Lou Whittaker - Mountaineer, Entrepreneur

Passing Date

Lou Whittaker, a pioneering mountaineer who helped make climbing accessible to a broad U.S. market, died March 24 in Ashford, Washington, near the base of Mount Rainier. He was 95.


Whittaker was born and raised in Seattle along with his identical twin, Jim. The brothers started climbing and skiing in the 1940s with their Boy Scouts troop. At age 18, they began ski patrolling at Stevens Pass, Washington, and were said to be the youngest certified patrollers in the U.S. at that time.


At 6’5”, the twins were recruited by Seattle University on basketball scholarships. They began guiding climbs on nearby Mount Rainier and soon ran the guide service there.


At the outset of the Korean War, Lou and Jim were drafted into the Army and were sent to Camp Hale, Colorado, to train the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group on mountain operations. They were discharged in 1954 at the request of the Forest Service, which needed them at Mt. Rainier.


Both brothers had distinguished climbing and business careers. In 1963, Jim was the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In 1984, Lou led the first American expedition to the North Col of Mount Everest, from the Chinese side and without Sherpas.  


An enthusiastic entrepreneur, Lou helped develop outdoor products and services throughout his life. He served on the board of Crystal Mountain, Washington, in the early 1960s to help launch the resort. He managed mountain-sport retail operations for 24 years, at Seattle’s Osborne & Ulland and then at his own store, Whittaker Chalet. Meanwhile, he served as the chief guide for Mount Rainier’s main concessionaire for 14 years. He eventually purchased the guide service and co-founded Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. in 1969. In 1992, with his wife Ingrid, he purchased and ran Whittaker’s Hotel at the Rainier base camp, now operated by their son Win.


During a K2 expedition in 1975, Lou removed the Vibram soles from his climbing boots and affixed them to his tennis shoes for the trek out, creating a lightweight trekking shoe. He then partnered with New Balance to produce the Rainier Boot.


In their retirement, Lou and his wife, Ingrid, split time between Ashford and Sun Valley, Idaho.