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My Old Man and the Mountain: A Memoir

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In 1963, the world followed the first American Mount Everest Expedition, and watched as "Big Jim" Whittaker became the first American to stand on top of the world. He returned home a hero.

My Old Man and the Mountain is Leif Whittaker's engaging and humorous story of what it was like to "grow up Whittaker"―the youngest son of Jim Whittaker and Dianne Roberts, in an extended family of accomplished climbers. He shares glimpses of his upbringing and how the pressure to climb started early on. Readers learn of his first adventures with family in the Olympic Mountains and on Mount Rainier; his close yet at times competitive relationship with his brother Joss; his battle with a serious back injury; and his efforts to stand apart from his father's legacy. With wry honesty he depicts being a recent college grad, still living in his parents' home and trying to find a purpose in life―digging ditches, building houses, selling t-shirts to tourists―until a chance encounter leads to the opportunity to climb Everest, just like his father did.

Leif heads to Nepal with all the excitement, irony, boredom, and trepidation that are part of high-altitude climbing. Well-known guides Dave Hahn and Melissa Arnot figure prominently in his story, as does "Big Jim." But Leif's story is not his father's story. It's a unique coming of age tale on the steep slopes of Everest and a climbing adventure that lights the imagination and fills an emotional human endeavor with universal meaning.

"Whittaker writes as he climbs mountains, with courage, grace, and a dash of humility. The result is an utterly compelling tale of a young man who bravely tackles two great challenges--one made of rock and ice and one made of doubts and fears. Its's a great read." --Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat.

"Leif Whittaker, son of the first American to summit Everest, has given us a deliciously irreverent perspective on growing up in the shadow of a famous father, and how that journey helped shape a unique perspective on one young man's own relationship with a mountain...and a dad." --Tom Hornbein, author of Everest: The West Ridge.

"It might be easy to feel lost in the shadow of a father who was the first American to stand on top of Mount Everest. Leif Whittaker tells the unique story of finding his own identity--as a son, and as a climber--with humility, candor, and a wonderful sense of humor." --Brendan Leonard, author of Sixty Meters to Anywhere.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published September 20, 2016

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About the author

Leif Whittaker

1 book18 followers
Leif Whittaker seeks adventure in all aspects of life. Born in Port Townsend, Washington among the glaciated spires of the Olympic Mountains, he reached his first major summit when he was 15 years old. He has since climbed many of the world’s tallest mountains, including Aconcagua, Mount Vinson, and Mount Everest twice.

Mountaineering is not his only passion. His love of skiing, rock climbing, sailing, kayaking, rafting, hiking, photography, and food has led him to many remote corners of the globe. He is a talented writer and photographer whose work has appeared in various media worldwide, including Powder, Backcountry and The Ski Journal. His first book, My Old Man and the Mountain, will be published by Mountaineers Books in October, 2016.

Leif graduated with honors from Western Washington University in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and an emphasis in Creative Writing. He was recognized as the Outstanding Graduate of the Year in the English Department, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an undergraduate student.

As a Climbing Ranger for the United States Forest Service on Mount Baker, Leif spends his summers protecting a pristine wilderness and keeping visitors safe on the glacier. He currently resides in Bellingham, Washington.

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5 stars
148 (44%)
4 stars
138 (41%)
3 stars
42 (12%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 43 reviews
Profile Image for Leslie.
463 reviews4 followers
January 17, 2017
Loving this Mt.Everest memoir by Northwest native (and son of the first American to summit Everest) Leif Whittaker. It has sucked me into the world of mountaineering and summits (which didn't interest me before but pulled me in and have me looking up climbing terms and and the Khumbu Icefall.) He also tells his father's story throughout it and talks about what it is like to grow up constantly being asked by everyone, "So, are you gonna climb Everest like your dad?"
Great read. Sounds terrifying to me!
February 2, 2017
After setting aside other books in progress to read this book, I did not wish to return to the others. This was rich in nuanced metaphor, carefully crafted, yet never stiff nor overdone. I take back everything I thought about writers needing decades of living to reach this level of smarts and skill.
I thoroughly enjoyed every page.
Profile Image for Amy.
88 reviews
October 23, 2017
This was a quick and easy read. My son and I spoke with the author at the Washington book awards. He asked my son about his favorite snacks. He went on to say that he used Cheetos and sour patch treats to power his climb up Everest. I wouldn't have guessed that!
Profile Image for Genna.
393 reviews9 followers
January 19, 2023
"Climbing mountains is less about strength and more about perseverance."

