Writing has been a part of Leif Whittaker’s life before he tried on his first set of crampons and crossed an ice field.
Now, the 31-year-old mountaineer is on his first book tour to promote “My Old Man and the Mountain,” a memoir that showcases his adventures together with those of his father, Jim Whittaker. There is a presentation and book-signing event on Tuesday, Nov. 1 at the Northwest Maritime Center, a fundraiser for the center’s youth education programs.
It’s not simple growing up as the son of America’s most famous mountaineer, coming from a family of strong-willed, accomplished mountaineers.
"The driving conflict in the book is following in my dad's footsteps and living up to that legacy and heritage,” Leif said last week in a telephone interview.
The book revisits his father's 1963 expedition on Everest, compared to Leif's treks up the peak in 2010 and 2012. As he was packing to leave for the 2010 expedition, his dad handed Leif the journal he had kept in 1963, which provided both context and inspiration.
In his book, Leif "is constantly revisiting the 1963 expedition and imagining what that was like for my dad and his teammates, and placing that right next to my experience in the modern era on Mount Everest. There are some funny and fun juxtapositions that is something the readers will really enjoy."
The book is certainly a father-son story.
"Everyone kind of has a desire to make their parents proud in some form or another,” Leif said. “Being there with Dad in 2012, and trekking to base camp with him and my mother [Dianne Roberts], that was special. A huge part of the book is following that legacy and trying to live up to it."
His parents are understandably proud of their son's literary efforts.
"The book is wonderful," Jim Whittaker said. "I was in tears and I was laughing and I thought he did a good job.
"Reading it as a climber, it scares the hell out of me when he's out there climbing, because I know what can happen," Jim said. "The book really does explain it well. He really captured it, not just the climbing, but the interactions with people."
Dianne Whittaker is equally effusive about the book.
"I love it. It's wonderful," she said. "You do wince a little bit when you see yourself through other people’s eyes, especially our children’s."
Leif Whittaker was born in Seattle; his parents moved the family to Port Townsend when he was 2 months old. He loved his childhood in Port Townsend, but frankly, did not pay much attention to his dad’s mountaineering history.
In 1996, at the age of 11, his parents sold their house and their car and spent four years sailing with their two sons around the world.
"I was pretty upset with my parents for taking me away from my friends and my basketball hoop. I had aspirations to be a professional basketball player at that point. We were getting pushed onto this boat alone in the ocean, but in retrospect, I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. It taught me about having adventures."
He also credits the trip for honing his passion for writing.
“I learned to love writing when I was out in the middle of the ocean with nothing better to do,” Leif said.
When the family returned to Port Townsend and Leif entered high school, he found himself getting better grades than ever before – read the book to see what he says about that. He graduated from Port Townsend High School in 2003 and graduated from Western Washington University in Bellingham in 2007, at the top of his class with a degree in creative writing.
The publisher’s description of the book calls it “irreverent,” and that’s true, with passages that indicate Leif’s boredom at family dinners and while being forced to attend his father’s speaking engagements, his teenage shenanigans that made the Leader’s “police log” and his generous use of the f-bomb.
A few PTHS classmates are mentioned by name, and others may recognize some of the scenarios. A few names in the book have been changed for privacy concerns, but the stories are true, he said.
The book has no surprises for his family; his parents and brother got to read the final draft.
“They have been extremely helpful and also humble and given me the willingness to write about it,” Leif said.
Leif credits his brother, Joss – older by 18 months – for directly teaching him about mountaineering. Joss led Leif up Mount Olympus while a teenager. When Joss would ask his father about climbing, his father referred him to specific books.
"I blame Joss for teaching me how to tie into a rope; he was really the one, more than my parents, who taught me about climbing,” Leif said. Joss lives in Seattle and is working on his Ph.D. in archaeology at the University of Washington.
Not to be lost amid the humor shown in his book is the absolute life-or-death reality on Mount Everest. One chapter is titled “Graveyard,” and in it, he writes about walking past the bodies of climbers who had succumbed to the elements.
“It’s very sobering,” he said.
Pure luck also comes into play when climbing Mount Everest, he noted. “That is something climbers don't like to talk about because it tends to belittle their accomplishment, but any true climber knows there is an element of luck.”
Said another way, it’s “not being unlucky” when moving through the Khumbu Icefall, for example, or when catching the right weather, or in dealing with what has become a crowded mountain during the short window when people can realistically expect to summit.
