The Passing of a Hero and Mentor: Lou Whittaker

by JAKE NORTON

March 2024
Lou Whittaker (February 10, 1929 – March 24, 2024) was a hero, boss, friend, and legend. It's hard to believe he's passed, a man larger than life who had an outsized impact on American mountaineering.

Note: This is a personal reflection on Lou Whittaker, someone who played a huge role in my life. For more biographical information and remembrance of Lou, please read the memorial posted by his company, Rainier Mountaineering.

He was, simply put, larger than life. Something like six foot six inches, he towered above my ten year old frame, arms like tree trunks clapping me on the shoulder. A husky voice, quick laugh, and twinkling eyes were disarming, however, and his stories enrapturing.

My sister, Dolly, Lou Whittaker, and me, 1984. (I'm the one in the middle if you weren't sure...)

It was 1984, and Lou Whittaker had recently returned from leading the first American ascent of the north (Tibetan) side of Mount Everest. It was an epic expedition, and Lou was at New Balance headquarters in Massachusetts to tell the story and thank the company which had partially sponsored the trip. (My father, Ed Norton, knew Lou from K2 ski days in the early '70s. Lou reached out to him in 1981, then at New Balance, and floated the idea of a light hiking boot. The collaboration birthed the first light hiker, New Balance's Rainier, and the company helped support the '84 expedition.)

The China Everest 1984 Expedition poster given to me by Lou Whittaker in 1984.
The China Everest 1984 Expedition poster given to me by Lou Whittaker in 1984.

For me, it was a brush with legend, an up close meeting with someone who, directly and indirectly, would help shape much of my life. We had dinner with Lou that night, revelling in his stories for hours, and at the end he gave me a poster from his expedition. It was like gold, a Dead Sea Scroll, to a 10 year old with a budding dream of climbing, and that poster went immediately above my bed in Massachusetts. It hung there until I went to college, and then hung in my dorm room. Trivial, for certain, but I credit the poster - and Lou - with helping keep my dream of climbing real, fresh, front and center, every morning and every night.

When I was 12, in 1986, Lou was able to get my father and I on a climb of Rainier with Phil Ershler, the first American to climb Everest from the North. We reached the top on July 5, and spent days before and after the climb with Lou and his wife, Ingrid, at their home in Ashford, Washington, taking in their hospitality and, especially for me, their encouragement of my climbing. In between stories, Lou would chuck me on the arm - nearly knocking me over - and with his classic gruff voice say: "Huh, yeah, Jake, just keep climbing. You can do it! Get strong, stay stronger, and climb those damn mountains!"

My father, Ed Norton (left), me, and friend Jeff Bliss at Longmire before climbing Rainier, July 1986.

I took Lou's advice to heart, and with the help and support of my family, kept climbing. We went back to Rainier in 1988, spending more time with Lou, getting more encouragement, more inspiration. I'd travel with my father and stepmother, Susan Gold, to the Outdoor Retailer show in Reno, Nevada, and always run into Lou, larger than life, drawing a crowd wherever he went. In 1989, he invited us to a special event celebrating his expedition to Kangchenjunga, which put the first Americans on top of the third highest peak. (The expedition roster reads like a who's who of American mountaineering legend: George Dunn, Phil Ershler, Jim Hamilton, Robert Link, Larry Nielsen, John Roskelley, Eric Simonson, Craig Van Hoy, Ed Viesturs, Jim Wickwire, Greg Wilson, and Skip Yowell.)

The 1984 Everest team on the Pang La pass, Tibet.

To my surprise, just four years later I would find myself no longer a client or groupie of Lou, but an employee and colleague. In 1993, undoubtedly with help from the Big Guy, I was hired as a guide at Rainier Mountaineering, the guide service Lou started with Jerry Lynch in 1989. For me, it was a dream come true, a chance to guide and climb and guide and climb and guide and climb some more. I logged 23 summits of Rainier that first summer, and loved every minute.

Guide team for the 1993 Jansport Seminar on Mount Rainier. Clockwise from lower right: Lou Whittaker, Ngawang Gombu, Heidi Eichner, Jake Norton, Phursumba Sherpa, Robert Link, Win Whittaker.
Lou climbing old school on Rainier.

Working for Lou, I found a different beast than I had known as a client and idolator; not better or worse, just different, as it should be. As a boss, Lou expected a lot from his guides. He expected professionalism, timeliness, respect, and a hell of a lot of hard work. My first day on the job, after morning meeting, Lou handed me a pack stuffed with 80 pounds of food stuffs needing to get to Camp Muir.

