Lou Whittaker, renowned mountaineer and Rainier guide, dies at 95

Lou Whittaker, an elder statesman of American climbing who led pioneering expeditions to Mount Everest, started one of the country’s premier guide services and summited his own backyard peak, Mount Rainier, more than 250 times, died March 24 at his home in Ashford, Wash. He was 95.

He had congestive heart failure, said his son Peter Whittaker.

With his twin brother, Jim, Mr. Whittaker formed what the BBC once described as the “First Family of American mountaineering.” The siblings began climbing at age 12, discovering that the mountains near their Seattle home offered a refuge from the pollen and pollutants that triggered their asthma, and went on to tackle some of the world’s highest peaks, ascending mountains in Alaska, the Himalayas and the Karakoram range.

“Mountains were the source of his health, the wellspring of his confidence, and the stage for his triumphs, and he was one of the first to make mountaineering and its benefits accessible to the broader public,” the mountaineering company RMI Expeditions said in a tribute. Founded in 1969 by Mr. Whittaker and his business partner Jerry Lynch, the guide service - also known as Rainier Mountaineering Inc. - leads expeditions around the world and has helped some 80,000 climbers ascend Rainier, the highest mountain in Washington.

While his brother Jim Whittaker became known as the first American to summit Everest, Lou Whittaker remained most closely associated with Rainier, the 14,410-foot capstone of the Cascade Range. He summited the mountain for the first time at 16 and acquired the nickname “Rainier Lou” while helping others navigate its glacier-covered slopes, training generations of guides while dispensing advice on everything from the basics of ropes and crampons to the vagaries of alpine weather and terrain.

“Some days you eat the mountain,” he would say; “some days the mountain eats you.”

Mr. Whittaker survived at least three avalanches, including while climbing Rainier with his son Peter in 1978, when he was swept nearly 500 feet down the slope and narrowly avoided falling into a crevasse. During an Everest expedition in 1984, he was approaching a camp at 25,000 feet, lashed by cold wind that penetrated his sunglasses and goggles, when his vision deteriorated and he realized his eyeballs had frozen. He spent a night in his tent, experiencing what he later called the worst pain of his life, before bandaging his eyes, blindly rappelling down the slope and reaching a lower camp, where he slowly regained his sight after a week spent in near-total darkness.


“There’s a certain amount of risk involved in life,” he later said. “When it comes down to dying, I want to know what it is like to have really lived.”

Early in his mountaineering career, Mr. Whittaker was virtually inseparable from his twin brother. The two men trained together, climbed together and were almost indistinguishable, although Mr. Whittaker was right-handed (Jim is a lefty) and was the more gregarious of the two. Reporting on the lead-up to an unsuccessful 1975 expedition to K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, Sports Illustrated noted that in contrast to the “soft-spoken” and “slightly wistful” Jim, Mr. Whittaker was “all winks and guffaws,” dressing “gaudily in bell-bottoms and striped turtlenecks” when he wasn’t decked out in climbing gear.

Both men were selected for the historic 1963 American expedition to Everest, led by Norman Dyhrenfurth, and trained together in the Pacific Northwest, preparing for high-altitude conditions on the world’s tallest mountain by seeing who could hold their breath the longest while commuting from their homes in Lake Sammamish to their day jobs in Seattle.

To his brother’s dismay, Mr. Whittaker dropped out weeks before the expedition departed. In his 1994 memoir, “Lou Whittaker: Memoirs of a Mountain Guide,” he wrote that he felt “a growing sense of responsibility” to his wife and young children. He decided it would be better to stay behind and focus on a new business opportunity, a sporting goods store in Tacoma that he took over and christened Whittaker’s Chalet.

His decision had been made easier, he said, when he learned that the first team sent to the summit would consist of one American and one Sherpa, meaning that he and his brother wouldn’t be able to reach the peak together.

Nearly two decades later, Mr. Whittaker led a 1982 expedition credited with pioneering a new route on the North Face of Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. Heavy snow and wind kept the team from reaching the summit, and one of the climbers, Marty Hoey, fell to her death during the attempt.

Two years later, Mr. Whittaker returned and triumphed as a team leader, heading the first successful American expedition - and only the third overall - up the colder, north side of the mountain.

Mr. Whittaker didn’t personally reach the summit (team member Phil Ershler made a solo ascent to the top) but noted that climbing a mountain like Everest was a team effort, in which an ascent by one was in some ways an ascent by all. He said he had no regrets about missing out on the peak; after all, he had gone as far as he could. Nor did he regret missing his brother’s signature climb in 1963. As a twin, he said, he shared in his brother’s victories, sometimes literally.

“There were a few times when Jim would tire of the parades and personal appearances that followed his Everest success, and he’d ask me to fill in for him,” he recalled in his memoir. “Only our families and closest friends ever knew the difference.”

Louis Winslow Whittaker was born in Seattle on Feb. 10, 1929. His father sold bank alarms and vault doors, and his mother was a homemaker who encouraged the twins’ interest in climbing, whether up a fence, a tree or Mount Rainier.

The siblings were joined on early climbs by their older brother, Barney, who would later joke that they had a condition called “PBD - Permanent Brain Damage,” that allowed them to tolerate the risks of mountaineering.

Mr. Whittaker acknowledged that he had a false sense of invulnerability as a young man, which vanished following his brushes with avalanches, frostbite and other near-disasters. “Invariably, a novice climber will say to me, ‘I’m afraid of heights,’” he said. “I always reply, ‘I am too. That’s why I’m still around.’”

Standing nearly 6½ feet tall, he and his brother earned basketball scholarships to Seattle University, although they spent more time on the slopes than the hardwood. They received bachelor’s degrees in 1952 and were drafted into the Army, leading to a stint teaching climbing and winter survival skills to alpine infantry troops at Camp Hale in Colorado.

By 1960, Mr. Whittaker and his brother were traveling further afield for their climbs, serving as guides for a four-man expedition to Alaska. The group summited North America’s highest peak, Denali (then known as Mount McKinley), but slipped and slid down the slope while roped together during the descent, falling some 400 feet before stopping.

One of their team members fractured and dislocated both his ankles, requiring a helicopter evacuation at around 17,000 feet. Mr. Whittaker and his brother were in good enough shape to hike down to camp.

Mr. Whittaker was later credited with saving dozens of lives during his mountaineering career, including while working as a guide for RMI. In 1981, he and his brother led a search-and-rescue mission for the victims of an ice fall on Mount Rainier, which killed 11 people on an RMI expedition and is considered the deadliest climbing accident in U.S. history. The expedition’s survivors included his son Peter, who succeeded his father as head of RMI in the late 1990s. Mr. Whittaker and the search team were unable to find the victims.

Mr. Whittaker and his first wife, Patricia Wales, had three children before divorcing. In 1976, he married Ingrid Widmann, who worked with him in the guide business. Together they taught themselves carpentry and construction, building a home in Ashford from black basalt and enormous wood beams.


In addition to his wife, his son Peter, and his brother Jim, survivors include his son Win, who also followed him into climbing; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His daughter, Kim Whittaker, died of cancer in 2020.

Mr. Whittaker continued climbing into his late 70s, completing his last major expedition at age 60, in 1989, when he returned to the Himalayas to lead the first successful American ascent of Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world. Back home, a Seattle Times reporter asked him why he climbed at all.

“If you have to ask,” he replied, “you wouldn’t understand if I told you.”