Lou Whittaker, along with Andrea Gabbard, recounts a lifetime of mountaineering and friendship in Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide. He and his twin brother, Jim Whittaker (see his A Life on the Edge), grew up with a passion for the outdoors, especially climbing and skiing. Their love of the mountains led them to mountain rescue work, guiding, and selling climbing gear. As they came of age in their 20s, they grew apart, with Jim working to build REI, and Lou staying closer to the mountains to continue guiding and eventually opening the Whittaker Chalet near Tacoma. They still managed to share some adventures, including guiding John Day on a speed ascent of Mount McKinley (which ends unfortunately) after setting records climbing a number of mountains in the Northwest. Their divergent paths lead them apart for the 1963 American ascent of Everest (both were among the first climbers invited), with Jim becoming the first American to stand on top of the world's highest mountain, and Lou staying behind due to financial constraints. Perhaps it was for the best, as Lou's replacement, Jake Breitenbach, died in the Khumbu Icefall early in the expedition. Lou's story becomes the story of his guiding service as he expands and eventually gains the exclusive license to guide on Mount Rainier. In this book, he writes as much about his guides as about his family, and it's clear that he cares about them deeply. After he is well established, he is able to join his brother for a trip to K2 in 1975, the first climbing trip to the Baltoro in fifteen years, which is rife with troubles both from the porters and between climbers.
Eventually, Lou turns his guides toward Mount Everest after one of his colleagues secures a permit. He leads trips to the North Face in both 1982 and 1984, with a mixture of his guides and some other talented climbers. The 1982 expedition tries to tackle the Great Couloir from the base to the summit. One of his guides, Marty Hoey, forgets to double up her climbing harness during a climb to their high camp for a summit attempt and falls 6000 feet to her death. After a group decision, they make a last effort on the summit, but come up short. On their 1984 attempt, they change the route somewhat, by climbing to the North Col from the East Rongbuk Glacier and traversing the North Face before heading up the Great Couloir. Their first attempt is foiled when they have trouble locating a tent left by an Australian team (see Lincoln Hall's White Limbo), but on their second try, Larry Nielsen nearly makes it without oxygen (at the price of frostbite) and Phil Ershler becomes the first American to climb Everest from the north.
I liked this book quite a bit. Lou Whittaker strikes me as a great man who leads with authority without demanding it. It's clear that his guides like him and how he treats them, as they stay on year after year, including several famous climbers, such as Eric Simonson, Phil Ershler, and Ed Viesturs. The book also includes notes by his friends and family that focus on important events in his life, such as his son Peter's tragic day on Rainier. Stay tuned for my next post for a review and comparison of his twin brother Jim's book!