"We're running low on supplies at Muir. Run this stuff up there," he said as nonchalantly as if he'd asked me to get the mail. Lou saw the look on my face as I hefted the pack.

"We used to make two carries in a day to Muir," he called out as I started up the trail. "Come back and grab a second load this afternoon."

I wasn't going to let Lou down, let any weakness show, so sure enough that afternoon, legs aching and shoulders sagging, I grabbed a second load of food and humped it up to Muir. Lou had gone home for the day, so he likely never knew I followed through. But, I knew, I had lived up to the high bar Lou set, that Lou expected; it didn't matter if he knew or not, because I knew.

Jansport Seminar 1994, Camp Muir on Rainier. Can you pick them all out? Cate Casson, Gombu, John Cummings, Peter Whittaker, Lou Whittaker, Skip Yowell, Ashley Garmin, Chris Keen, a young me, and so many more!

Such was much of life at Rainier Mountaineering in those days. Hard work, high expectations, great fun, meager pay, and massive experience. For those willing to work for it, to learn and struggle and suffer some, to give their all every day, Lou and his company would help open doors. My second year guiding, 1994, I went to Denali with Phil Ershler; and back again the next year with Jason Edwards. In 1997, Eric Simonson invited me to guide with him and Robert Link. Before long, I was lucky enough to be guiding around the world with the legends of my youth.

Maybe Climb for Clean Air, circa 1993. Clockwise from lower right: Heidi Eichner, Phursumba Sherpa, Tracy Roberts, Chris Keen, Ngawang Gombu, Lou Whittaker, Cate Casson, Jake Norton.

And, for me, much of it was thanks to Lou. He encouraged me as a young, aspiring climber. He took a chance on me as a 12 year old wanting to climb Rainier. He took a chance on me as a 19 year old wanting to guide on Rainier. He pushed me, he expected a lot, he sometimes pissed me off, but he never lost my respect.

I think, for much of Lou's life - or at least the decades post-1963 - he lived in the long and deep shadow of his twin brother, Jim, who was the first American to summit Everest. Lou declined at the last minute to be a part of the '63 expedition, and probably always regretted that to some degree. He never enjoyed the fame and spotlight his twin deservedly received, and seemed to always feel a bit lacking because of it.

But, I'd hazard to wager that, with all due respect to Big Jim, Lou likely accomplished more in the world of climbing through his expeditions, his business, and the proteges he helped along the way. One needs only take a look through the annals of American mountaineering, and most of the big names that jump readily to mind either worked for Lou or joined him on expeditions. Many of those same climbers got their start thanks to Lou, and/or made some of their biggest climbs under his leadership. Names that come to mind are Ed Viesturs, Eric Simonson, Phil Ershler, John Roskelly, George Dunn, Larry Nielson, Robert Link, Dave Hahn, Melissa Arnot, Jim Wickwire...the list could go on.

But, life is not a competition; it's about doing your best and leaving your mark. Lou did that in spades, and inspired multitudes of others to do the same.

One of my last interactions with Lou was at Rainier Basecamp during Mountain Festival. We were drinking a beer, talking about old times, and I finally asked Lou a question I'd had on my mind for years: Why the hell did you hire me in 1993? I don't think I had any business being a guide back then.

Mountaineering legend and founder of Rainier Mountaineering, Lou Whittaker, in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Lou smiled, his blue eyes twinkling: Ha, you didn't have any business being a guide back then! But you had potential to be one. You just didn't know it yet. That's why we hired you! And, I knew your Dad...

Lou chucked me again on the shoulder, nearly knocking me off the bench, still strong as hell at 87, and strolled off.

Thank you, Lou. And cheers.

Cheers to you, Lou.

16 comments on “The Passing of a Hero and Mentor: Lou Whittaker”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Jake. You were really blessed to have spent so many years with Lou. His legacy will live on for generations because of climbers/guides/friends/writers like you. Cherish those precious memories - you have a lot more of them than most of us.

  2. Jake, this is great. Gives me such a picture of you as a little boy! Just such amazing opportunities, and you snapped up each of them! Good for you!
    xxoo

  3. I knew Lou from here and there since the late 60s (I’m 75) but really got to know him after a wonderful dinner Brad & Barbara Washburn gave for him in Cambridge. Brad was my mentor and, as a geodetic engineer & surveyor, I worked with him on his mapping projects from the first at Squam Lake, the Mt. Washington & Presidentials, the Grand Canyon, Denali and the last, the Everest 1:50,000 Swissair joint venture. I forget the exact occasion, I think he was sponsor shopping for 1984, but Dave & Sharon Roberts were there as well. Lots of talk about Lucania & Alaskan climbs. Wonderful night of conversation by some great storytellers. I was the rapt recipient. Lou and I kept in touch over the years as he was fascinated by mapping and the amazing advances in satellite mapping. Delightful man and so very important to American climbing as was Brad. I wish I had known Lou better. My condolences as I know how close we can be to a mentor who actually shapes our life view and values. I’ve been impressed by your career arc and your fine writing since I first encountered you after the 1999 Mallory find and figured it was time to stop reading for free. Best wishes.