Honestly, I'm pretty much convinced that Mountaineer Books can do no wrong and My Old Man and the Mountain was no exception. While Everest holds no magic for me personally, I am fascinated by the depth of others' obsession with the mountain. Leif Whittaker's account is unique in that he is a legacy climber of sorts, his father having been the first American to summit Everest back in the 60s. His complicated relationship with the peak is engrossing as he careens between an almost desperate desire to make a summit bid, a near disgust with the obsession of himself and others with reaching the highest summit in the world, and the personal impact of the pressure of acquaintances and the climbing community (as well as self-imposed) to follow in his father's famous footsteps. Whittaker's account does not have the high-stakes breathless drama of many mountaineering accounts, but it's a contemplative reflection on what motivates and inspires us, as well as how we are influenced by those most important to us.
Profile Image for Mandy.
173 reviews1 follower
August 10, 2018
Leif Whittaker is a brilliant writer. His poetic use of metaphors and beautifully cultivated sentences made me continually choose this book over others and brought me to tears several times.

Leif perfectly captured the intimate side of something as challenging as climbing Everest, while backing it with the rich family history that the entire journey was based upon.

This book is a phenomenal story about perseverance and dedication, written so eloquently, I had no choice but to purchase and shelve the book so my children can read it one day.

**Highly recommend!

(**If you’re interested in mountains, climbing, or endurance adventures! If you’re not, the magic of this journey might be lost.)
39 reviews1 follower
January 21, 2020
If you love the Northwest, the mountains or are fascinated by the Everest (and other climbing expeditions) then read this book by Jim and Dianne Whittaker’s youngest son, Leif. It is a great comparison of his climb against his father Jim’s expedition in 1963. Thank you to my brother Mike for recommending this book to me. It almost made me think I could get out there and climb. Almost.
101 reviews
October 4, 2022
Beautifully written. So descriptive that you easily imagine making the climb while sitting cozily and being very thankful that you’re not on the mountain. Love the comparisons from 1963 to 2010. Excellent read!
Profile Image for Leanna Harrison.
87 reviews2 followers
September 2, 2018
There is no lack of accomplishments one can accomplish on someone else’s dollar. Leif should take out the first five chapters where he paints himself as an entitled ungrateful child, then start with the climbing chapters, then this would be a 2/5 Star book. At one point in the book while climbing he judges someone else who probably paid their way to climb Everest, but failed to reflect, that is essentially what he is doing....(or more specifically other people are doing for him). If someone paid my way with a promised book deal, I may have the same results, only I would appreciate it. Some people live life where they have actual problems, others write about how hard it is to be asked “when will you climb Everest?”
31 reviews3 followers
April 11, 2018
This mountaineering memoir doesn’t have the high drama of multiple climbing teams lost in a record-breaking storm like John Krakauer’s 1997 Into Thin Air, so I was surprised when My Old Man and the Mountain turned out to be a page turner for me. I always read multiple books at the same time, and usually give the lion’s share of my reading time to whichever works of fiction I have going. But this book really caught and held my interest, and had me setting aside other works until it was done.

The writing is beautiful. Whittaker engages all the reader’s senses in descriptions of his treks to and climb of Mount Everest: we hear the clacking shutter of his mother’s camera, smell the countless cups of tea consumed on the journey, taste the candy that fuels the expedition. We see the clouds of dust rising from the trail under our boots, marvel at the “crooked Dracula teeth” of the mountains in the distance, and take in numerous top-of-the-world views that unfold in the author’s fresh and imaginative renderings: “…off to the west there’s the rolling belly of the Western Cwm and a pyramidal spire biting into twilight. To the south Nuptse’s spikes of ice stab the sky like the the spine of an iguana…”

Most of all we feel: the trembling muscles that cannot but must take a few more steps; the lungs tearing themselves apart trying to find enough oxygen for survival in “the death zone;” the anguish of knowing that reaching the top is only half the battle.

