Peak Performance

The Brothers Whittaker

Whenever we play in the mountains, we owe a debt to Jim and Lou Whittaker. The Seattle twins conquered Mount Rainier, Mount Everest, and REI, then made mountaineering the Northwest’s signature sport.

By Allison Williams July 18, 2012 Published in the August 2012 issue of Seattle Met

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. 

Jim and Lou as scouts in 1945

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. 

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.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.

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.

Stateside, Jim got a hero’s reception. He shook President Kennedy’s hand and received the Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society. Jim dates his political leanings back to that ceremony: “After Kennedy gave me that medal, I had to be a Democrat.”

JFK was assassinated several months later, but Jim guided his younger brother Robert up the northern Canadian peak that had been named for the president. A friendship was born, and soon Jim was running RFK’s Washington state campaign office. Robert reportedly talked of naming Jim as his Secretary of the Interior. Clusters of the Kennedy clan vacationed with both Lou and Jim, and the latter taught Caroline and John-John how to snowplow on skis. The families became chummy, Lou proposes, because “Bob was real enamored by athletes…[the Kennedys] were really competitive.” So were the Whittakers. 

They were so close that when Robert was shot in the Ambassador Hotel, Jim flew to Los Angeles to hold the senator’s hand as he died. He was a pallbearer alongside astronaut John Glenn. In the rough months that followed, Lou took Robert’s son on as a guide at Mount Rainier as a favor to Robert’s widow, Ethel.

Other climbs followed for Jim, including two K2 expeditions where he played the role of coordinating team leader rather than summiteer. During that time, he divorced his first wife, then married Dianne Roberts, who accompanied him to elevations few women had ever achieved. On Earth Day in 1990, Jim led Soviet, Chinese, and American mountaineers on a Peace Climb up Everest. When they came to Rainier to train, the Tibetan Chinese climbers sauntered to Rainier’s top while smoking and chatting, wearing jeans and half-laced hiking boots.

Throughout the ’70s Jim’s day job was indoors at REI, where his notoriety brought attention to the fledgling retailer. By 1971 he was no longer the sole worker in a second-floor equipment shop; he was the president and CEO of a booming company. Seattleites bragged about their REI membership numbers—for those keeping score, Jim and Lou were members 647 and 648—and turned the synthetic fabrics of outdoor gear into a fashion statement. REI staffers numbered in the hundreds by 1975.

Jim made a major push toward environmental action, focusing on the trash outdoorsy people would leave behind. “I still get mad as hell that people are selfish enough to throw a beer can down in the middle of a nice day,” says Jim. He remembers the cleanups he helped organize more than the company growth, or the first branch store he opened in Berkeley. “I think every time somebody achieves something they owe a little bit somewhere, to something,” he says. 

Jim retired from REI in 1979, at which point the co-op ethos had become a little less appealing; he left with no equity from the company. “I got $52,000 and a 30 percent discount for the rest of my life. That was my golden parachute,” he says. To this day, he visits the Seattle flagship for his preferred style of black turtlenecks, but he’s rarely recognized in the aisles. He and Dianne moved to Port Townsend where they devoted their days to sailing.

Jim’s boat is named for a philosophical French novel called Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures. The book, now out of print, is about trying to scale a mythical mountain much taller than Everest, one rooted in the real world but reaching into the heavens: “The Mountain is the connection between Earth and Sky. Its highest summit touches the sphere of eternity.” The name of the craft used to get to the peak, and Jim’s own sailboat, is Impossible.


In his compound in Ashford, just outside the confines of Mount Rainier National Park, Lou also quotes Mount Analogue. A passage from the book is engraved on a pillar that stands in front of his Whittaker’s Bunkhouse, a motel he built for the thousands of Rainier climbers who pass through the tiny town. His quote begins, “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again… So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below.”

Jim’s 1963 Everest summit

When Jim embraced REI’s co-op model and headed Everest-ward, Lou stayed with traditional retail. He worked at the prominent Seattle outdoor outfitter Osborn and Ulland, eventually opening his own store in Tacoma called Whittaker Chalet. But his heart remained where he and Jim had spent their college summers: Mount Rainier.