    1. Dear Jeffrey,

      Thank you for the thoughts and the wonderful stories about that dinner and your times with Brad. And, thank you for all your contributions to our world over the years! That maps we all see and use every day - be it in the digital realm or in good old paper format - would not be what they are today without people like you. I would love to sit and hear more stories sometime of your adventures and explorations. Amazing! And, yes, Lou will be missed, like Brad and so many others of that generation. True pioneers in so many ways. Thank you as well for signing up on the blog. It is not necessary at all, as I love putting this content out for everyone, but nonetheless your patronage is much appreciated!

      Thank you again, and hope to connect in person sometime sooner than later.

      All my best,
      Jake

  4. I remember Lou when he was with K2 ski’s.
    My x husband, Jim (Bomby) Bombard introduced me to him in Sun Valley Idaho where we lived. May he RIP.

    1. Dear Julie,

      Thanks for your note! Those are the old days back at K2! And, funny you mentioned Bomby, as I just came across this photo from I think 1984 or so when we made a trip through Jackson and met up with Bomby. I think this was the pasture/field where he taught me how to play frisbee with cow patties. Great memories!

      Thanks, and all best,
      Jake

  5. It can be tough watching your heroes, idols, or people you looked up to grow old or pass on. I remember back in 2020 when Kris Kristofferson stepped away from performing anymore, after doing it for so long.

    Back last April, there was a concert held in honor of Willie Nelson's 90th birthday. Rosanne Cash brought Kristofferson on stage, held his hand, and they sang a song together. You could see Kris had been struggling with his age(now 87)and could obviously no longer perform but, Rosanne helped him get through it and- he did just fine!

    Our heroes moving on or getting older can be a reminder of our own mortality and the finite time we have left as well, when we see them no longer at the top of their game, or see them at all, like they once were, shining, radiant, full of the life and strength thar caused us to gravitate towards them.

    Guys like Lou Whittaker and Tom Hornbein have left indelible memories and carved-out a great legacy in the annuls of mountaineering history. In some ways, it's a wonder they made it as far as they did when one considers the risks they took. They made it much farther than many others however, who weren't as lucky. Maybe they made for a reason!

    Those who have been successful at high-altitude mountaineering and lived to tell about it are a select group. So often, I've read countless criticisms of mountaineers from many of those who are unwilling to take "unnecessary risks" in their own lives and only want the sterile, hollow, and comfortable life that city-living brings with it. I don't think people like that will ever truly comprehend what it means to be 20K feet above man and all his many trivialities and senseless concerns. We do though, and that's all that matters!

    So, a toast to our heroes, both current and former, who functioned as a courageous guiding light at some point in our lives, when it was probably most needed, whether they knew it or not. They deserve our gratitude in passing!

    "The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it" - Thucydides

    1. Wow, Ed, thank you for these wonderful, thoughtful, poignant, and all-so-true words. You said it all, and beautifully. Thank you, my friend, and I hope you are well. Keep on climbing!!

  6. This doesn't allow for editing Jake! I should hv proofread my comment before posting. There are a few errors; most glaring is I put Jim instead of Lou.

    I knew and know the difference but, wasn't paying attention because I was so focused on typing a good comment. Honest mistake, though embarrassing! Sure hope Jim doesn't read this!🫣

    1. Ha, I do that to myself all the time, and I don't think anyone would take issue! But, to be safe, I'll go in and edit the comment for you! Thanks.

  7. Jake
    You are a legend to me and I loved your tribute to Lou. I climbed Ranier in 1969 after a day of snow play skills with RMI with Lou providing oversight and handing out the grad certificates. Since then I've been back to Ranier a few times with my wife my son and my daughter. And now heading to Nepal in Oct for a family trek. So Lou inspired me too! Hope you're well. Let's connect sometime. Charlie

    1. Charlie! So great to hear from you! It's been way too long, my friend. I think of you most days as I walk out the back door and up Bergen Peak - wasn't that your training ground for many an adventure? Anyway, I hope you're well, and hope we can connect in person one of these days soon.

      We should discuss your Nepal plans as well. I will likely be there sometime in the autumn, just don't know exactly when yet. Would be fun to cross paths as we did last time, so many years ago!

      Thanks, Charlie!

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