MISSOULA – In Northwest climbing circles, the name “Whittaker” means everything, from Jim and Lou, the legendary climbers to the founding outfitter REI.
The name “Kennedy” is well known to any student of political history. But most people don’t know about the critical link between the two families, a link you can learn more about at the Big Sky Film Fest this week.
In 1965, two years after becoming the first American to summit Mount Everest, Jim Whittaker was looking for a new adventure. That arrived as a suggestion by National Geographic to lead an expedition to the newly-named Mount Kennedy in the Yukon, a Canadian tribute to John F. Kennedy after his assignation.
“I got a call from them saying, ‘would you be interested inviting Senator Robert Kennedy?’ And I said, ‘well, has he climbed before?’ And they said ‘no’. And I said ‘do they know the mountain’s never been climbed?’ ‘Yeah.” And I said ‘okay, well sure. I’ll invite him.’ So I gave him a call and he said he’d love to come,” Whittaker said.
Although he’d never climbed before, Senator Kennedy proved himself, even catching up with Whittaker headed up the mountain.
“Senator, I said ‘could you slow it down a little bit? We don’t want to wear ourselves out.’ And he said ‘Jim, could you speed it up a little bit’?” Whittaker recalled.
After that successful first ascent in 1965 and the following friendship between the two families, the Kennedy climb just became another part of climbing history. Until Bob Whittaker, his brother Leif, and Chris Kennedy decided it was time to go back.
“For me, the memories were all the pictures in the hallway at the family house and Dad’s stories,” Whittaker said. “We wanted to revisit that.”
“It was remote as heck. I’ve been on glaciers before. And I’ve been climbing and sleeping in tents. But this one for me, it was really interesting. It was a huge emotional component for me, getting out there and being where our father and Bobby had camped and walked up that same Glacier. It wasn’t just a physical adventure. It was emotional and mental as well,” Whittaker told MTN News.
The 50th anniversary climb is captured in Eric Becker’s new film “Return to Kennedy”, which shares those emotional moments.
“I told Leif I was glad there was rope length between because I was crying, tears of joy,” Whittaker said.
“For Whittaker, it was hard to watch the film at first, seeing his friend who’s life was taken away far too soon, and the memories dimmed by time.
“It’s funny when you see that. There are things that see that I don’t remember having seen before,” he said.
“When he saw wrong, he tried to right it. When he saw suffering he tried to heal it. When he saw war he tried to stop it. And that was Bobby Kennedy. He was a beautiful person.”
And for the family, Becker’s film has helped preserve, and renew, those ties.
“I gotta say Dad, I’m so happy. At one point we were putting in some old footage and Dad said ‘you know, I think I’ve got a box of film in the garage by the weight set’,” Whittaker said.
“He called me back and he had all this old footage, this old family footage of Bobby getting off the airplane in Seattle, and going to REI and the family floating rivers.”
And for Jim, who we talked with in Sun Valley where he was skiing days after his 90th birthday, it’s a film that should remind everyone of that special value of families and the outdoors.
“That everybody gets outside. Enjoy the planet. It’s a magical planet and best of luck,” Whittaker said.
“Return to Kennedy” shows at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Missoula Children’s Theater as part of the Big Sky Documentary Festival.
Click here for more information on the festival.
Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News