Book excerpt: My Old Man and the Mountain

Book excerpt: My Old Man and the Mountain

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Book excerpt by Leif Whittaker

Jim Whittaker, the first American to stand on the world’s highest summit, has said he never encouraged or discouraged his son Leif from mountaineering. Leif found the mountains anyway. 

Mt. Everest and Nepal figure prominently in Leif’s new memoir, My Old Man and the Mountain. But it’s just as much a story about a personal journey, adventure and growing up being the youngest generation of a famous mountaineering family.

Born in Port Townsend, Leif Whittaker lives in Bellingham and works as a seasonal U.S. Forest Service climbing ranger on Mt. Baker. The following excerpt is about Leif’s first ascent of Everest in 2010. 

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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 Mt. Everest. They don’t care about the St. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Excerpted from My Old Man and the Mountain: A Memoir   x


leif-whittaker_author-photo-portraitLeif Whittaker
is a climbing ranger for the U.S. Forest Service on Mt. Baker. Born in Port Townsend, he has climbed some ofthe world’s tallest peaks, including Mt. Everest twice. Leifwhittaker.com