Opinion

Lou Whittaker, Mountain Adventurer and Entrepreneur, Dies at 95

Lou Whittaker, a patriarch of the nation’s foremost mountaineering family, who helped to make climbing broadly accessible by building a trusted guide company and creating a tourism industry on Mount Rainier, died on March 24 in Ashford, Wash., a town at the base of that mountain. He was 95.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Peter said.

In spite of his many accomplishments in the business, culture and sport of mountaineering, Lou was not the best-known Whittaker. That distinction belongs to Jim, Lou’s identical twin brother, who was the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest, in 1963, and the longtime chief executive of the outdoor gear company REI. Jim is something of an alpine John Glenn — the doer of a feat of will and skill considered transcendent in the 1960s, a friend of the Kennedy family and the subject of action-shot portraits on the cover of Life magazine.

Lou’s sons, too, have become prominent climbers: Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), the guiding company that Lou co-founded, is now run by Peter and employs his brother, Win, as a veteran guide.

The originals of the Whittaker line shared not only a height of 6-foot-5 and a shoe size of 13 but also impeccable timing. Lou and Jim rose to prominence and success right as the nation took an interest in mountaineering as a death-defying sport for pros and a pastime for tourists and rich adventurers.

Lou Whittaker, left, his twin brother and fellow mountaineer, Jim, in around 1950. The brothers grew up climbing together and followed similar paths until they grew apart as adults.Credit…via Whittaker Mountaineering

After being confused for each other even by acquaintances into their 30s, the twins led increasingly independent lives. Jim grew to be the reserved hero of a past era: Four decades after reaching Everest’s summit, he described the experience as “the high point of my life” to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Lou, conversely, was the toast of the town: an institution-building entrepreneur and voluble drinking buddy known for wearing loud turtlenecks, cracking ribald jokes and eating like a barn animal.

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