"For us, it was a matter of trying to be on the mountains when the crowds weren’t. The crowds are there when the weather is best. When my dad was there in 1963, there were no crowds.”
One common question Leif deals with all the time: Will he make a third attempt at Everest?
"People ask me that question and really, for me, it would depend on who I would be there with. So much of climbing mountains is the people you share the rope with."
Being a writer, it’s natural that Leif had been working “for many years” on a manuscript.
"The writing of it has been its own sort of challenge, in many ways much harder than climbing a mountain has been writing a book. It's taken me a long time. It's by no means perfect. I am really happy with how it’s come out.”
Mountaineers Books of Seattle is the nonprofit publishing division of The Mountaineers, an organization founded in 1906 and dedicated to the exploration, preservation, and enjoyment of outdoor and wilderness areas. The company publishes guidebooks and outdoor narratives, and was a natural fit for Leif’s project.
“I pitched them a proposal with an outline and a synopsis of each chapter,” he said, and signed a publishing deal in 2015.
He’s learned how much collaboration is required to produce a quality book, from editors to people involved with design and layout. “We came up with the name together,” he noted.
“To me the process of creating a book is not just writing; it is a collaborative effort with editors and designers and people who help you create the book you can hold in your hand. It's not just the writing that is important,” Leif said.
No writer, or mountain climber, should expect the process to be easy.
“It’s about perseverance and being willing to keep writing, keep putting yourself out. Writers have to be thick-skinned, which I’m not very good at. Certainly climbing Everest taught me a lot about persistence, and I used that when writing the book. There were a lot of times when I wondered if I was wasting my time and if it would ever turn into something real. Just like on Everest, it’s one foot in front of the other, one breath at a time. You just can’t ever stop; you can’t ever let yourself stop. You've got to persevere, continue to believe in yourself and believe in the work, and keep writing."
The publishing company’s description of the “engaging and humorous memoir” terms it “a unique coming-of-age tale on the steep slopes of Everest, a climbing adventure that lights the imagination, and an emotional endeavor on which readers will recognize the truth of our shared humanity."
Two renowned writers were among the “advance readers” who offered review notes that were published on the book jacket.
"Whittaker writes much as he climbs mountains, with courage, grace, and a dash of humility. The result is an utterly compelling tale of a young man who bravely tackles two great challenges – one made of rock and ice and one made of doubts and fears. It's a great read,” wrote Daniel James Brown, author of “The Boys in the Boat."
Tom Hornbein, who was on the same expedition in 1963 with Jim Whittaker and who wrote "Everest: The West Ridge,” observed: "Leif Whittaker, son of the first American to summit Everest, has given us a deliciously irreverent perspective on growing up in the shadow of a famous father, and how that journey helped shape a unique perspective on a young man's own relationship with a mountain ... and a dad."
Leif Whittaker lives in Bellingham with his partner, Freya Fennwood, a former Port Townsend resident whose father owns and operates Pygmy Kayaks. She is a professional photographer.
Since 2012, Leif has worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a seasonal climbing ranger on Mount Baker. "I am constantly on the glacier and the mountain, patrolling," he said. "Climbing mountains is a very big part of my life."
His most recent big mountain adventure was a 2015 expedition to Mount Kennedy in Canada's Yukon Territory, to commemorate the 1965 trek his father made with Robert F. Kennedy.
Whittaker has now embarked on a promotional tour for his book, with presentations and book signings scheduled for the next few months in Seattle and Portland. Next spring, he hopes to make appearances in Colorado and the Southwest. See updates on whittakerwrites.com.
"I have this romantic vision of visiting bookstores and outdoor stores around the western U.S.," he said. "I know that's not how books are sold anymore, but I have the idea of having face-to-face, one-on-one interactions to share my story."
The Nov. 1 event in Port Townsend is the first time Leif and Jim, 87 and still an engaging presence, have given a public presentation together. “It's pretty special. We've done a few private events. To see our stories side by side like that, it’s great, although mine completely pale in comparison.”
Leif said he’s already thinking about a sequel, this one based on his mother, and the “beautiful e-mails she wrote to people when we were sailing around the world. It’s going to be a mother and son story. She picked the title; it’s going to be ‘My Old Mom and the Sea.’”