Leif Whittaker: My Old Man & the Mountain

Lief Whitaker in a black parka holding his father's ice axe in an indoor workshop

My Old Man and the Mountain is Leif Whittaker’s engaging and humorous story of what it was like to “grow up Whittaker”―the youngest son of Jim Whittaker and Dianne Roberts, in an extended family of accomplished climbers. He shares glimpses of his upbringing and how the pressure to climb started early on.

Readers learn of his first adventures with family in the Olympic Mountains and on Mount Rainier; his close yet at times competitive relationship with his brother Joss; his battle with a serious back injury; and his efforts to stand apart from his father’s legacy. With wry honesty he depicts being a recent college grad, still living in his parents’ home and trying to find a purpose in life―digging ditches, building houses, selling t-shirts to tourists―until a chance encounter leads to the opportunity to climb Everest, just like his father did.

But Leif’s story is not his father’s story. It’s a unique coming of age tale on the steep slopes of Everest and a climbing adventure that lights the imagination and fills an emotional human endeavor with universal meaning.

Read an excerpt from the book below:

an old film photo from a family ski trip, mom and dad on either side of the two kids in the middle wearing red, blue and pink snow gear

On a night like tonight, when frozen clouds obscure the stars, when bursts of wind punch the tent walls into my face, the South Col’s a humbling place. The landscape and the storm don’t care that I’m the youngest son of the first American to summit the highest peak on planet Earth. They don’t care how much I’ve trained or how strong I am or how long I’ve dreamed about Mount Everest. They don’t care about the Saint Christopher medal and the red string. On a night like tonight, the flame of our stove is what matters. The warmth of my sleeping bag is what matters. The strength of the pickets driven into the ice around our tent is what matters. A night like tonight whittles away emotion and imagination. It breaks things down to their simplest form. I have to pee.

But on a night like tonight, peeing’s a dangerous proposition. The water bottle marked “Leif’s Pee” is already full. I’ve been guzzling grape Tang like it’s pouring from the Fountain of Youth and I think I’ve peed half a dozen times since we got here. The good thing is my pee’s the color of lemonade, which is a lot better than the color of 10W-30, but the bad thing is I have to crawl out of my warm cocoon and go outside. It’s all swirly and white out there. I still can’t see Melissa and Kent’s tent. But I can’t think of a way to avoid it.

“A cloud of frozen dust stings my eyes. The beam of light coming from my headlamp runs into the storm’s white flecks of static. I don’t know which way to go.”

My boots are frozen stiff, so I yank out the liners and slide my socked feet into the shells. I strap a pair of clear-lensed goggles over my face, touch the button on my headlamp, pull the cannula out of my nose, and crawl through the vestibule into black and white. The wind’s picking snow up off the ice and flinging it all over the place. Crystals coat my goggles in a split second and I can’t see a thing. I can’t even see the moraine beneath my feet, so I slide the goggles down around my neck and squint into the storm. I don’t need to go far. Just a few steps.

The wind jukes and darts like a fish evading a predator. Half of the contents of my bladder end up in the snow and I think the other half’s divided between my boots and down suit. At least it’s out. I crouch low to the moraine and empty my pee bottle in a crevice. Thank God I won’t have to leave the tent again until morning.

a landscape shot looking at two mountain peaks with a valley between them and the sun high in the cloudy sky
a view from behind a mounaineer scaling a large mound of ice with a metal ladder wearing black and red snow gear and a blue backpack

Where is the tent? I thought it was right behind me but, oh fuck, it’s gone. In fact, Camp 4’s gone entirely, engulfed in the blizzard. A rush of fear and adrenaline runs through me like I used to get, when I was a kid and terrified of the dark, stepping outside our house at night. I could die here, just a few steps from the tent, and nobody’d be the wiser. FAMOUS CLIMBER’S SON DISAPPEARS WHILE URINATING OR JIM WHITTAKER’S SON FEARED DEAD ON WORLD’S HIGHEST PEAK. 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. A cloud of frozen dust stings my eyes. The beam of light coming from my headlamp runs into the storm’s white flecks of static. I don’t know which way to go.

Another cloud of frozen dust swirls at me and I instinctively close my eyes. When I open them again, I see something in a patch of snow. Relief floods me. I see a footprint.

book cover of My Old Man and The Mountain, a dark teal cover with white text and orange outlines signifying a mountain
an old image of a mountaineer at the summit wearing a thick red jacket, blue snow-ants and tall lace up brown boots holding flags