Vail Daily column: Love of the high country |

Vail Daily column: Love of the high country

Lou Whittaker is a giant among men at 6-foot-5 except when he is around his equally tall twin brother, Jim, when it is almost impossible to tell them apart. Laurie and I had the privilege of having them as our guests at our Montana home recently. We wisely spaced them a couple of weeks apart to avoid mixing them up!

Lou started the mountain guiding service on Mount Rainier and has led over 250 successful ascents of the over 14,000 summits. Another 200 ascents had to be aborted to perform a mountain rescue or because of fatigue among some of the members of the group he was guiding. Along with his son Peter, he has also developed guide services for McKinley, Everest, Aconcagua and K2 as well as several more of the highest peaks and most difficult mountains in the world to climb.

Wonderful Stories

Like Jim, Lou has a million wonderful stories to tell, and he delighted about 60 guests when he told some of them recently at one of our Saturday afternoon teas.

Lou talked about some horrific mountain rescues from ice falls and crevasses and about how one time on Everest his eyesight was reduced to a dull gray. The doctor took off his goggles and everything was still a dull gray. It was then that the doctor discovered that the liquid inside of his eyes had frozen and that it would be very painful when his eyes defrosted.

The doctor gave him a few extra pain pills and said he would be back to normal in a week or so.

Lou Whittaker lives in Sun Valley, Idaho, in the winter and in Ashford, Wash., at the base of Mt. Rainier in the summer.

He agrees with me to credit the phenomenal growth of skiing in the 1960s to the invention of the stretch pants and not to the invention of the metal ski. Lou tells the story of one day at the bottom of Warm Springs a lady walked up to the bar in the tightest pair of stretch pants he had ever seen. After watching half a dozen guys get brushed off by the lady in the stretch pants, he figured he was, after all, a lot taller than the other guys and, besides, he was a mountain guide, so he asked his wife if he could make a pitch for the fun of it. Lou opened the conversation with, “How do you ever get into such a tight pair of stretch pants?” She replied, “You might start by buying me a drink!” He had the whole audience in hysterics!

Lou then went on to tell how one day his son and another guide were leading groups of nine climbers, and following close behind was a similar size group.

For a reason no one ever figured out, his son decided to take a different route. The second group, keeping to a traditional route, was buried in an ice fall that was so large it was impossible to even try to dig them out. No one knows why such decisions are made when 11 men live and 11 men die.

When President Kennedy was assassinated, Lou was asked to lead his brother, Bobby Kennedy, on an expedition to the summit of Denali. He later led the Kennedy family on a float trip down the Colorado River.

Lou is strong enough to lie on his stomach in a wide hallway with his feet against one wall and his hands over his head against the other wall and was able to work his way up to the ceiling where he would do stretched-out pushups.

He also talked about the younger generation of climbers who can do chin ups on a door jamb just using their index finger. Now that is strong!

Many years ago, Lou owned a ski shop in Tacoma, Wash., and his brother Jim was president of REI in Seattle, helping it to become the huge source of outdoor equipment that it is today.

In that era, my phone rang in my office in Hermosa and Bob Mickelson had hired Lou to ski in a movie he wanted me to film and produce. It was a dog and pony show film to sell condos and dirt on 160 acres on Snoqualmie Summit, less than 50 miles from downtown Seattle.

The film starring Lou Whittaker was a great success because they only showed it twice and sold every vacant lot and condo they had with back-up offers for all of them as well. It seems as though anything Lou or Jim has anything to do with is a success.

When his brother Jim got back from being the first American to stand on the top of Mt. Everest, he became very busy with everyone wanting a piece of him that Lou admits to riding in a parade wearing dark glasses and answering to the name Jim to give Jim a break from that hectic schedule.

I am fortunate to have known both of them since they were in high school and I still have a hard time telling them apart unless their wives are with them at the time.

Since Sir Edmund Hillary made the first ascent of Mount Everest, there has always been controversy whether Sir Edmund or his Sherpa were the first one on top. When Jim and his Sherpa reached the summit, they held hands and made sure that they made the final step together.

The twins both got full-ride basketball scholarships to Seattle University, but the coach found out that they were going skiing and gave them an option: Quit skiing or give up their full-ride scholarship. As far as they were concerned, there was no option between a smelly gymnasium and the air on a mountaintop which relieved the asthma from which they both suffered. And they have been climbing to the tops of mountains ever since.

The Pacific Northwest has produced most of the really good early mountaineers in this country just because of the proximity to so many incredible peaks and the ingrained love of the high country in that population.

Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to

Support Local Journalism