This much they agree on: The first time Jim and Lou Whittaker summited Mount Rainier, they both threw up. The twins were 16-year-old Boy Scouts in the summer of 1945, ascending via the Emmons Glacier with a few dozen others in the Seattle-based Mountaineers club. The sky was clear, but the two-day slog was harder than they expected. The underprepared boys were so dehydrated they melted snow in their mouths. Air is thin at 14,410 feet, and nausea is common “at elevation,” as climbers say.
But what happened next is still disputed some 67 years later.
“Mom had packed a bunch of grapes, and you’re so thirsty up there,” says Lou Whittaker, now 83. “I threw up the grapes, re-ate a few of them.” Gross, yes, but he was a teenage boy.
But Jim, his older-by-10-minutes brother, won’t confirm it, “You can’t believe everything Louie says. He wants to make a good story, and those are good stories.” In his own biography, in fact, Lou wrote that the gross anecdote was a “story [that] got around…but that’s not true.”
So did it happen? Who knows. For the Whittaker twins, two of the most prominent mountaineers the Northwest has ever produced, their reputation is paramount. The grotty summit story fits the mystique.
Jim’s and Lou’s lives have always been well documented, and they themselves are natural curators. Enter their spheres—Jim’s Port Townsend home, Lou’s Rainier-area motel—and they both point to photographs and say the same thing: “Know who that is?” For Jim it’s snapshots of him with John F. Kennedy, John Glenn, and Dwight Eisenhower. In Lou’s case, a framed photo of the twins with Robert Kennedy.
For all their similarities, the identical twins built Washington’s outdoor scene in two different ways. Jim, the more soft-spoken brother, was both the first American on Mount Everest and the quiet businessman who built REI. Lou, louder and happier in a crowd, was the king of Rainier climbing for more than 30 years. Whenever Northwesterners play in the mountains, they can thank the Whittakers.
Born in February 1929 to a Seattle alarm salesman and his homemaker wife, Jim and Lou lived a childhood that fell somewhere between Ozzie and Harriet and Peter Pan. With their older brother, Barney, they’d play in a sand pit on the shores of West Seattle, building rafts and lifting homemade weights made of concrete and coffee cans. “They were just normal, scrawny, screwy kids that did everything together,” says Barney, now 86. “Running madly around the yard wearing capes, pretending that they were Superman.” No, they didn’t fight over which one got to be the Man of Steel. “They were both Superman.”
All three took to the outdoors, prompted by a father who fished even while on sales trips. As teenagers, Jim and Lou were six-foot-five pillars, sharp-faced and slender, recruited by Seattle University with basketball scholarships. But ball sports were just a means to a tuition-paying end; by graduation they’d dropped hoops in favor of ski patrol work and Rainier guiding, profitable ways to live up to their mother’s mandate to “get outside and play.” They played outside so much that college took an extra year, but their mountain rescues earned them medals and letters of commendation.
Even then, they were managing their own reputation. They were horrified when Barney returned from the Pacific theater of World War II as a smoker; the twins wouldn’t allow him to stock up at the neighborhood grocery where they worked. “They didn’t want the store owner to know that their brother smoked cigarettes,” Barney says, laughing at the memory of his earnest little brothers.
The identical twins followed identical paths: both married young, within three years of each other; both graduated in 1952 and were immediately drafted. Instead of being deployed to Korea, the pair finagled teaching assignments at the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command at Camp Hale in Colorado. Lou and Jim got a taste of following orders, but they weren’t taken with operating from the middle of a top-down system. “We learned to take orders from people who were not as competent as us,” says Lou. They didn’t like it, and eventually both found ways to avoid it. In doing so, the mirror twins—Lou right--handed, Jim left-handed—would split ways.
Though the same height as his twin, he’s known as Big Jim, and Barney considers him the more somber: “Jim is quieter and Louie is more gregarious, probably more life-of-the-party than Jim is.” That’s why the job offer he got from a climbing buddy in 1955 was so ideal. Five years previous, the twins had set off July Fourth bottle rockets with Lloyd Anderson from the edge of Rainier’s summit crater; now he wanted Jim to operate his outdoor gear store above a restaurant on Pike.
It was called the Co-op, a group Anderson had founded with friends, impatient with the shoddy domestic mountaineering gear in 1938 Seattle. The prices at Eddie Bauer were steep—a whopping $17.50 for a quality ice axe, while a similar tool could be ordered from Innsbruck, Austria, for only $3.50. It was the tail end of the Great Depression, and the mail-order collective was more akin to a CSA than a commercial enterprise. When the Co-op finally hired Jim to manage their tiny storage space and store, he would spend long hours alone among piles of down sleeping bags and boots shod with Tricouni nails. Drawn to the share-and-share-alike ethos of the co-op, Jim took $400 a month plus a half percent of gross sales. Within five years, the name morphed from the Co-op to Recreational Equipment Incorporated, or REI.
The outfitter was almost washed away in 1962, when during the World’s Fair a water main burst near the Co-op’s basement warehouse at Sixth and Pine. A settlement from the city helped, but a six-day Flood Sale righted the company, a forebear of the massive garage sales REI holds today.
Next to the pay and the access to gear, the best thing about the REI gig was that Jim could take time off. In 1963, he took a whopping four-month vacation, heading 7,000 miles to the highest point on earth.
They didn’t fight over which one got to be the Man of Steel. “They were both Superman.”
Mount Everest is 29,029 feet high—about as far above sea level as commercial airliners fly—and was especially daunting in 1963, when there were no ropes marking routes to the top. Acclimatization takes weeks, and the thin air causes more than a little vomit. Expeditions required hundreds of porters and dozens of skilled climbers to zigzag between remote camps for months. Those who actually made it to the top were less solo explorers and more like freelance astronauts; they reached summit orbit by a team effort.
Only two teams—one Swiss, one Chinese—had matched Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s 1953 summit feat. When Swiss filmmaker Norman Dyhrenfurth asked Jim and Lou to join an expedition to put the first American on Everest, both jumped at the chance. But while the team of 19 climbers, doctors, scientists, and documentarians trained, one key member dropped out: Lou.
Jim later wrote that he felt “betrayed” when his brother left the team. “It took a long time to get over it. Years,” he wrote. Lou was drawn more to a retail opportunity than the glory and, besides, he says, “I told Jim I’d take care of his kids if he didn’t make it, if he didn’t come back.” That moment, perhaps more than any other, set the mirror twins on separate courses.
After flying to Kathmandu and a monthlong hike to base camp, Jim and the team started endless trips up and down Everest’s ledges and ice falls, hauling dried rations and oxygen containers. “Salad. Green salad. Green salad was the one thing you dream of,” Jim says. “Women second.” One team member died in an early accident, putting them all on edge. After six weeks, Jim and Nawang Gombu, a nephew of Tenzing Norgay, reached the summit on May 1, 1963. The first American had made it.
Jim doesn’t think about that moment much; he’d rather picture the roof of the world through the eyes of his 27-year-old son Leif, who made it to Everest’s pinnacle for the second time this year. “They were sitting up there with no wind, no clouds,” Jim says. “You turn around, suck up air, and enjoy the view. You know, just sort of soak it in.” Jim had little time when he and Gombu summited, even though back then the South Col route was empty and otherworldly, not as crowded as a gold rush trail as it is today. But his two actions were ones of documentation: a photo, and picking up a rock to set in a signet ring.