After my formative, zit-faced years immersed in Seattle’s budding punk and new wave music scene, I dropped out of college and spent 25 years thriving (hacking it out) in the music business. This less-traveled-path of a career saw me go from touring the USA in a $700 van with grunge icons Mudhoney to traveling the world on private jets with major pop artists. Tokyo, Istanbul and Johannesburg with R.E.M (and many others) were all fine, but something was missing. That “something” was my childhood connection to the outdoors. So, with what little down time I had, I started volunteering on a local trail in Northeast Washington.
Getting back to nature, being part of a trail group and helping my local community caught on in me like wildfire. I loved it. It took a hold of and enriched me so much so that I started to wonder why, and that caused me to look back and drill down into my family history. This reflection (aka midlife crisis) culminated with my little brother Leif Whittaker, Chris Kennedy, and me going to the Canadian Yukon on an expedition to climb Mount Kennedy—a first ascent that our fathers had done together in 1965.
At an early age, my father Jim and his twin brother Lou developed a passion for the natural world and outdoor adventures. The Pacific Northwest’s oceans, rivers and mountains have a way of charming most little kids like that. No brainer, but as the Whittaker twins grew older, the adventures got longer, further from home, and much more bold. With a healthy cocktail of brotherly love and sibling rivalry, they pushed each other’s technical and physical limits and quickly became advanced mountaineers. Their subsequent alpine achievements put them on the forefront of modern American mountaineering. Seasoned guide and climbing legend Dave Hahn said of the twin’s early years, “Jim and Lou were doing things that had not been heard of at the time, they were just way out front.”
Jim and Lou’s stories unfolded like that for decades with both living and working in the mountains, working in outdoor retail and building outdoor recreation into one of the cornerstones of Pacific Northwest culture.
My father went on to be the first American to climb Mount Everest in 1963, and he led Senator Robert F. Kennedy up the first ascent of Mount Kennedy. Lou went on to found Rainier Mountaineering, train countless world class climbing guides and lead the first American ascent of the North Col of Mount Everest in 1984.
At some point between guiding, expeditions and raising families, Jim and Lou realized how precious the majestic mountains and rivers were, and both began doing more than adventuring; they began advocating for conservation and public lands. For me, that’s where their story and my family history really flowers, and I see parallels with my own voyage into advocacy—be it a roundabout route.
On Mount Kennedy, Bobby and my father hit it off and, through that relationship, their passions and ideals cross-pollinated. As my mother says, “Bobby went outside and Jim had to come inside.” Bobby became a conservation advocate with an appreciation for the great outdoors and my father came out of the mountains, branching into politics and advocacy at state and local levels. The result of their personal epiphanies saw these great men doing even more for the environment and the people around them, thanks to that adventure in the Canadian Yukon.
By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, visitors were loving Mount Rainier National Park to death. Lou Whittaker witnessed the decline in trails and infrastructure and became an advocate. With the help of Governor and Senator Dan Evans, they created what was to become Washington’s National Park Fund (WNPF) to raise much needed funds for the park. Since its inception, the fund has expanded to include the state’s three National Parks, and in the last nine years alone has raised 5.3 million to support Mount Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic National Parks.
I now realize there’s a simple, common thread that runs throughout my meandering life, from punk rock idealism to trail advocacy, and ties me to this work: become aware, be a part of something and work to make things better.
I may not have needed to return to Mount Kennedy with Chris Kennedy and my brother Leif to connect all these dots, but it sure did help, and it sure was fun. In the words of my father, “any chance to go outside and climb mountains—what the hell.”
Bobby Whittaker lives off the grid in the foothills of the Colville National Forest and is President of The Ferry County Rail Trail Partners www.ferrycountyrailtrail.com