It’s a question Leif Whittaker has been badgered with since birth: “Do you want to climb Mount Everest?”
While most 8-year-olds successfully avoid presumptuous inquiries like this, when your father is Jim Whittaker — the first American to summit the world’s highest mountain peak — you’re not afforded the same luxury.
Leif is, among many things, a Western Washington University graduate, Mount Baker enthusiast, published author, documentarian, and climbing ranger. And yeah, he did end up climbing Everest (twice!), but that wasn’t always part of his life plan.
At age 15, he took his first steps as a mountain man when he and older brother Joss conquered 7,980-foot Mount Olympus — but if you ask Leif, “conquer” isn’t an accurate word choice, because, in retrospect, they’re lucky they survived the tricky, tough trek.
“We knew nothing. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, we were lost the whole time,” he says in an interview at downtown Bellingham’s Caffe Adagio.
Despite the struggle of that first climb, the feeling of summiting the tallest peak in the Olympic mountain range was one Leif would come to highlight as a catalyst in his passion for mountaineering.
This story is one of many readers can enjoy in Leif’s 2016 book, “My Old Man and the Mountain: A Memoir” which has been selected as Whatcom County Libraries’ 2019 Community Read. The book follows his life as the youngest Whittaker boy, an emotionally honest and vulnerable recount of finding a place within the Whittaker name, and climbing the tallest mountain in the world. Last year, Leif was part of an acclaimed documentary, “Return to Mount Kennedy,” the Canadian peak named for President John F. Kennedy that his dad guided U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy on during a first ascent in 1965. For the film, Leif recreated the climb with his brother and Robert Kennedy’s son.
At Western, Leif pursued an English degree with an emphasis in creative writing, but he discovered his writer’s spirit long before college. He spent what most would consider the most angst-ridden years of life, ages 11–15, on a prolonged family adventure in the middle of the South Pacific.
“My passion for writing began when I was really bored out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with nothing better to do,” he laughs. “I started writing, keeping a log of the journey, and ever since then I’ve dreamed of writing a book.”
Aside from an in-the-works writing project he’d rather not name right now, these days Leif spends several months of the year working as a climbing ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. A more appropriate job title would be “mountain janitor,” he says. The job isn’t always glamorous (it involves cleaning up a lot of human waste), but apart from maintenance and community education, he also has the opportunity to work with children, a major highlight of his season.
“I look forward to it every year. It reminds me of how excited I used to be to go outside when I was that age. You’re reminded of how special and powerful [the outdoors] is,” Leif says.
It’s May, climbing season on Mount Everest. If you’re wondering, Leif says writing a book is much tougher than making the climb. For the more modest among us, start with Skyline Divide, he says. It’s one of Leif’s favorite hikes in the Mount Baker area.
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