Remembering Mountaineer Lou Whittaker

We’re sad to share that Lou Whittaker, legendary mountaineer and entrepreneur, has passed away.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
March 27, 2024
Remembering Mountaineer Lou Whittaker
(Left to Right)Peter, Lou, and Win Whittaker. Photo courtesy of the Whittaker Family.

Lou Whittaker, a world-renowned mountaineer, legendary mountain guide, and local entrepreneur, passed away at his home near Mt. Rainier on March 24, 2024 surrounded by family and loved ones. ’Big Lou’ or ‘Rainier Lou’ was 95.

Born on February 10, 1929, and raised in Seattle alongside his equally renowned identical-twin brother Jim, Lou’s love of climbing began at an early age. With a home on the top of a hill in the West Seattle Arbor Heights neighborhood, each day began with a descent, either to Fauntleroy School where they attended K-5 or to Lincoln Park where they would often paddle in homemade rafts. Each trip meant another trek back uphill to get home.

babyjim.jpg"We were up and down that hill all the time, so maybe that's where it all began," Jim said in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "That's how we came to be in such good shape."

The twins began their official climbing careers in the 1940s with the Boy Scouts at age twelve, soon becoming members of The Mountaineers and the Explorer Scouts climbing group. After learning skills at Monitor Rock in West Seattle, Lou, Jim and their brother Barney did their first alpine climb in 1943 - an ascent of “The Tooth”, a fanglike, 5,605 foot peak near Snoqualmie Pass. Shrugging off a promise to never climb another mountain, climbing became a central figure in both Lou and Jim’s lives.

The twins began guiding climbs on Mount Rainier, and by the time he was eighteen, Lou had climbed all the major peaks in Washington. At nineteen, Lou and Jim began guiding on Mount Rainier, and were soon tapped to help run the guide service on Mount Rainier, taking over full management the following year.

At 6’5”, the boys were recruited by Seattle University on basketball scholarships. Playing ball paid for tuition, but both Lou and Jim preferred ski patrol and Rainier guiding over ball sports. In 1948, they ski patrolled for the final Mountaineers Silver Ski Race from Camp Muir to Paradise. 

At the outset of the Korean War, Lou and Jim were drafted into the Army and sent to a Signal Corps detachment in California. In January 1953, Lou and Jim arrived at Camp Hale, Colorado - the Army’s Mountain and Cold Weather command. Their job was to train an elite group of soldiers, later renamed the 10th Mountain Division, to execute wartime missions in unforgiving alpine conditions. Using the skills they learned with The Mountaineers, and honed as mountain guides on Mount Rainier, Lou and Jim trained the soldiers in skiing, climbing, mountain maneuvers, and bivouacs. 

whittaker twins.jpgThe two tallest members, it's easy to pick out Lou and Jim in the 10th Mountain Division. 

Discharged in 1954, the mirror twins - Lou is right-handed and Jim is left-handed - returned to Seattle. Their lives, which had been largely shared until this point, diverged in different directions.

Lou served as the chief guide under Rainier’s main concessionaire for 14 years while also working at Osborn and Ulland, a prominent Seattle outdoor outfitter. Lou opened and ran Whittaker’s Chalet, a ski and mountaineering store in Lakewood from 1962 to 1972, while he continued climbing and guiding, before purchasing the guide service concession on Mount Rainier and co-founding Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI Expeditions) in 1969. After 54 years, RMI continues to operate as the leading guide service on Mount Rainier, maintaining the standard of excellence taught by Lou. With over 250 Rainier summits, Lou has personally led thousands of climbers to their own summits. He was famous for telling clients, “Some days you eat the mountain; some days the mountain eats you.”

In addition to the Washington mountains, Lou has visited many famous mountaineering haunts over the years, climbing formidable peaks in Alaska, the Himalaya, and the Karakorum. On a K2 expedition in 1975, Lou creatively removed the Vibram sole from his climbing boot and affixed it to his tennis shoe on the trek out. In doing so, Lou essentially created an early stage trekking shoe. A partnership with New Balance was formed with Lou inspiring and helping to create a trekking boot, known as the Rainier Boot, significantly reducing the weight of ice climbing shoes and forever changing mountain footwear.

In 1984, Lou led the first successful American expedition to the North Col of Mount Everest. It was the first American ascent, and only the third ascent overall, of the colder side of the mountain. Being on the Chinese side, the climb was done without Sherpa support. The team consisted of mostly RMI guides, including Lou’s son Peter, all trained by Lou on the home flanks of his favorite mountain. He writes about these adventures, and much more, in his book Memoirs of a Mountain Guide

In his retirement, Lou and his wife Ingrid split their time between Ashford and Sun Valley, Idaho. They bonded over a shared love of the outdoors, and Ingrid worked for Whittaker’s Chalet, RMI, and up at Camp Muir. Ingrid and Lou shared a partnership of work, play, building/renovating properties, travel and climbing that spanned over 54 years. 

Lou was involved with many organizations over the years, most notably he was a founding member and served on the board of directors of Crystal Mountain for many years; he served as the Honorary Chairman for the American Lung Association of Washington Climb for Clean Air; he and Ingrid were involved with the Nisqually River Council and Nisqually Land Trust, as well as many others.

Ingrid and Lou sunbathing at Camp Muir in the early 70s. Photo courtesy of the Whittaker Family..jpgIngrid and Lou sunbathing at Camp Muir in the early 70s. Photo courtesy of the Whittaker Family.

When Lou wasn’t pushing the boundaries of mountaineering or creating the standard of guiding excellence, Lou was a masterful carpenter, craftsman, and builder. Together with his wife Ingrid, Lou built, by hand, incredible homes of polished black stone and massive log beams. His projects were often made more challenging by his insistence on self-reliance but were all the more beautiful for it. His enthusiasm for hard work was infectious; he rarely worked alone, and the stories from those projects are still shared among those lucky enough to be roped in.  

In 1992, Lou and Ingrid purchased and renovated what is now known as Whittaker’s Hotel and Historical Bunkhouse located in Ashford at Rainier BaseCamp. Throughout the Bunkhouse Cafe, visitors will find a mini museum of sorts featuring historical artifacts and photos. The hotel is now owned and operated by his son Win.

Lou & Jim Whittaker at The Mountaineers 2017 Gala..jpegLou and Jim Whittaker at The Mountaineers Annual Gala in 2017. Photo by Luke Humphries.

Lou’s philosophy on life was simple: “When it comes to dying,” he said, “I want to know what it is like to have really lived.”

Lou was preceded in death by his daughter Kim. He passed away peacefully in his home near Mt. Rainier the evening of March 24, 2024. He was surrounded by love with his wife Ingrid, sons Peter and Win, grandson Kristian, daughter-in-law Kerry, and Kristian’s partner Hanna.  

We’re told the mountain was out.


A Celebration of Life for Lou will be held at Rainier BaseCamp in Ashford in late summer. Details will be announced in the coming months.

Lou's family has created a Facebook tribute page to share favorite stories and photos of Lou. Join the conversation. 


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