26 January 2017

The Transformative Power of Words

Earlier this week, The Mountaineers hosted a speaking event with the iconic father-son duo: Jim and Leif Whittaker. I was honored to introduce the Whittakers to our audience, and even more grateful to experience their presentation full of brand new, never-before-seen photos unearthed from the Whittaker 'basement archives'. Both Leif and Jim have climbed Everest and written powerful books about their experiences in the mountains. Reading their words, you can't help but feel transported into a world of snow and rock - a place where the line between life and death is very fine.

The show sold out a week before the event. The night of, folks were clamoring at the door to get last-minute seats. People stood in line for over an hour to get books signed and have their photos taken next to two mountaineering giants (literally, they're both well over 6' tall).

The excitement was justified. Jim Whittaker is a legend to The Mountaineers' community, and Leif is well on his way to becoming one, with two Everest summits under his belt and natural talent for storytelling. Jim is a visionary adventurer and environmentalist, continuing to advocate for an outdoor life which has given him so much. He’s also the husband to Dianne Roberts, an internationally recognized photographer who's been published by the likes of National Geographic. Together they have two sons, Joss and Leif. The boys grew up in Port Townsend, Washington, and surprisingly weren't pushed into the outdoors by their parents. They discovered it on their own, together climbing Mt. Olympus - without adult supervision - when Leif was just 15. Before that, Jim and Dianne pulled the kids out of school and spent 4 years as sailing in the south pacific.

I remember reading about this iconic family and their adventures many years ago, long before I even knew that The Mountaineers existed. I never imagined those stories would shape the course of my life.

While in the middle of my business degree at UW, I got sick and tired of reading books about finance and economics and found myself at the library late one night looking for something different. Into Thin Air, John Krakauer’s account of the 1996 disaster on Mt Everest, was featured on the shelf and I took it home. Whether you agree with Krakauer or not, his story was absolutely riveting and I was hooked.

I read all I could about the 1996 disaster, then devoured anything and everything related to mountaineering. I picked up “inspirational titles” like Left for Dead by Beck Weathers,and On The Ridge Between Life and Death by David Roberts. I demolished Into the Void and Forget Me Knot and The White Spider and Ghosts of Everest. I savored everything written by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts and - of course - Jim Whittaker.

When Jim and Sherpa Nawang Gombu stood on the summit of Mt. Everest in 1963, Jim became the first American to reach the top of the world's highest peak. But before that he learned to climb with The Mountaineers as a teenager. Along with his brother Lou, Jim graduated from Basic in 1944 and together they became guides on Mt. Rainier. Lou went on to found Rainier Mountaineering Inc., which is still in operation and run by his son Peter, and "Big Jim"went on to become the first full-time employee, and eventually the CEO, of REI - back when REI was down the hall from The Mountaineers clubhouse in downtown Seattle and known as "The Mountaineers Co-op".

When all was said and done I had two bookshelves full of mountaineering literature. Mind you, at the time I was an overstressed, out of shape college student who didn’t even like to go hiking, let alone climb a mountain “because it’s there”.

After my feast of mountaineering books, I took a break from reading for a while. But the stories continued to swirl in my brain and the books stayed on my bookshelf as I moved from apartment to apartment. Only after I discovered my adventurous life, and eventually joined The Mountaineers staff, did I realize half of the books I’d savored in college were published by Mountaineers Books. 

I read Leif’s book, My Old Man and the Mountain, when it came out in October, and can honestly say it’s one of the best mountaineering memoirs I’ve read. Leif is a talented writer, and is able to masterfully (with a delightful taste of sarcasm) share his life story about growing up Whittaker. Through is words, he transports you to a world where you understand what it would feel like to grow up constantly answering the incessant question “So, when are you going to climb Everest?”

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