The son of Everest conqueror “Big Jim” Whittaker writes about growing up — and climbing — in his father’s shadow.
Leif Whittaker’s recollection of a terrifying midnight pee on Mount Everest’s South Col says a lot about what it was like to grow up as the youngest son of Everest-conqueror “Big Jim” Whittaker.
Having crawled from his tent out into a blizzard, Whittaker-the-younger finds himself momentarily lost and imagines the headline: “FAMOUS CLIMBER’S SON DISAPPEARS WHILE URINATING.”
“The news stories will identify me as the son of Jim Whittaker, but they’ll fail to mention me by name. No more than a paragraph will be devoted to explaining the circumstances of my death, but the story will go on for another five pages with quotes from Dad and a description of his legendary ascent.”
The author of “My Old Man and the Mountain” will appear at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13 at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island (206-842-5332 or eagleharborbooks.com). He will also speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliotbaybook.com).
Such self-deprecation is typical in “My Old Man and The Mountain” (Mountaineers Books, 288 pp., $24.95), 31-year-old Leif Whittaker’s irreverent memoir peppered with family backstory (such as a delicious peek at a Thanksgiving when the family living room “reeks of armpits and roast turkey and candied yams and booze”), local color from his Port Townsend hometown and bits of bad-boy humor from a Whittaker few know.
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We meet him as a rudderless Western Washington University English grad. He’s living with his parents and dividing time between building houses and staffing the local outdoors-gear shop.
Then one day the CEO of Eddie Bauer drops by the shop. He has read Leif’s blog. He aspires to capitalize once again on the Whittaker name. Leif is soon offered a fully-sponsored ascent of Everest, something to which he’d really never aspired after a life of semi-tolerantly answering the predictable question from well-meaning strangers: “Will you follow in your father’s footsteps?”
He surprises himself with his unhesitating acceptance of the challenge.
Much of the book is dedicated to that 2010 climb and a 2012 revisit. There’s a veneer of resentment about growing up in the colossal shadow of Big Jim and Jim’s twin brother, “Uncle Lou,” but the youngest son redeems himself with a generous affection for the national treasure that is his father, now 87. That’s reflected in the meticulous research apparent as Leif intermingles tales of his own perilous modern-day climbs with colorful flashbacks to his father’s 1963 expedition when he became the first American at the top of the earth.
Anyone with an elderly parent will feel a poignant tug as Leif watches his dad struggle, at 83, to accompany him on a trek to Everest’s 17,500-foot Base Camp for a hoped-for final rum-and-Coke toast to the place.
Here’s an entertaining coming-of-age yarn from a likable, talented diarist. Adventure readers get the bonus of a taut report on the sometimes-tawdry world of many modern Everest climbers who seek bucket-list glamour only to encounter horrors such as frozen, recognizable bodies of past climbers left where they fell because to transport them down from “death zone” altitudes would gravely endanger a recovery team.
At the summit, Leif Whittaker feels a noble emotion: gratitude — to his father and to others who blazed the way.