My Old Man and the Mountain, by Leif Whittaker (book excerpt)
My Old Man and the Mountain is Leif Whittaker’s engaging and humorous story of what it was like to “grow up Whittaker”―the youngest son of Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest, and Dianne Roberts, in an extended family of accomplished climbers.
On a night like tonight, when frozen clouds obscure the stars, when bursts of wind punch the tent walls into my face, the South Col’s a humbling place. The landscape and the storm don’t care that I’m the youngest son of the first American to summit the highest peak on planet Earth. They don’t care how much I’ve trained or how strong I am or how long I’ve dreamed about Mount Everest. They don’t care about the Saint Christopher medal and the red string. On a night like tonight, the flame of our stove’s what matters. The warmth of my sleeping bag’s what matters. The strength of the pickets driven into the ice around our tent’s what matters. A night like tonight whittles away emotion and imagination. It breaks things down to their simplest form. I have to pee.
But on a night like tonight, peeing’s a dangerous proposition. The Nalgene marked “Leif’s Pee,” is already full. I’ve been guzzling grape Tang like it’s pouring from the Fountain of Youth and I think I’ve peed half a dozen times since we got here. The good thing is my pee’s the color of Country Time lemonade, which is a lot better than it being the color of 10W30, but the bad thing is I have to crawl out of my warm cocoon and go outside. It’s all swirly and white outside. I still can’t see Melissa and Kent’s tent. But I can’t think of a way to avoid it.
My boots are frozen stiff so I yank out the liners and slide my socked feet into the shells. I strap a pair of clear-lensed goggles over my face, touch the button on my headlamp, pull the cannula out of my nose, and crawl through the vestibule into black and white. The wind’s picking snow up off the ice and flinging it all over the place. Crystals coat my goggles in a split second and I can’t see a thing. I can’t even see the moraine beneath my feet so I slide the goggles down around my neck and squint into the storm. I don’t need to go far. Just a few steps.
The wind is juking and darting like a fish evading a predator. Half of the contents of my bladder end up in the snow and I think the other half’s divided between my boots and down suit. At least it’s out. I crouch low to the moraine and empty my pee bottle in a crevice. Thank God I won’t have to leave the tent again until morning.
Where is the tent? I thought it was right behind me, but, oh fuck, it’s gone. In fact, Camp Four’s gone entirely, engulfed in the blizzard. A rush of fear and adrenaline runs through me like I used to get when I was a kid, stepping outside our house at night, terrified of the dark. I could die here, just a few steps from the tent, and nobody’d be the wiser. FAMOUS CLIMBER’S SON DISAPPEARS WHILE URINATING or JIM WHITTAKER’S SON FEARED DEAD ON WORLD’S HIGHEST PEAK. The news stories will identify me as the son of Jim Whittaker, the first American to stand on top of the highest peak on planet Earth, but they’ll fail to mention me by name. No more than a paragraph will be devoted to explaining the circumstances of my death, but the story will go on for another five pages with quotes from Dad and a description of his legendary ascent in 1963. A cloud of frozen dust stings my eyes. The beam of light coming from my headlamp runs into the storm. All I see are white flecks of static and endless black behind it. I don’t know which way to go.
Another cloud of frozen dust swirls at me and I instinctively close my eyes. When I open them again I see something in a patch of snow. Relief floods me. I see a footprint.
Leif Whittaker was born in Port Townsend, Washington, at the foot of the Olympic Mountains. He reached his first major summit when he was 15 years old; he has since climbed many of the world’s tall mountains. A writer and a photographer, Leif’s work has appeared in Powder, The Ski Journal, and Backcountry. Leif lives in Bellingham, Washington, and is a seasonal USFS climbing ranger on Mount Baker. Visit him online at leifwhittaker.com.
Leif’s book “My Old Man and the Mountain” is available in hardcover from mountaineersbooks.org and bookstores everywhere.
Book Tour Calendar
My Old Man and the Mountain is coming to a bookstore near you! I will be doing talks and book signings throughout the western United States this winter and spring. More events will be added to this calendar, so please check back often. I hope to see you there!
- March 30 – Western Washington University – Bellingham, WA – 7 p.m. presentation at the PAC Concert Hall with Q&A and book signing to follow. Proceeds benefit the Jake Merrill Scholarship Fund!
- April 7 – Port Townsend Library – Port Townsend, WA – 7 p.m. presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow.
- April 10 – University of Oregon – Eugene, OR – 7 p.m. presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow.
- April 13 – Alpenglow Sports – Tahoe City, CA – Presentation at Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema with Q&A and book signing to follow.
- April 18 – Origin Climbing and Fitness – Las Vegas, NV – 7:30 p.m. presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow. Proceeds benefit The Juniper Fund!
- April 23 – Back of Beyond Books – Moab, UT – 7pm presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow.
- April 25 – Maria’s Bookshop – Durango, CO – 6:30pm presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow.
- April 27 – Ragged Mountain Sports – Carbondale, CO, with ROCK AND ICE – 7 p.m. event with Q&A and book signing.
- April 28 – Estes Park Mountain Shop – Estes Park, CO – 7 p.m. presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow. Special appearance by legendary mountaineer Tom Hornbein!
- May 1 – REI – Sandy, UT – A 6:30 p.m. presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow.
- May 4 – Stio Outdoor Apparel & Gear – Jackson, WY – 6:30 p.m. presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow.
- May 7 – Country Bookshelf – Bozeman, MT – 4 p.m. presentation with Q&A and book signing to follow.
- May 9 – The Community Library – Ketchum, ID – 6 p.m. presentation with Q&A and book signing