The year was 1975. Lou Whittaker, co-founder of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., found himself on the side K2 — the second tallest peak on Earth at 28,251 feet — receiving a bit of bad news. “You’ve got ulcerated toes,” the camp doctor told him. They’d been pressed against each other so tightly during the climb that bad sores developed, breaking skin tissue down almost to the bone. He was going to lose the toes — maybe his feet, too.
An assault on K2 involves extended exposure to extreme altitude, frigid temperatures and unpredictable multi-day storms. Whittaker, along with the rest of the climbing team, had been in the region for a few months attempting to reach the summit for the second time in history, living in ice caves and tents at extreme altitude, when he received the grave news about his feet and the team decided to head home. Escaping the wrath of the mountain involved over 100 miles of walking on his mangled feet, and Whittaker was at the end of his rope. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna wear a tennis shoe instead of my heavy hiking boots,’” he said. That’s exactly what he did. Whittaker admits that he fell “maybe eight or ten times” during the long retreat over snow and ice, but the tennis shoes allowed enough air to reach his feet to save them from amputation.
While the expedition never reached the summit, Whittaker gained an important insight about his gear: if heavy-duty lugs could be incorporated into something as light as a tennis shoe, climbers could spare themselves the added weight of ice boots until they absolutely needed them. Whittaker shared this idea with Ed Norton and Jim Davis of New Balance, and soon after, the Rainier Boot was born. The new footwear was put to the test during consecutive attempts at the north side of Mount Everest in 1982 and 1984 and they did exactly what Whittaker had hoped. A new category of mountain footwear was created and has been a vital piece of gear for climbers since. This year, New Balance updated the design to what has been dubbed the “Rainier Remastered.”
Whittaker doesn’t participate in major expeditions anymore, but he maintains his role as owner and chief guide at RMI. He spends the summer months at his home near Mount Rainier, where he can get outside as much as possible and mingle with climbers headed to or back from the summit. His guides continue to wear the boot up to 10,000 feet on the snow-capped volcano. We recently had a chance to pick his brain about the 1984 Everest expedition, the future of climbing, and why Mount Rainier is an appropriate proving ground for would-be mountaineers; as it happens, Whittaker was wearing a pair of Rainier Remastered boots when we spoke, and his toes felt just fine.
Q: What are your three most memorable climbs?
A: Probably K2 and Everest, which were big climbs, and then the third highest in the world, Kanchenjunga. Most people don’t know it even though it’s the third highest in the world. It’s on the other end of the Himalayan chain from the Karakoram, on the border between China and Nepal. One and two are always the known mountains but, the third is kind of forgotten. We were the first American climbers to do it — we got six on top.
Q: When was that?
A: 1989. I was 60 then, and it was my last major expedition.
Q: Could you tell us about the 1984 Everest expedition?
A: It was the first American ascent, and third ascent overall, of the north side, which is the colder side, of Mount Everest. We had attempted it two years before and learned a lot — we had a death on the mountain, lost a teammate, and were pretty well beat up — half dead, frostbitten. When we came back two years later I thought, man, we’re better now, I think we can get it — so we went back and got it. But what people don’t understand about that climb is that I was listed as being on the summit, but I didn’t summit. I was the leader of the expedition, but only one of our team summited, and that was Phil Ershler. He wouldn’t have made it without the team, and our tents and our setup.
Q: What’s different about the north side of Everest?
A: There are no Sherpas on the China side. We didn’t use them on K2 either — there’s none on K2. So we set up our own ropes and tents and cooked our own meals. Now most of the Everest climbs are done with eight Sherpa.
Q: You’ve had such a prolific climbing career. Given the radical evolution of climbing gear, what do you think have been some of the most important changes that have helped climbers?
A: Weight is the main factor. Now you can get a lighter shoe, a lighter rope and lighter oxygen tanks. Water’s a pint a pound the world around, and if you can melt enough to just carry one day’s water supply instead of packing more, you save weight on setting up of these different camps that are required to reach the summit of the mountain. You need to set up camps and prepare yourself for safety so everything from your hat and gloves and boots – the lighter it gets, the better, so that’s why down is so important, and light fabrics and Gore-Tex. The same goes for your feet — each quarter pound of boot is burning calories as you pick up your foot, so if you can go to 21,000 feet with a lightweight shoe, it’s just an incredible change. That was my whole idea for the Rainier boots in getting them to be lightweight, but to have good traction and the best sole you could ever get.
Q: How did you develop such a strong connection to Mount Rainier?
A: When I was in the Boy Scouts at the age of 16, we looked over to Rainier and I said, “I wonder if we can do that,” and the Scoutmaster said, “We’d better give it a try!” We were lucky we made the summit on the one side, but it was at least a two-day climb and very hard. I started guiding at Rainier when I was in college in 1951. I got drafted into the mountain troops after college and got better at it, came back and opened the guide service, and, at the time, had about three employees. Now we have 72 that take people up the mountain and train them for Everest, Himalayan climbs or the Seven Summits climbs.
Q: What makes Mount Rainier a good training ground for bigger climbs?
A: Rainier is the fifth-highest mountain in the US, but it’s the most glaciated in the lower 48. It’s got everything that Everest has, as well as an elevation change of over 10,000 feet from base camp to the summit. It’s a two- to four-day climb for most of our clients, and we’ll take about 3,000 up the mountain in a summer. The next objective is Mt. McKinley — or Denali, as they call it now — which is over 20,000 feet. So it’s a really cold mountain. Then they’re maybe ready for Aconcagua in South America, and from there it’s a jump to the bigger ones like Everest. But Rainier has everything that you need for any mountain in the world and it sits just 70 miles from Seattle, so it’s easy access.
Q: Do you think that climbing’s surge in popularity has been detrimental to the essence of the sport?
A: Climbing is quite safer now, but it’s not really mountaineering anymore — because, instead of being tied to a rope with a couple other climbers that are really climbers, and moving in steep places one at a time, there’s a fixed rope that the Sherpa put in that goes from base camp on Mt. Everest all the way to the summit. That being said, you can go many places, even the back side of Rainier, where you’ll never see anybody. It’s still pristine out there, and it’ll be a long time before it gets crowded on all except maybe the most popular mountains.