After serving as chief guide under the mountain’s main concessionaire for 14 years—being in charge on the glaciers but not in the front office—Lou formed Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated, or RMI, with a Tacoma lawyer in 1969. For more than 30 years, it served as the mountain’s sole professional guide company. 

Lou himself was a monster on the mountain. He’d rope as many as a dozen clients behind him; today, in contrast, a crew of eight clients will ascend with a team of four professional guides. “Was it safer? There was nobody killed,” he says. “But the judgment calls you had to make were a little tougher, because I was alone.”

Those calls usually boiled down to one thing: when to turn around. “He just never climbed with a summit-at-all-costs attitude,” says Joe Horiskey, who was hired as a guide in 1968 and later became co-owner of RMI. “He’d just tell the clients, ‘Some days you eat the mountain, some days the mountain eats you.’”

When a single client was eaten by the effort of the two-day climb, Lou would stow him in a sleeping bag on the side of the mountain to wait for the rest of the party to return; after one client made a break downhill, the guides were known to confiscate a boot to discourage runaways. Lou’s sense of fairness dictated that those who hadn’t pooped out deserved a chance at the summit. Today strict park rules outright prohibit the “bag it and tag it” technique.

It was a fate met by hundreds, maybe even thousands, of RMI clients over the years, but Lou remembers one best. When he stashed one man just before the summit, the client burst into tears. He explained to Lou that he’d brought his lover’s ashes to be scattered from the top, but refused Lou’s offer to do it for him. When the party returned two hours later, the client—an artist, as it turned out—had sprinkled the ashes into a kind of snow mandala in the shape of a winged angel. “Just the detail, on the eyes, the wings with the feathers out. Oh god, it’s beautiful,” Lou says. “He was feeling that he failed, but I said, ‘You didn’t fail, this is beautiful. This is as pretty as the top.’” The anecdote is one of Lou’s go-tos; it’s in his book. But his voice still breaks when describing the ash angel. 

For all his caution, Lou was cheerful, even adventurous, on the mountain. He climbed as an occupation, not for recreation, but could be playful on the job. During one overnight on -Rainier’s summit with clients, he explored the steam caves that honeycomb the top of the mountain. “[He] popped out on the north side of the crater with these stories about the passageways and rooms they had discovered under the crater,” says Horiskey. Few others would venture as deep as Lou, thrown by the dripping caverns that were as hot as a sauna on one side and freezing as ice on the other.

Sometimes mistaken for his brother—Horiskey stopped correcting clients who thought they were being led by the first American on Everest—Lou became his own kind of legend on Rainier. He showed off his agility on the glacier cliffs and ravinelike crevasses, sometimes leaping the same crevasse over and over again to allow each client to get a picture of him, legs bent like a long jumper and arms coiled with an ice ax in hand. He’d do it 20 or more times in a row.

Though the two were never as close as they’d been as children, the milestones of Lou’s and Jim’s lives ran parallel. They’d both married young; both divorced and married younger women. Jim had five sons, Lou two sons and a daughter. 

When Lou bequeathed RMI on to his son Peter in the late ’90s, it was the only climbing concession on the mountain—people could climb independently, but no other guides could work Rainier’s flanks. The Whittaker dominance caused unhappy stirrings in the climbing community. “From the day I started work in June of ’68, you started hearing about ‘RMI guides think they own the mountain’ and ‘RMI’s a monopoly’ and ‘RMI herds clients to the summit,’” says Horiskey. “The idea that it was perceived as a monopoly couldn’t get out of some people’s craw, I guess.”

Former RMI guide Eric Simonson says, “There were always guides on the outside that were jealous, wanting a piece of the business.” The park opened the concession to bidding, and, in 2005, Simonson’s own International Mountain Guides, which he owned with climber George Dunn, got a slice of the pie, as did Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International. RMI was awarded the biggest piece, and still leads half of the paying customers who come to tackle Rainier.

In his retirement, Lou has settled into the role of Ashford’s godfather. Besides the Bunkhouse motel compound, his family owns cabins around town that he rents to RMI guides. Lou himself built a rock and log home that’s sunk several feet into the valley floor, equipped with shutters that secure it into a kind of bunker. The environmentally efficient design would also counter any destruction wrought by a Rainier eruption; Lou remembers the thick blanket of ash that coated the town when St. Helens blew in 1980.

