later I wake up and Pete’s not there. Jim was asleep and I wake up Jim and said, “Jim, we’ve got to go back for him.” He said, “I’m not going back. I can’t go back.” I got up, and that was amazing that I could do this, I think back on it. We’ve been traveling for 24 hours. I got back up and there’s a midnight sun. It’s May 15th, the light stays up. I walked back up yelling for Pete.
You went back up that 45-degree pitch?
No. We hadn’t gone down that steep part. I went to Denali towards Denali Pass where he had untied just where we left John. I go back to John and then I go back to where Pete untied and I start yelling for him yelling. I yell and yell. I go the way he went, which is steep and it becomes more cliff-like and then it drops into the Peters. I hear him answer and I look over and he’s down about 15 feet sitting on a little ledge, the rope dangling below him. He’s tied in the middle, the two ends are all the way down hanging off the cliff. It’s 3,000 sheer feet and he’s stuck there and I’m up on top with no rope. I tell Pete, “Can you coil up the rope and throw me the rope?” He threw me the rope. His hands were white from frostbite because he lost a glove. He coils it up and throws it. About the fourth try, he gets up close enough so I can reach down with the crampon. I hooked the rope and I’ve got it. I tied it to myself and say, “Climb, Pete.” He comes up and he said, “What happened?” I said, “We had a fall.” I lead him back down to Jim, “I’ve got him he’s going to live.” He’s lost most of his hand later to deep frostbite. I saved him and I feel good about that. The next couple days, we lay there, we go back up to John, and then stayed with John until the helicopter comes in and takes John off. Then the guy says, “I think I can get back for Pete, the other guy.” We stayed there and he lifts off Pete and then we run off the mountain.
Having just come off the mountain, you don’t just run off. It’s a long way back to that 7,800-foot base.
There was a storm at Windy Corner. We lived there in a hell of a storm. I love it when you say Denali now because it was Mount McKinley all these years. It has been changed to Denali now. I just asked our superintendent here, “Are you going to change this to Tahoma? That’s what the Indians call Rainier. He said, “Not yet.”
The final story is your Everest. It was 1984?
’82 is my first attempt. We went back two years later a lot smarter. We didn’t make it in ’82. I had a death on the climb, Marty Hoey, and a lot of frost bite. We came back pretty humble. Then I thought, “We could get that damn thing.” I went with a smaller team, a little more trained team, no clients, replaced one guy on top, Phil Ershler. I bumped my son, Peter, off the climb. It’s dangerous up there. I thought, “I don’t want to lose my son. He won’t be in the first attempt.” I picked Phil Ershler who felt obligated then to try and make it. He unroped and left on his own and made the summit with pictures on top. He waved from the top.
How far up did you get on that climb?
[Tweet “Your enemy is not another team like in football, it’s a mountain. “]
In ’82, I got there about 26,000. In ’84, just to camp three up the ridge, up about probably 24,000 feet is all. I’ve never summited. My twin summited in ‘63 but I didn’t lead the north side First American Ascent. When you’re with a team, I’ve had a lot of people say, “It wasn’t very good. I didn’t make it.” I said, “Did the team make it?” “Yeah, four of them made it but we got stormed off.” I said, “Don’t feel bad about that. They wouldn’t have made it without you. That was a team effort. They don’t get up there without the team working together. Feel good about it if somebody made the summit.” We felt good when just one of us made the summit. We broke the barrier, got the First American Ascent at the north side of Mt. Everest. That’s huge. Six years later, Jim went up with the Chinese and Russians on a Peace Climb six years after me. He got about 20 people up to the top. That’s how fast things move and change. Once you get to know it, you know the lay of it, you know how the people can perform, then you pick the right people and then you head for it. It’s a team effort. Your enemy is not another team like you guys in football, it’s a mountain. It can be your friend. You just have to recognize that it will slam you any time. It’s not personal. It doesn’t hate you or love you. It’s just is there. You might love it but it doesn’t love you back. You just got to watch it and do the best you can.
My plan is to do Everest in 2019, so a couple of years from now. I want you in that team. Is there any chance of that?
We’ll never know. What side are you going to try? South or north?
The most popular side, the south side.
The south side is a little easier and the Sherpa are good there.
I go back to that word team. You want to make sure you have a strong team and guys that aren’t going to quit on you and guys who mentally are there too. I get so much value out of talking to my coach that I played for the University of Washington. He was Don James and he was mentored by Bear Bryant and all those guys. To sit down and have conversations like this with people who had been there and done it, and you have so much wisdom to impart not just on me but other people, I just find so much value in that. The name of this podcast is called Finding Your Summit. It’s metaphorically speaking. In your case, it was for many years about climbing summits but to people it’s about getting over things and challenges in life that come up. The one thing I love about the mountain climbing is that you’re constantly coming up and facing challenges that hit you in the face and how are you going to get over those things. Do you have any advice about people who are struggling or trying to get through?
Challenge is the mainspring of all human endeavor. If there’s an ocean, we cross it. If there’s an ill, we cure it. That’s for the doctor. If there’s a wrong, we right it. That’s the attorney. If there’s a mountain, we climb it. You’re a guy that I know a poem that fits in just right by Robert Service, “There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, a race that can’t stand still. They break the heart of kith and kin and they roam the world at will. They roam the flood, they roam the plains, they roam the mountain’s crest for theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood and they don’t know how to rest.”
I realize I’m a little bit of an outlier like you but I love this life. It’s just amazing to be out in nature and communicating and connecting with people like you. I absolutely love that. Thank you so much. This is really a huge honor for me and I’m privileged to have been up here.
Good luck to you.