Leif is the son of “Big Jim” Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest, and the younger man’s trek begins as a quest to prove that he can measure up to his father’s legendary stature. But as the story unfolds, the author compares contemporary climbs of the mountain — led by full-time expert guides, who themselves rely on Sherpa whose knowledge of climbing stretches back generations, not to mention the superiority of today’s lightweight high-tech equipment — to his father’s far more logistically challenging expedition. And yet Leif’s growing appreciation of the challenges his father faced doesn’t take anything away from the trials and travails of his own group.

This memoir came onto my reading shelf because it was the book chosen for my town’s “Community Read” in March 2018, and I’m really glad it did.
Profile Image for Ryan Dobbs.
Author 4 books22 followers
December 20, 2016
Great book about adventure, mountain climbing, endurance, and growing up in the shadow of a famous father. Although I am not a mountain climber myself--yet--I enjoyed the book, including the details about climbing, reaching the summit of Mt Everest, and the author's personal anecdotes about life in a mountaineering family. I feel like I learned a lot about mountain climbing, and this book inspired me to pursue the sport in the future. I don't know that I'll ever have the fortitude to climb Mt. Everest, but the book inspired me to look up guided trips to Everest, and I discovered that RMI offers trips to Base Camp, which might be an adventure even this city kid could hack! All in all, great book, well written, and an enjoyable read. My only wish: less profanity. I understand the desire to convey reality for what it is, including raw emotions expressed verbally, but because of the profanity, I would have to hesitate to recommend the book to younger readers, indeed those I believe would benefit the most from Leif's story of endurance, fighting back from a debilitating injury, and coming to terms with what it means to not only be the son of a legendary mountaineer, but also an accomplished adventurer in his own right. This hesitation to heartily recommend the book to a younger audience of potential adventurers, due to the slightly more than occasional profanity, is the only thing that keeps me from giving the book at 5 star review.
1,313 reviews29 followers
April 19, 2018
very enjoyable recap of his own ascents up Mt. Everest [somewhat oddly [to me] he blends details from two climbs to weave together a coherent narrative of one time he reached the summit], alternating with reminiscences about growing up as the younger son of the first American to reach the top of Mt. Everest and with info on his father's 1963 climb.

Must be odd to have entire books written about one of your parent's adventures, so you can sort out what they say about it now from their journals at the time, others' detailed accounts, etc. etc.

He alludes to difficulties in being in the shadow of a hero, but his outlook seems on this writing almost entirely positive. His parents came along [in their 80's!] almost as far as base camp on the author's first Everest expedition, and the story of needing to encourage his father to give up prior to achieving his goal was touching.

Author seems like a great guy and very modest about his own considerable climbing ability, but the book most definitely did not give me an "I could do that too if i had the money and time" reaction. Sounds scary and hellishly uncomfortable, dangerous, and difficult. I'm starting to come to terms at 56 with the idea that I'm actually never going to climb Mt. Everest.

