My Old Man and the Mountain: A Memoir (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

Of course the Mountain is Everest, highest peak in the world.  But what sets this book apart is Leif’s gifted writing.  He has a happy go lucky style that makes the reader feel as if you are listening to a good friend recount his adventures.  And what magnificent adventures this very young man has lived!  While still a school kid, his parents took him and his brother Josh on a four year, home schooled, sailing adventure.  They sold their possessions, moved onboard their sailboat, and left everything behind as they embraced any wonders the world cared to put in their way. 

Leif started climbing in his teens, spurred on by his brother.  I admire his athleticism and commitment to training.  He has a love of books, so to build up strength he would load his knapsack with heavy tomes then power uphill on trails near his Port Townsend home.  A back injury required surgery and left him with nerve damage in one leg, but that did not slow him down.  Commitment and drive are strong in his personality. 

For a climber of a certain caliber, the pull of Everest is seductive.  This most magnificent of mountains is a dangerous love, the corpses of many are held on Everest. When Leif was offered the opportunity to climb the highest peak in the world, he accepted the challenge.  There are many books from climbers who have tackled Everest and about climbers who did not heed Ed Veisturs’ advice; “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”   What sets this story apart is Leif’s lively writing style and refreshing candor.  There is so much more to the story than the physical toil of climbing. Leif shares the challenges of climbing Everest, but he also tells his story with wit and such an open, engaging style that it is not just the facts, although they are there, it is also fun to read.

While still in high school, Leif went with his family on a trip to base camp, the beginning of any climb up Everest.  He reacts to the mountain with a sense of awe, wonder, and an incredibly sensible emotion, fear.  “… I’ve never seen anything like the Khumbu Icefall. It’s a shifting and crumbling maze of glacier, a frozen waterfall about fifteen times taller than the tallest waterfall at Niagara Falls. It’s breaking and falling and reorganizing every hour of every day. It’s just like Sir Edmund Hillary famously described it: “tottering chaos.””  Not so many years hence, he would be traversing that broken landscape in an attempt to reach the summit.  His description of the summit is dazzling, it made me want to see that view myself! Reading it was a gift.

Decades ago Everest was the penultimate peak for serious, accomplished, mountaineers; men who risked their lives going where few men had gone before. Today there are guided tours going up the mountain, leaving behind the evidence of their passage in discarded items.  How many are too many?  How much is the danger increased by the inevitable delays of so many people climbing?  These are questions today’s climbers face that were not imagined in decades past.

That brings us to the other half of My Half and the Mountain.  Leif Whittaker’s father, Jim, was the first American to reach the summit of Everest.  He is climbing royalty.  A charismatic, virile, steamroller of a man, he casts a long shadow.  Leif grew up in the shade of that shadow and is open about his conflicts with the legacy of being a Whittaker.  He yearns to be known for himself, not a reflection of his father.  I do not believe this is going to be a problem for him.  Read his book and you will see what I mean.  Leif Whittaker has a huge talent; this is a writer to watch.  Still young, he is coming to terms with the father he admires and loves, while also finding his way out from under the expectations of being the son of a man with such an impressive list of amazing accomplishments.  Like I said, not going to be a long term problem, Leif has a talent all his own and he has already stood atop the tallest mountain on the planet.  For my opinion, he has nothing more to prove.

Jim Whittaker gave his son the journal of his 1963 climb to take with him.  Leif shares accounts of his father’s climb along with the accounts of his own.  It is fascinating, this juxtaposition of the two climbs, father and son. When he reaches the top, his father, along with other climbers who have gone before, seem to be right there with him. Read the account, it is moving.

— Deon Stonehouse


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.

Read about My Old Man and the Mountain at Peninsula Daily News here.
Product Details
ISBN: 9781680510683
ISBN-10: 1680510681
Publisher: Mountaineers Books
Publication Date: September 20th, 2016
Pages: 288
Language: English