Mountainfilm in Aspen looks at ascents of Mount Kennedy, 50 years apart
IF YOU GO:
What: ‘Return to Mount Kennedy’
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $30, www.aspenshowtix.com
There are big shoes to fill when your father was the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Bobby Whittaker had no desire to follow the footsteps of his famous dad, Jim Whittaker, the Seattle mountaineer who planted a U.S. flag atop of the world’s highest peak May 1, 1963.
“I’ve never been about big mountain stuff,” Bobby said this week in a phone interview. “When I was 16, I trained to climb Mount Rainier by getting off the bus early from school and skateboarding a few miles home.”
Instead, the younger Whittaker went rogue — split from his family before he graduated from high school, immersed himself in the grunge rock scene and made a career as a rock band manager.
Bobby, 51, followed a path less traveled, but ultimately he reconnected with his family and carved out an outdoor advocacy role that was as important as Jim’s, though different.
An important milestone on that path was a climb up Mountain Kennedy, an obscure peak in the Saint Elias Mountains of Kluane National Park in Yukon, Canada.
The peak was named by the Canadian government in honor of President John F. Kennedy after he was assassinated. Robert F. Kennedy made a first ascent of the isolated mountain in 1963 with Jim Whittaker as his guide. The adventure forged a strong bound between the men for the rest of Kennedy’s life. He was assassinated in 1968. Whittaker was at his bedside when he died. Bobby Whittaker was named after Bobby Kennedy.
Bobby Whittaker got interested in climbing Mount Kennedy earlier this decade.
“I was speaking to my little brother, Leif Whittaker, who had just summited Everest for his second time,” Bobby said. “I was like, ‘That’s pretty amazing. What are you going to do next, do it a third time?’”
While Bobby had no interest in extreme climbing or peak bagging, Mount Kennedy was alluring. It’s a lonely peak and mostly ignored.
“The less traveled path is so close and so easy and so much more rewarding, I think,” he said.
He also became more curious in midlife about the 1965 ascent that brought his dad and Kennedy together.
So when he was talking to his brother about his next adventure, Bobby suggested Leif drag him up Mount Kennedy to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ascent by their dad and Kennedy. They laughed, then looked at each other, “and the die was cast,” Whittaker said.
They ended up making a film about the 2015 undertaking, “Return to Mount Kennedy.” It will be featured Saturday night in Aspen as part of Mountainfilm in Aspen.
Once they started planning the trip, they decided to invite Chris Kennedy, the son of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy. He is a businessman and politician in Illinois.
“After a few minutes on the phone, he said ‘I’m in,’” Whittaker said.
The Whittakers loaded their gear in a Toyota pickup with film director Eric Becker and “dirt-bagged” it up to the Yukon. Kennedy flew up and met them. Like Whittaker, Chris Kennedy was not an avid alpinist.
“Chris and I were definitely fish out of water up there, but it was so fun and so incredible to see my little brother (guide) and walk where our fathers walked together,” Whittaker said.
While Mount Kennedy’s main route isn’t considered technical, it’s a big mountain carved by crevasses. There also are multiple avalanche paths to navigate around. Even now, there’s limited information about the mountain. They picked Jim’s brain, Bobby said, but he remembered little about mountain. Jim was “gung-ho” about their 50th anniversary trip.
“He was like, ‘Go for it.’ That’s his standard answer,” Whittaker said.
Once on the glacier, it turned into a highly emotional experience for Whittaker. He said he was glad to be a rope’s length between his companions because he was constantly crying as the emotions came out.
“At one point I was walking behind my little brother as he was winding through crevasses and he just looked just like my dad. It was really freaky,” Whittaker said.
“It’s so hard to articulate this damn movie,” he continued. “It’s a real captain’s platter of narratives.”
The ingredients include the assassination of the Kennedys, the Whittaker family tension, obscure history on the first ascent of Mountain Kennedy, the bond that ascent created between Bobby Kennedy and Jim Whittaker, and the forces that inspired Bobby Whittaker to become an advocate for the outdoors.
“For me, it’s also about the road less traveled. A huge part of this film is me separating from my family, striking out on the road and going into the music business and being really independent of my family,” he said.
Becker unexpectedly included a lot of the family history in the film. He did an excellent job of tying all the various threads together, Whittaker said.
The film explores Whittaker’s unusual path into trail advocacy. He started working in the music industry with Sub Pop Records and befriended Eddie Vedder 25 years ago. He managed Mudhoney for 12 years and was the road manager for R.E.M. and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. All of those performers plus Lord Huron provided songs for use in the film.
They would be going “1,000 miles per hour” for months at a time. “It wears a guy out,” he said.
When he retreated home to rural Washington state, he wanted to relax, enjoy the outdoors and advocate for additional trails. He has advocated for trails in his area for the past 12 years.
Yes, there are magnificent places in the world such as Mount Everest, but the lesser known places deserve attention and protection as well, Whittaker said. He wants that message to come across in the film.
“There’s public space at the end of your street or a couple of blocks away,” he said. “We have to work to protect it.
“I’ve been around idealists my whole life, including my father,” Whittaker continued. “I’m named after Bobby Kennedy. I worked with Michael Stipe. I think I’m an idealist with a realist lean. That’s why I brought a director and a team. I thought this message would be helpful. I’m excited this is coming out now. I hope people make the connection between the natural world, the political world, urban culture and all of it.”
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