It’s 1:20 a.m. It’s cold and near pitch black. I’m somewhere around 10,200 feet above sea level, traversing the snowfield above the Cowlitz Glacier on the southeast flank of Washington’s Mount Rainier. Behind me, headlamps begin to ignite; their lights flicker in the distance as other climbing teams back at Camp Muir make preparations for the summit. In front of me, the rope locked into the carabiner at the front of my harness slides across the glittering snowpack. A crevasse looms, no more than a foot across. As I step over, I steal a downward glance — it’s dark and seemingly bottomless in the beam of my headlamp — before the gentle pull of the rope urges me to keep moving.

At the lead end of that rope, silhouetted in the yellowish glow of his own headlamp is my guide, Peter Whittaker. He’s the one setting the pace of our slow assault on the mountain, silently compelling me upward with the steady pull of the rope. Whittaker has climbed this mountain before — 249 times, to be exact. He’s set foot on the tallest summits around the world and has accrued quite the climbing résumé: two expeditions to Denali, 14 to Kilimanjaro, three to Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson, eight to Aconcagua — and the list goes on. But Whittaker is anything but the prototypical grizzled old climber, filled with stoic resentment for how the sport has evolved. He emanates youth with a humor that belies his age. Climbing, to him, is and always will be one thing: fun.

Mountain climbing wasn’t much of a choice for Whittaker. He was born into it; it’s in his blood. His father, Lou Whittaker, was part of the first American team to summit Kanchenjunga, nearly lost his toes on K2 and led the first American ascent of Everest’s North Col. Jim Whittaker, or Uncle Jim, as he’s known to Whittaker, was the first American ever to reach the summit of Everest on May 1st, 1963. Growing up, it was expected that one generation would follow in the footsteps of the previous — he was constantly badgered about climbing Everest. “That bothered me a lot; everybody asked me that,” he says. “It was never really a huge goal for me.” Nevertheless, the allure of the mountain took him — Whittaker has attempted Everest four times and reached the summit once, in 2009.

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Peter Whittaker attempted to climb Everest for the first time in 1984.
At age 25, he would’ve been the youngest American to reach the summit.