Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book Review: My Old Man and the Mountain by Leif Whittaker

Leif Whitaker grew up in two shadows. He grew up in the shadow of a mountain, Mt. Everest. And he grew up in the shadow of a man, his father... Jim Whittaker. Jim was the first American to summit Mt. Everest. And almost fifty-years later, his son also climbed Mt. Everest...twice.

Leif's book, My Old Man and the Mountain is a beautiful piece writing, funny and sad, insightful and engaging. It chronicles both his father's experiences on Mt. Everest as well as his own.

Mountaineering literature is full of very serious stories about very serious men. And when Leif talks about his father's ascent, it feels that way. Climbing Mt. Everest in 1963 is serious business. The tone is completely different when he writes about himself. Jim Whittaker is a superhero. Leif Whittaker...well, let's just say he sees himself as a bit of a goofball, trying to figure out how he could be a superhero too... Or at least trying to figure out how to make his father proud.

Leif admits that his writing style was influenced by a combination of Ernest Hemingway, Tom Robbins, and David Sedaris. But as a voracious reader of mountaineering literature myself and former drama teacher, I see something else. His work feels similar to mountaineering writers like John Long and Andy Kirkpatrick, with a little bit of sitcom writing sprinkled on top. This combination makes My Old Man and the Mountain an incredibly fun read.

Following is a short passage recounting a moment when Leif climbed out of his tent at night to use the bathroom in a whiteout.

Where is the tent? I thought it was right behind me but, oh f*ck, it's gone. In fact, Camp 4'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 and terrified of the dark, stepping outside our house at night. 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, but they'll fail to mention my 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.

This is the flavor of the book. Leif is self-effacing, comic and philosophical all at the same time. He admits that he has "daddy issues." Indeed, in an interview I conducted with him for the Chuckanut Radio Hour, Leif mentioned that the story is essentially archetypal. We all have daddy issues. We all want to make our parents proud. And perhaps that's why this story -- a story of a young man trying to live up to his father's expectations -- rings so true.

Leif Whittaker

Daddy issues or not, Leif is a solid mountaineer. He proved this not only with two summits of Mt. Everest, but with a wide breadth of mountaineering experience, including work as a climbing ranger on Mt. Baker in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. In both the book, and in his life, he demonstrates strength in the mountains that his father -- and perhaps any climber anywhere -- would be proud of.

My Old Man and the Mountain is an excellent book. It's full of comedy and insight, as well as mountain action and tragedy. It is definitely a volume worth adding to your mountaineering library...

--Jason D. Martin

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