Having said that, I have reached the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain near Frederick, MD, which is over 1,200 ft. in elevation! nobody can take that away from me. If only publishers were more interested in my account.
Profile Image for Kristina Ciari.
26 reviews
December 13, 2016
I've read almost everything ever written about climbing Everest, and this is among the best. Leif is hands above his fellow authors in terms of writing style, painting beautiful pictures of his childhood, the climbing journey, and the natural beauty of his environment. This book was extremely well written. He doesn't excellent job of painting a portrait of his childhood in the shadow of his father, and then eventually following in his footsteps. He weaves the story of Jim Whittaker's 1963 expedition to Mount Everest -where Jim was the first American to summit - in beautifully with his own narrative. A must read.
Profile Image for Al Bergstein.
51 reviews
August 26, 2017
I will never climb Everest but Leif's honest assessment of his own first climb of it, along with interweaving the legendary 1963 climb of dad's, (along with Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld's incredible climb of the west ridge during that expedition), makes compelling reading. The contrast of the climbing in 63 to today shows how far the industry of Everest has come,but that it is not an easy thing to do, regardless of how commercialized it becomes. Leif's writing is solid, and sweeps us along in the details of life on the highest mountain in the world. Glad he wrote it. If you ever wondered what climbing Everest is really like, start here!
Profile Image for Andrea Stevens.
24 reviews1 follower
February 18, 2017
What I simply call a really nice book to thoroughly enjoy. Leif's book took me through his journey and shared the simple joys of being part of such a local legendary wonderful family. A good friend got me this autographed book for my birthday this new years. I had only 20 pages left when I had a huge loss in my family, my heart broken. Being able to have the last little bit of this book to feel hopeful, reinvision the beauty of discovery and life itself along with its challenges made all the difference. Highly recommend, especially if you enjoy the outdoors and being in the mountains!
Profile Image for Sonja.
533 reviews
April 13, 2018
I love mountain climbing books and this one was wonderful. Written by Jim Whittaker's son Leif after he climbed Mt. Everest, 49 years after his famous father. He gives a youthful take on his climb (25 years old the first time and then climbed it again 2 years later), combining it with experiences of his father when they were in the same spots. It was a community read in our small WA town and he gave a presentation, including a slide show, when the read was over. He is very humble, with a good sense of humor, also a good speaker, and he charmed us all.
Profile Image for Amy.
7 reviews
September 11, 2021
Good account of the challenges- personal, technical and logistical- in climbing Everest and includes a healthy dose of recognizing the privilege inherent in attempting such a summit. Would recommend to anyone interested in mountaineering.
Profile Image for Meilee Anderson.
72 reviews1 follower
August 2, 2020
I am frugal with the space on my bookshelves and I rarely reread books. My Old Man and the Mountain is a book I will keep and happily reread. I’d already laughed several times before chapter three. What a fun read!

I found this memoir while browsing the shelves of the Ashford Creek Pottery store in Ashford, Washington. I stopped in on a whim on my way to Mount Rainier National Park. The owner of the store has a carefully curated collection of PNW authors, along with an impressive array of art and goods crafted by local artisans. I know the Whittaker name; the Whittaker family has made a name for itself in the climbing community.

After finding a dozen titles that grabbed my attention I quickly tucked “My Old Man” under my arm, and made my way upstairs to gaze at the art before making my purchase. There’s a painting upstairs that just transfixes me. It isn’t often a painting moves me like that one does. I finally tore my gaze away from the painting, went back downstairs, and purchased the book. Chatted with the store owner for a while and then hit the road again on my way to the park.

After hiking the Skyline Trail, I made my way back down to Longmire to grab a bite to eat from the National Park Inn. It was there, under the glorious shade of the covered porch that I lost track of time and devoured several chapters. In the shadow of Mount Rainier reading this book about hiking, climbing, and the Whittaker family was absolutely delightful.

Jim Whittaker was the first American to summit Mount Everest. His son Leif is not only an avid climber himself but also a compelling writer with a wry sense of humor. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It didn’t surprise me to see the book was published by Mountaineers Books. I’ve enjoyed dozens of titles from them. My Old Man and the Mountain was published back in 2016. I’m so glad I stumbled on it. It was a terrific distraction to read during this tumultuous year that is 2020.

