Lou Whittaker taught me how to hold an ice ax. If you live in the Northwest it's a smug, ridiculous statement, like saying Jimi Hendrix taught...
Lou Whittaker taught me how to hold an ice ax. If you live in the Northwest it’s a smug, ridiculous statement, like saying Jimi Hendrix taught you how to play guitar. But it’s true. We were standing at the foot of Mount Rainier on a sunny spring day. Even this close, the peak — the highest in the Cascades — seemed a distant, solitary place.
Whittaker, 77, is tall with the lean build of a lifelong mountain climber (his twin brother was the first American to summit Mount Everest). He showed me how to hold the ax by the head, like a walking stick, the adze of the ax, the short sharp end, pointing forward.
I was admiring the sun on the glaciers that flow from the top of Rainier. Whittaker called me to attention: “You have to respect the mountain. You may love Mount Rainier, but Mount Rainier doesn’t love you. It can slam you at any time.”
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“Been there, done that” is a T-shirt on a fat guy at the mall. But Whittaker really has been there and done that. He’s climbed Rainier, McKinley and K2, and led the first American-Chinese expedition up the North col of Everest. He is part of Northwest mountaineering royalty. With apologies to geeks everywhere, I was a little geeked out.
Whittaker is as at home on the mountain as I am in my kitchen (all right, on my couch; the kitchen makes me a little nervous). When a man is showing you how to put on a climbing harness and he recounts in a matter-of-fact way how he lost a veteran guide on Everest because her harness failed and she fell 6,000 feet to her death, it’s hard to imagine what might faze him.
Whittaker takes time every spring to teach climbing school for the American Lung Association of Washington’s “Climb for Clean Air,” an event that has special meaning for a man who overcame asthma as a boy in the high mountain air of the Cascades.
“Lou Whittaker taught me how to hold an ice ax.”
In a way it’s a lie. It implies a familiarity, nights spent bivouacked on Everest waiting for a break in the storm, days pulling team members from man-eating crevasses. None of that’s true. I’m just a day hiker.
What is true is that Whittaker shares a lifetime of climbing experience with newcomers in the patient, unassuming, generous way most of us would teach a 5-year-old to throw a baseball.