It's shortly before midnight, at around 10,000 feet on Mount Rainier, when a shooting star rips across the sky so close you can almost hear it sizzle. Groggy climbers are fidgeting with headlamps and harnesses on the edge of Cowlitz Glacier. Above us, 4,000 vertical feet of steep, icy terrain separates the huts at this way station, Camp Muir, from the 14,411-foot summit of Washington's highest peak — and Peter Whittaker, co-owner of the guiding service Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), knows every inch of them. The son of mountaineer Lou Whittaker, who formed RMI in 1969 (and nephew of Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, in 1963), Peter Whittaker has been climbing this peak since his father dragged him up it in a frigid whiteout when he was 12. He's been guiding it since he was 16. Tonight will mark his 249th ascent.
"Are you stoked?" Whittaker booms. "I'm stoked! Let's finish this thing off in style!"
The 58-year-old has every reason to be amped. This is the first time he's had both of his children clipped into the same rope with him. Kristian, 19, is a freshman at the University of Colorado Boulder and has never climbed Rainier. Whittaker's 18-year-old daughter, Gabriella, has been up the mountain twice, as well as up Kilimanjaro once.
"Hope you're OK with being on the Whittaker rope," Whittaker says to me. I am, of course, and I clip in, falling in line behind America's first family of mountaineering as we spool off into the night.
Whittaker's stoke also hinges on the fact that this climb puts him one step closer to the launch of his outdoor-apparel company, MtnLogic Global, which he believes will produce a level of designed-in-the-field expertise not seen in years. Tonight's climb is one of the last of hundreds of ascents that Whittaker and his 60-odd guides have made to test and tweak the prototypes for the line of climbing jackets, pants, and shirts — a staggering 1.2 million vertical feet of evaluating. They filled out hundreds of surveys and created massive spreadsheets to track data. No decision, from a simple seam placement to a cuff length, was even considered before the garment had gone through at least 100,000 vertical feet of testing.
"We are doing 10 times the testing that any other company is doing," says Whittaker. "Our decisions, the process, have to come 100 percent from being in the mountains."
For Whittaker, MtnLogic — whose products are made almost entirely from Polartec fabrics — is a way to finally resolve all the niggling apparel problems he's encountered over a lifetime of mountaineering. Whittaker can cite countless examples of clients shivering at 13,000 feet because the zippers on their puffy jackets snagged on bulky materials. He's tired of poorly placed seams. Sleeves that are too tight to pull over his altimeter watch make him seethe. "Why have we been putting up with this shit?" he says. "We're like pilots, constantly monitoring our elevation and time, and you can't even get to your watch? How is this happening?"
Whittaker is an ox on the mountain, but he keeps the pace mellow as we push our way up Disappointment Cleaver, a fin of rock not far from where he watched an ice wall collapse and crush 10 of his clients (plus one guide) to death in 1981. He and two other guides had unclipped from the rope to assess avalanche conditions above. As they scouted, the glacier fractured, releasing thousands of pounds of ice and entombing their crew. It remains the worst mountaineering accident in American history.
"The bodies are still there, but they'll all melt out in my lifetime," Whittaker says. "When they do, they'll find a rope with a knot in it that was meant for me."
In 1984, at 25, he had a shot at becoming the youngest American to climb Everest, but his father, now 88, took him off the summit team: Two years earlier, a friend and mentor of Peter's, Marty Hoey, had fallen 6,000 feet to her death on the same peak, and it spooked Lou. "I was pissed he took me off the team at the time," Whittaker says. "Today I understand. I'm a father now, too."
Despite never having been to college, Whittaker has a keen business sense. When Eddie Bauer wanted to return to more-hardcore apparel in 2008, the company partnered with Whittaker to help launch its mountaineering line, First Ascent. He assembled a team of some of the best climbers on the planet, including Everest legends Dave Hahn and Melissa Arnot, to design and test the gear. The cuts were clean and lean with arms and waists tailored to a reaching body. Hoods fit hats and helmets equally well. The line they created won 14 industry awards, and in four years it was raking in $45 million in annual sales.
While nothing went to market without his approval, Whittaker says the process left him wanting to make something free from cost concerns — a guide's dream getup. "It's really easy to make a $3,000 jacket," says Scott Trepanier, director of public relations at Columbia Sportswear, "but what's really hard is making a $500 jacket that competes with that $3,000 jacket."
MtnLogic is essentially Whittaker's First Ascent 2.0, but this time he can do whatever he pleases, prices be damned. Polartec is footing the bill for a year's worth of design help, but Whittaker is using his own money to make the products, so the company's success (or failure) rides entirely on his shoulders.
For the past few months, Whittaker and his guides have sometimes actually lived in their prototypes while working. One guide, Jess Matthews, spent 250 hours straight on Denali, wearing a sun hoodie made of Power Dry, a synthetic weave. "I didn't stink! Or, rather, the shirt didn't stink," she says. Other guides overwhelmingly preferred Power Wool, a blend of merino and synthetic fibers, for its ability to keep them cool, so that's what Whittaker will use, even though it's 40 to 60 times more expensive.
What guides liked and didn't like was rarely unanimous, but they did "align," as Whittaker says. As a result, jackets will have none of those wind flaps. To reduce bulk, pockets and seams on outer layers won't stack atop pockets and seams on inner layers. If a zipper couldn't be zipped in three seconds or less, Whittaker redesigned it. And snaps: "They have no business being on anything you plan to take above tree line, because they're impossible to use with gloves," he says.
What is less certain than the quality is whether consumers will be willing to shell out a premium for the clothing. Nothing in the 19-item line is cheap. T-shirts with Power Wool start at $80. Jackets with NeoShell, a breathable windproof fabric, will go for $500.
For now at least, Whittaker's plan is to keep things small and rely on his in–house distribution channel: More than 3,000 people climb with RMI every year, and 70 percent of them have never been in crampons. Whittaker intends to stock his clothing-rental program with MtnLogic, and his clients will see his guides wearing the same stuff.
"If you're going to trust us with your lives, you're probably going to trust us when it comes to gear," he says. "We can't take away the suffering, but we can reduce it."
As for the Whittaker clan and I, we make the summit after five hours of what proves to be the least amount of suffering I've ever had on this mountain. We take pictures. We hug. Kristian does just fine. In a few months, Gabriella will request to climb it all over again. But we can't linger, not with 9,000 feet back to the car, so we rope up and head down. The sun is out, and the views of the toothy valleys and plains below are even more spectacular in the searing light, but it's the joy of exertion in an extremely beautiful place that makes us glow. And that feeling, of course, is what the best gear is for.