Peter Whittaker has been climbing mountains since his father first guided him to the summit of Mt. Rainier when he was twelve years old. With a father and an uncle who helped set the standard for American mountaineering, it was no surprise that the Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide tracked upward toward 238 summits of Washington’s tallest, most glaciated peak and took the path toward a successful career as the co-owner and operator of Rainier Mountaineering, America’s largest commercial guiding operation. But the uphill was only part of the allure. Whittaker has always felt the draw of the descent, whether throwing backflips at Camp Muir as a teenager, heli guiding in the Wasatch or tracking storms in Sun Valley. In his latest Live Your Adventure entry, Whittaker reflects on the pull of gravity. –LYA editor
Word and Images by Peter Whittaker
“Go with the flow.”
I’ve always liked that saying. It implies ease and a freedom of mind. On a river, going with the flow means riding the current, allowing it to carry you. Switch directions, however, and the ride becomes work. Going against the flow, progress slows down and you have to battle.
Mountain climbing is a battle. You’re pushing your body upward where there’s less oxygen, less atmospheric pressure. With each step you’re defying gravity, fighting earth’s magnetic pull, going against the flow. It’s a slow, hard-fought struggle, but one with obvious reward when you are standing on the summit: the satisfaction of achieving your goal, an amazing view, and most importantly, the directional switch.
But oh, how I love the downhill. Aligning with nature’s force, you’re no longer fighting the pull of gravity but surrendering to it—your movement becomes effortless and you can let go.
Growing up, Mount Rainier was my playground. With an uncle who became the first American to summit Mt. Everest and a father equally at home on the side of a mountain, early memories are of playing on the flanks of Rainier. I was nine when I made my first climb to Camp Muir, at 10,000 feet. I can still recall the uphill struggle of that last two thousand feet. I was tired, thirsty, bored, and pissed at the seemingly endless ascent up the snowfield. Fast-forward an hour to the descent, however, and I was whooping and hollering as I slipped and slid back down to Paradise.
The following year I carried my skis with me to Camp Muir and the extra weight made the uphill climb tougher than I remembered. But the descent was worth every hard-earned, sweaty step. I was rewarded with 4 ½ miles of wide-open skiing above tree line. 4,500 vertical feet, which is more than any ski area in the U.S., all in my backyard. Thousands of feet above tree line in a world of rock, ice, and snow, I was right at home up high. I loved it up there.
I was 12 when I summited Mt. Rainier for the first time. It was a brutal climb in marginal weather and it kicked my butt. Tears were shed on the ascent and I remember thinking the uphill battle would never end, but by 16 I was a full-time guide for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., climbing the mountain 15 to 20 times a summer. The climbing was rewarding and it was a great summer job for a teenager, but the big fun for me was always the downhill, especially on skis.
To learn a few tricks, I saved up my money and bought a trampoline. It wasn’t long before I was building jumps in the snow and launching myself into the air. Soon I was throwing big-air front and back layouts on skis. I craved the feeling of breaking gravity’s pull for a few seconds of effortless flight.
I continued mountain guiding on Rainier during the summer and landed a ski patrol job at Snowbird, Utah. Ski patrol led me to a dream job as a helicopter ski guide for Wasatch Powderbird Guides. Guiding clients to Rainier’s summit was rewarding and fun, but it was nothing compared to the thrill of skiing big peaks and having your own helicopter to mitigate the uphill fight. Imagine being dropped (gently) on the summit to enjoy the downhill ski through champagne powder, the ultimate dance with gravity. My uphill summers and downhill winters perfectly balanced each other out.
Today my guiding work is primarily uphill. I no longer work as a helicopter ski guide, but I still love to play on the slopes of Sun Valley, Idaho. Given the chance, I’ll continue looking for ways to balance the effort of climbing peaks with a bit of downhill skiing (as done most recently on an expedition to Mt. Vinson in Antarctica).
As long as these legs and lungs continue taking me up, I’ll revel in the excitement and ease on the downhill. I’ll go with the flow.
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