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Lou Whittaker Leaves Behind a Legacy of Mountaineering and Storytelling
Lou Whittaker and his wife Ingrid enjoyed a party at Sun Valley Club with son Peter and his Wife
Thursday, March 28, 2024


Lou Whittaker was at a ski trade show in Los Angeles when news traveled halfway around the world that an unidentified mountaineer had crawled onto the jagged pinnacle topping Everest and pounded a metal stake holding an American flag into the ice.

He knew right away that it was his twin brother Jim, even though the man’s identity would not be revealed until a week later in those days when news waited until climbers trekked back to Kathmandu.

“Now you don’t have to climb it. We know you can do it, too,” the first American to top the world’s highest mountain told twin brother Lou upon returning to the United States.

“Being identical twins, we have pretty much the same ability. We figure that if one twin does something the other can, too,” Lou said.

Lou did go on to climb Mount Everest, making the first American ascent of the North Col of Mount Everest in 1984, in addition to climbing mountains in Alaska, the Himalaya and the Karakoram. He also became the leading guide on Mt. Rainier summiting its 14,410-foot summit more than 250 times.

And on Sunday, March 24, this legendary mountaineer, who spent some 60 winters in Sun Valley, climbed his final summit, passing away at the age of 95. His wife Ingrid and children, including Peter who also has lived in Sun Valley, were at his side.

A lanky amiable 6-foot-6 man who was quick to embrace others, he leaves behind a treasure trove of stories about mountain climbing in the days when yaks spent weeks carting supplies to base camp of Mount Everest. He told many of them in his book “Lou Whittaker—Memoirs of a Mountain Guide.”

And he was always willing to share them with others, including the Saint Alphonsus Ski & Trauma Conference where he spoke a few times at the invitation of Dr. Richard Moore.  He shared them at his afternoon sojourns in Ketchum coffee shops where he enjoyed one of life’s little pleasures that he couldn’t get while holed up in a tent on the side of a 29,000-foot mountain. And he shared them at Paradise Lodge where he spoke to wide-eyed visitors to Mt. Rainier.

“Lou and Jim are the Vince Lombardis of mountain climbing,” said Ketchum resident Nappy Neaman, who once accompanied Lou up Mount Rainier. “Climbing with Lou is climbing with a super hero. It’s spell binding listening to his stories.  And it’s unimaginable to think how many lives he’s touched. He’s totally revered in the climbing world.”

Born Feb. 10, 1929, Whittaker and his twin brother Jim grew up in Seattle. They were drawn to climbing at 12 by a Boy Scout troop leader who instilled in them a lust for wanting to see what was on top of the next spire.

“Mom and Dad both loved nature and were always telling us to go outside and play,” Lou told Eye on Sun Valley during an interview at which the reporter mistook his brother Jim for him 10 years ago. “I wonder if we would’ve done the same thing today, given the video games and things kids do today. Nature is a great teacher—our motto should be ‘No child left inside.’ ”

Lou and Jim summited Mount Rainier in 1945 when they were 16. By the time Lou was 18 he had climbed all the major peaks in Washington. The Whittaker brothers trained American soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division in skiing, climbing and bivouacs in 1953.

And at 19 the two young men began guiding on Mt. Rainier. But there weren’t many clients in those days, save a few doctors and lawyers, willing to pay $28 to stake their claim to the top of the mountain. And, so, in 1955 Jim became the first full-time employee of REI, selling pitons out of a room no bigger than the living room of Lou’s Ketchum home, while Lou sold skis at another ski shop.

Lou declined joining Jim on his 1963 Everest trip in order to open a sporting goods store. But after his brother’s conquest of Everest spurred an interest in climbing, he founded Rainier Mountaineering Inc.—America’s foremost climbing business--in 1968.

“I spent 12 hours a day in the store looking at a view of Rainier. People would come in and say, ‘You know anyone who would take us up Rainier?’ And I said: You know, I could make money doing this,’ . recalled Lou.

The Whittakers began skiing Sun Valley while attending college in Seattle. They’d cut classes on Friday, ski all weekend and drive all night Sunday to get back to classes Monday morning where they’d fight to stay awake.

“We’d wear white shirts to show off our tans,” recalled Lou. “I think Sun Valley’s the best resort in the world—it’s beautiful, it’s got good lifts, snow, sun, food. And it has the mountain.”

Jim’s climb of Mount Everest not only earned him a spot in a Jeopardy question but helped him parlay REI from a store the size of a closet into a multi-million-dollar outdoor sporting goods chain. It led him to teach JFK’s children how to snowplow on Dollar Mountain. He danced with Jackie Kennedy when he was summoned to the White House to receive a medal for his climb and he escorted Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to the top of a previously unscaled 14,000-foot mountain in the Yukon Territories named for his brother after JFK’s death—an expedition Lou loved to recount.

“He ran up and down the stairs to get in shape for that climb. Turned out he was in great shape from all that football playing. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him,” recalled Jim, who was with the senator the night he was assassinated.

Neither Lou nor Jim ever backed away from the tough stories. For Lou, it was a massive section of Rainier’s Ingraham Glacier ice fall that broke away in 1981, sweeping 11 climbers led by Lou’s son Peter into a crevasse. Park officials said it was an act of nature that no one could have foreseen.

He also recounted the harrowing story of an ice fall that separated him momentarily from a group of blind climbers he was leading and of the West Buttress of Denali, where he and fellow climbers were stranded for four days at 17,200 feet after one of the climbers had an accident.

For Jim it was the first day of his first Everest climb when a vertical wall of ice fell off in the Ice Fall, killing a guide from the Tetons. Faced with two months of transporting tents and other equipment up the Ice Fall to higher camps, some climbers elected to remain in base camp for the duration of the expedition.

“I told myself, ‘So far, I’ve been lucky. I just have to climb smart.’ Nature gave us a gift—that fear of heights. The most important thing is being able to say to hell with it and turn around,” Jim said. “The mountain will always be there, save for Mount St. Helens, which blew its top.”

Lou agreed, noting that RMI took a conservative route with its climbers, having its clients spend three years preparing to climb a Himalayan peak, while climbing Rainier, Aconcagua for the height and Denali for the cold.

“You don’t want to trust your guide. You’ve gotta be able to get up and down yourself because guides can die up there, too,” said Lou. ”Mountaineering can be an uncomfortable sport. If you haven’t been really cold, wet and hungry, don’t be a mountaineer. Fear, meanwhile, is a climber’s best ally. If a guy says he’s not afraid, I say, ‘You’re not on my rope.’ ”  

When Lou saw that visitors were loving Mt. Rainier National Park to death, he worked with Washington's governor and senator to create Washington's National Park Fund to raise needed funds for the park. The fund later expanded to include all three of the state's national parks.

He also championed climbs on behalf of the American Lung Association.

The Ancient Skiers group honored Lou with their Sun Valley Star award at one of their conclaves in Sun Valley in 2010. And a mountain in Chelan County, Washington was named Big Lou in his honor.

He always lived life to the fullest, even learning how to carve a sculpture of a mountain climber while recuperating from two knee replacements several years ago.

Living life to the fullest was a motto he lived by.

"When it comes to dying, I want to know what it is like to have really lived,” he often said.

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