If there were such a thing as a First Family of American mountaineering, it would be the Whittakers.
Twins Lou and Jim Whittaker first climbed Washington state's highest peak, Mount Rainier, in 1945, at age 16, and began participating in mountain rescues and guiding climbers a few years later. Jim went on to become the first American to summit Mount Everest, in 1963, and later became CEO of the Seattle-based outdoor retailer REI. Although Lou later joined and led several high-profile Himalayan expeditions, his life's work has been on Mount Rainier, the centrepiece of the nation's fifth national park, established in 1899 (17 years before the US National Park Service in 1916).
At 14,411ft, Mount Rainier looms over the surrounding landscape, standing apart from the rest of the Cascade Range. The fifth-highest peak in the United States outside Alaska, it's easily visible from Seattle, about 90 miles away, on a clear day. For mountaineers, it's a magnet.
In 1969, Lou co-founded Rainier Mountaineering, which has guided more than 90,000 people on Mount Rainier and trained many of the world's top alpine guides. For more than 30 years, the company was the only authorized guiding operation in the national park, and it remains the largest of the three guide services currently operating on the mountain, with more than 2,200 clients per year.
Lou, now 87, is retired, but his two sons, Peter and Win, are carrying on his legacy. Both grew up with the national park as their backyard and summited Mount Rainier for the first time at age 12, seven years apart. Peter, who has been guiding for more than 40 years, now runs Rainier Mountaineering and Whittaker Mountaineering, the gear retailer he founded. Win is also a long-time mountain guide as well as a musician and filmmaker – a career that developed largely through connections he made though guiding climbers.
We do it so much I think we a lot of times forget how cool it is.
Between them, Lou, Peter and Win have reached the top of Mount Rainier 679 times as of the start of this year's guiding season – 250 times for Lou, 245 for Peter and 184 for Win. "You're going to beat me!" Lou exclaimed to Peter when I sat down with the three of them recently in Ashford, a small gateway community near the national park's southwestern entrance and the Whittaker’s home base during the summer months.
With 27 major glaciers, Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48. "It's a place that can be used as training grounds for any mountain in the world, and a perfect place to learn snow, rock, ice – the whole complexity of mountaineering," Lou said.
Another thing that's unique about Mount Rainier is its proximity to major urban areas. "It's so close, yet you get above treeline and it's like any big mountain anywhere in the world," Peter said. "It's refreshing – and I think a great place for people to grow and learn about themselves."
Of course, the national park is not just about climbing. "There are so many different ecosystems. You've got rainforest within the park, over at Ohanapecosh... You've got an almost desert-like environment on the east side," Win said. Mount Rainier is especially renowned for its brilliant summer displays of wildflowers in the subalpine meadows just below treeline. The flowers and views are so magnificent that traffic at Paradise and Sunrise, the most popular areas, can be a challenge during summer weekends. Getting away from the crowds, however, just takes a little creativity: there's pristine wilderness along the park's little-visited Westside Road, Peter noted, while the Kautz Creek area has several beautiful trails.
Pinnacle Peak in the Tatoosh Range, along the park's southern boundary, is another Whittaker favourite. "That's the first mountain I ever climbed," Win recalled. He summited the jagged 6,562ft peak at the age of seven, with Lou. The Tatoosh Range provides, in Peter's words, a "front-row perspective" on Rainier, yet, as Lou said, "there's hardly anybody over there."
Still, Mount Rainier continues to exert the strongest draw, and has the Whittakers heading for the summit again and again. "We do it so much I think we a lot of times forget how cool it is," Win said. But clients' reactions provide frequent reminders. "Going up the Cathedral Cap and hitting the top – and there's the Northern Lights and then a shooting star – and the client behind me going, 'Wow! Whoa! Wow!' And I'm just going, 'Yeah, this is pretty cool.'"
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