My Old Man and the Mountain - An interview with Leif Whittaker

We recently released "My Old Man and the Mountain: A Memoir" by Leif Whittaker. The youngest son of Dianne Roberts and Jim Whittaker - who in 1963 became the first American man to summit Everest - Leif tells a coming-of-age story about “growing up Whittaker” in one of the world’s most beloved adventure families. We sat down with Leif to talk about his creative inspiration.
Suzanne Gerber Suzanne Gerber
Publications Manager
January 10, 2017
by Emily White

When did you first consider writing My Old Man and the Mountain, and what has the creative process been like from start to finish? 

I first dreamed of writing books when I was twelve years old, stuck on my family’s sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Writing was an antidote to boredom, but as I grew up, it became a true passion. When I followed in my father’s footsteps to the summit of Mount Everest, the story was too good not to write about.

Still, I needed five years to shape it into a book. I would have done it much faster if I wasn’t paralyzed by the fear that someone might read it. Months of obsessive writing were followed by weeks without a single glance at the story. When I did look at it again, I inevitably hated it, and I convinced myself that a complete overhaul was required. After dozens of these cycles, I realized I needed to let go. Nevertheless, without a deadline from the publisher, I would probably still be tinkering.  

Do you have a writing routine when you're out in the mountains, or do you wait until you're back home? 

Climbers are always trying to shave ounces of pack weight, but even when I cut my toothbrush in half, I make room for a pencil and notebook. It’s a way to trick myself into feeling obligated to write. I think, “Since I carried it, I should use it.” I don’t have any hard and fast routines when I’m in the mountains or at home, but I prefer to write first thing in the morning, before I’m occupied with daily responsibilities like eating, exercising, washing, and interacting with other humans. Of course, the problem with writing in the morning is that, if you get into a good groove, you might miss breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and suddenly find yourself injured, dirty, and alone. Not that that has ever happened to me. It hasn’t. I swear. 

What are some of the ideas and inspiration that you hope readers take away from your story?

I just hope they enjoy the read! This story isn’t meant to be didactic. I certainly learned a great deal from my experiences on Mount Everest, and perhaps some readers will find that those lessons apply to their own lives, but I would hate for people to think I have it all figured out. In fact, I suspect one sign of a healthy intelligence is a certain amount of self-doubt, but I could be wrong. As far as inspiration, if my book inspires people to go outside and interact with the natural world, I would consider it a huge success. Wilderness doesn’t have to be scary and intimidating. It can be therapeutic and transformative too. 

Are there any books that had a big impact on you as you were growing up, either related to adventure or otherwise? 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was one of my favorite “adventure” books when I was growing up. To this day, when I’m in a dangerous or stressful situation, I try to remember where my towel is. That thought never fails to calm my nerves. I also loved an old book of short stories that my dad gave me called The Haunters of the Silences by Charles G. D. Roberts. Many of the stories were written from the perspective of animals who were being fished or hunted, or simply surviving through their incredibly treacherous life cycles. I think it planted in me a seed of empathy and reverence for wild creatures and places.  

If you were banished to a Pacific Northwest fire tower lookout next summer and could only take three books with you, what would you bring?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell because it contains dozens of genres, from historical fiction to sci-fi, and the writing is mindboggling. The Good Rain by Timothy Egan because it is my favorite book about the Pacific Northwest. The Lord of the Rings: The Complete Collection by J. R. R. Tolkien because…entertainment. 

Your author events calendar is filling up through 2017 around the country. Is it challenging to go from writer to public speaker, especially when sharing such a personal story? 

Yes, it’s exhausting! I’m often more physically sore and fatigued after a speaking engagement than I am after climbing a mountain. Talking about my own weaknesses, doubts, and fears certainly doesn’t make it any easier. My writing voice is much different than my speaking voice, which, I hope, provides people with a deeper understanding of the same story. Ultimately, it’s worth it when someone from the audience comes up to me afterward and says I inspired them to go outside. People have emailed me months later to tell me they reached the summit of Mount Rainier or Mount Baker for the first time, and that the experience changed their life. A note like that passes the inspiration right back to me. 

Do you think you'd ever consider writing another book in the future?

Consider it? I will absolutely write more books. My mother and I have a running joke that we are going to coauthor a mother-son memoir about our four-year sailing voyage on the Pacific Ocean. Working title: My Old Mom and the Sea. We’ve talked about it so much by now that we may have to do it. I’m keeping my other book ideas secret, but I will say that none of them require me to climb Mount Everest again. Thank heavens!   

As we continue to map our world's wild places and claim first ascents, it's getting harder for new generations to feel like they are true, original explorers. When one can't be the first or the fastest, why do you think we should continue to pursue adventure? 

I like to joke with my dad that he had it easy because, in his heyday as a mountaineer, so many peaks had yet to be climbed. Today, climbers continue to push the boundaries of human endeavor, but of course, most of us don’t have nearly enough talent, daring, or desire to ascend a cutting-edge route like The Shark’s Fin on Meru Peak. However, I think adventure remains an important aspect of a life well lived. For me, it isn’t about reaching the summit, proving something to others, or thrill seeking. I try to remind myself that it’s healthy to get outside my comfort zone, to take a few risks every so often, because that’s how we learn and grow as people. Whether you reach the summit or not, mountains have a way of teaching you about yourself. Part of the mountain stays with you, and you leave part of yourself behind. 

Meet Leif, Jim, and get a signed copy of the book:

We're hosing Leif and Jim on January 24 for our BeWild Speaker Series. Both father and son are accomplished authors, and compelling, inspirational speakers, exploring themes of adventure, risk, perseverance, teamwork, friendship and the beauty of the natural world. We'll also be featuring Leif's latest book:  My Old Man and the Mountain.

GET TICKETS!

More about Leif Whittaker: 

Born in Port Townsend, Washington, among the glaciated spires of the Olympic Mountains, Leif reached his first major summit when he was 15 years old. He has since climbed many of the world’s tallest mountains, including Aconcagua, Mount Vinson, and Mount Everest twice.

Mountaineering is not his only passion. His love of skiing, rock climbing, sailing, kayaking, rafting, hiking, photography, and food has led him to many remote corners of the globe. He is a talented writer and photographer whose work has appeared in various media worldwide, including Powder, Backcountry and The Ski Journal

As a Climbing Ranger for the United States Forest Service on Mount Baker, Leif spends his summers protecting a pristine wilderness and keeping visitors safe on the glacier. He currently resides in Bellingham, Washington.


This article originally appeared in our Winter 2017 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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