As a reformed couch potato, I hike at the pace of a winded sloth. I am no mountaineer. You don’t need to be an avid hiker or climber to enjoy this book. I was entertained, educated, and inspired by the stories Leif shares. It was a deeper look into a family that feels like local royalty to me. I give this book two thumbs up, five stars, and an honored place on my bookshelf.
Profile Image for Meg.
75 reviews
March 22, 2018
I read this book because it was our town's Community Read selection for March, and is full of Port Townsend references. I am not a mountain climber – I don't really understand the urge to embark on such discomfort and danger, although I am drawn to the quiet, the nature, the views and the exercise of hiking. This affinity at least lets me understand a little about Leif's (and the others, including his father's) compulsion to climb. But the beauty of reading is to get inside another's situation, to go places you would never go in daily life. So this book did that for me. As a literary piece, it was unremarkable but as a story and seeing inside the world of climbing this mountain, it was so interesting. I was appalled to learn of the waste of life and of materials, shocked at the garbage and bodies left behind. For what? To get to the top. Even after reading this book, I just don't understand it. But I did appreciate Leif's (sometimes amusing, sometimes emotional) honesty when he himself wonders why. And climbs some more.
Profile Image for Wayne.
140 reviews4 followers
February 22, 2022
Book 7 of 2022: My Old Man and the Mountain

Leif Whittaker chronicles his life "growing up Whittaker" (his father, Jim, was the first American to summit Everest in 1963). The central narrative is Leif's climb of Everest (a combination of his 2010 and 2011 expeditions), where he has parallel narratives of his efforts with those of his father's.

I had read Jim's autobiography (Life on the Edge) several years ago and it ended with him taking his family on a worldwide sailing trip. Leif's book fills in Jim's life post sailing.

It's well written and enjoyable. Leif certainly knows how to turn a phrase in describing his mountain surroundings.

Profile Image for Denise.
17 reviews
September 27, 2020
Ever since trekking in Nepal decades ago, I have been drawn to stories of climbing in the Himalayas.
I ended up enjoying this book much more than I expected to initially. The aggressive masculinity, brand name-dropping, and privilege are off-putting, but it is the writers humor, self-awareness of these issues and his vulnerability discussing what it is like to grow up in a famous climbing family
that carries the story. The language is engaging as well--grossly descriptive, humorous, and poetic.
238 reviews1 follower
January 15, 2018
Great story of a son growing up in the shadow of his father and eventually realizing the significance of his fathers achievement! It felt like you were really hiking along with Leif! Nice interweaving of his fathers 1963 trip and his own story of tackling Mt Everest! I now want to go and read Jim Whittacker’s story of his climb! Exciting story and very enjoyably presented.
Profile Image for michelle.
32 reviews
November 26, 2016
I appreciate that the author did not hide his limitations, insecurities, and fears. He narrated his journey with frankness, gratitude, and respect for not just those included in his memoir but for his readers, too. I look forward to reading this memoir with my students in the spring.
Profile Image for Eric.
120 reviews
February 7, 2020
I really enjoyed the first third if this book where Leif talks about his Dad and family memories and how he fit (or didn't fit) in. However, once the Everest climb takes over the book became a bit less of an attraction for me as I have read many books about climbing Everest. It was still a good read and Leif does add some nuance to the climb by weaving a bit of his Dad's story in, but it seemed a little overdone towards the end. Still a solid 3 stars.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Noah.
47 reviews
March 15, 2021
Writing: 3/5
Story: 4/5

Some of Whittaker’s analogies were a bit much. And the humble-brags and (what felt like) faux humility were a bit obnoxious. However, the way he mixed his ascent with his father’s was clever and gave a fuller appreciation for The Mountain.
Profile Image for Lauren W.
88 reviews1 follower
September 21, 2022
I will read any book on mountaineering, especially personal stories and biographies about adventures. This was no exception. Leif did a great job sharing awesome words and experiences in the mountains.
1 review
December 18, 2022
Really like the tone of Leif. He’s not trying to be a writer, true to himself and his story. Awesome read and left me feeling as if I was on this with journey with him and his pops. Definitely recommend.
78 reviews1 follower
December 19, 2022
I wondered if it is possible to ever tire of mountaineer stories, but once again a memoir like this proves it is not! I loved when Leif compared his experiences to the way things were when his father climbed Everest. So much was different back then, and so much of the challenge remains.
Profile Image for Carrie.
313 reviews
August 1, 2018
I won this book from Goodreads Giveaways. Thank you.

Though you know how it ends, the book is full of suspense and allows the reader to live vicariously through the author's journey.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 43 reviews

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