His current project is a pond he built in the old-growth forest behind Whittaker’s Bunkhouse. It’s a memorial to RMI guides who’ve died over the years, most while climbing for fun. He traces the names inscribed on a boulder, reciting their fates: “Marty died on Everest in a fall, John in an avalanche on K2, Nancy in an avalanche…” It faces a bower made of rusting red and blue ice axes, where Lou has inscribed the names of climbers who met a noncalamitous end. There’s RMI Partner Jerry Lynch, Sherpa Nawang Gombu, even Ome Daiber, who first led Jim’s and Lou’s Boy Scout troop into the Cascades. The spot is the only American memorial for mountain climbers, at least that Lou knows of. 

“You go out and do the adventures. And when it comes time to die, you know what it was to have lived. ‘You’ve warmed both hands by the fire of life,’” he says, quoting poet Walter Savage Landor. But Lou stresses his own addendum: “Not just one hand—you warmed both hands, and your buns, by the fire of life!” 

Jim and Lou at Paradise in 2009

The Twins

Lou summited Rainier some 250 times; Jim puts his own total at 79 or 80. Neither has made the climb recently, but both imagine a future attempt with their replacement knees. The record for the oldest summiteer is 84; “I could climb a mountain now, no doubt,” says Lou. “Maybe next year I’ll phone Jim and say, ‘Let’s do it now, beat the record.’”

It’ll be just one more appearance in the history books. Both have penned autobiographies, with Lou’s Memoirs of a Mountain Guide out in 1994 and Jim’s A Life on the Edge in 1999. Though both catalog professional lives, they address topics as personal as loss of virginity (why he married so young, wrote Lou) to temporary infertility (too much hot-tubbing for Jim).

“Don’t believe everything in it. There are 19 falsehoods in it that I counted,” says Jim of Lou’s tome; Lou hasn’t made a tally for his twin. Both do motivational speaking, with their respective stories calcified into teachable moments and crowd-pleasers. The publisher of Mountaineers Books, Helen Cherullo, notes that when one twin makes a book-signing appearance, he’ll find their books on the shelf and put his own cover out, turning his brother’s so only the spines show. “There’s a lot of playfulness, but you can see sparks of competitiveness,” she says.

On June 3, 2012, Jim and Lou Whittaker met at Paradise Inn, the century-old lodge on the skirt of Mount Rainier. They came to memorialize Sherpa Nawang Gombu, who after summiting Everest with Jim worked 18 seasons on Rainier with Lou. 

There’s a slight curve to their shoulders—the brothers are on their ninth decade, after all—but Lou and Jim still stand above almost everyone in the hundred-person crowd. Lou is a little broader, perhaps, and Jim’s face a little leaner, but they have the same white hair, the same high forehead. They glad-hand their way through the tight fraternity of climbers and guides under strings of multicolored prayer flags. Both want to be liked and both tell stories while nudging the listener with a foot, a conspiratorial gesture.

Jim and Lou hustle as they did 60 years ago, when the two strapping young twins would hawk their guide services to the crowd of tourists in this hotel lobby. In crisp white button-ups and armbands that read “MOUNTAIN GUIDE,” one would stand on the other’s shoulders to demonstrate climbing techniques on these same wooden pillars and beams. They charged $28 for a two-day ascent to the summit, $5 for a tour of the Nisqually Glacier’s ghostly ice caves. In 1950, when the twins operated the Rainier climbing concession, only 238 people attempted to climb Rainier, with or without the guide service. The ice cave trips were the real moneymaker. 

Those ice caves have long since melted away, and, in 2010, 10,643 people tried to summit Rainier. Spots in the guided climbs, with RMI and the other services, regularly sell out by March. At the Gombu tribute, almost everyone, including the Whittakers, wore the kind of synthetic vests and down pullovers popularized by REI. They don’t have to sell anything anymore—climbs, gear, themselves—but the twins are still working the room at Paradise.

Around 9pm, Lou returns from a peek outside and announces, “The mountain is out!” Everyone knows what that means, and the crowd dutifully files out to see the purple sunset reflected onto Rainier’s southern face. When the Whittakers tell you where to go, you go.

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