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For Bob Whittaker, ‘Return to Mount Kennedy’ documentary brings his grunge past to the outdoors

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 14, 2019

Bob Whittaker tells the story about the time he came back to Seattle from his first tour with Mudhoney and sold his skis.

They were nice skis from Elan, the kind of skis a guy who learned to ski at age 4 and who spent countless weekends at Snoqualamie Pass would own and treasure. The kind of skis you would have if you came from mountaineering royalty, if your dad was Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest and who also was president of REI.

Back then Whittaker sported an eye-catching mane of long, blond wavy hair, and it’s easy to imagine him as a typical ski bum. And as a high school kid in the mid-’80s, he spent his share of time on the ski bus heading to and from the mountain when the snow was good. But when he wasn’t there, he could be found at house parties and clubs where a young crop of Seattle musicians were making music that was about to explode on the national scene.

“I went to all these scrappy punk rock shows in high school,” Whittaker said. Still, he always kept a toe in the outdoors. “I would always go to the (Olympic) peninsula and the beaches or the mountains and was always trying to get out of town on weekends.”

His year at the Evergreen State College brought him in touch with bands such as the Melvins and Nirvana, who played some of their first Olympia gigs at a friend’s house. Whittaker would become an early employee of Seattle’s iconic record label, Sub Pop, a job he left to go on the road with Mudhoney, one of the keystone bands of Seattle’s burgeoning grunge scene. They hired Whittaker in 1988 to be a roadie. Except he didn’t like to lift much.

“I was the guy that was finding us places to stay and fixing the van,” he said. Those early days as he crossed the country in a beat-up old van with the guys from Mudhoney transformed him. He dove into the rock life and became the band’s manager.

“It wasn’t manager from day one. It was mascot and T-shirt seller from day one, and that evolved into more responsibility and managing, and the signing of Mudhoney to Reprise, a division of Warner Bros.”

His family cabin on the Quinault Indian Reservation became a popular getaway for Seattle’s rock bands. “Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, all these seminal early Seattle bands went out there for weekends,” Whittaker said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Selling those skis for $100 to help pay the rent probably hurt a little at first, but the reality was Whittaker was done with mountains for awhile.

Music and the mountain

Bob Whittaker’s passion for music and the outdoors are two of the threads that wind through the new documentary, “Return to Mount Kennedy,” from Boise filmmaker Eric Becker, which will be screened at the Bing Crosby Theater on Saturday night.

The larger story at play is one of two families, one mountain and the trek that bound them together.

Jim Whittaker was already a national hero two years removed from his Everest success when he was asked in 1965 to guide Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to the summit of Mount Kennedy, a peak in the Yukon the Canadian government named in honor of former President John F. Kennedy.

The climb to Mount Kennedy turned Whittaker and Kennedy into fast friends. Their families rafted the Colorado River together and spent Christmas at Sun Valley skiing. Jim Whittaker and his first wife, Blanche, even named their youngest son after Robert Kennedy. Jim Whittaker was serving as the state campaign director for Kennedy’s presidential bid when he was gunned down in Los Angeles.

Fifty years later, one of Bobby Kennedy’s sons, Chris, and two of Jim Whittaker’s sons, Bob and Leif, returned to Mount Kennedy. Of the three, only Leif Whittaker was a mountain climber; he’d already done two trips to Everest.

In fact, it was Leif Whittaker’s second trip to Everest, in 2012, that served as a reminder to Bob that he came from a family of climbers. When the two brothers met up at the family cabin, around the 50th anniversary of their father’s Everest trip, they started talking about what Leif should do next.

“I said, ‘Mount Kennedy is sitting right there. What the hell was that all about? We don’t know anything about that.’ There was a couple pages in National Geographic, and a few pictures in the hallway when I was growing up, and I’m named after the guy but what the hell was it?’ ” Bob Whittaker recalled. “I said ‘Let’s go back there for the 50th anniversary of that,’ which was a couple years away.

“Why don’t you drag me up Mount Kennedy?” he said to his brother.

It seems he was no longer done with mountains.

Director Eric Becker met the Whittaker family in 2012, when he made a short film about Jim Whittaker. Bob Whittaker called him one night and pitched the Mount Kennedy idea. Becker didn’t hesitate to say yes.

Becker said they hoped the film would help finance the expedition.

“Once we got there, it got bigger and bigger and bigger, and once we started to dig into the story, and all this crazy serendipitous footage materialized, we realized it was something,” Becker said.

That serendipitous footage included never-before-seen film and photographs from the original Mount Kennedy climb Bob Whittaker found in his father’s garage. It also includes some fun behind-the-scene home movies from Seattle’s early grunge days from a trove of 60 hours of Mudhoney footage. Hotel shenanigans. Parties. Crowd surfing. Concerts.

That footage really helped bring one character front and center in the documentary: Bob Whittaker.

“Bob is the main character,” Becker said. “And even though I knew early on Bob was going to be the main character, I wasn’t totally sure about that. And he was fighting it. We premiered the film in May of last year, and it wasn’t until April that when he finally started to be OK with it.”

Trying to describe the movie can be a challenge. It’s about mountain climbing and family and music. There’s footage of early Nirvana concerts and the moment RFK and Jim Whittaker reached the summit of Mount Kennedy. There are explorations of Bob Whittaker’s activism on behalf of recreation in Ferry County, where he now primarily lives, and shots of the two Whittaker brothers helping pull Chris Kennedy from a crevasse. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder supplied original music for the score.

Music and mountains.

As Becker pointed out, it actually makes sense these two worlds emanate from Seattle, where the Venn diagram between music and mountaineering sees a surprising amount of overlap.

“It just so happens those things intersect. This weird little outpost town in the corner of the United States had these two subcultures that developed because of the topography,” Becker said. “Even though it seems strange that Jim Whittaker’s son was this legendary figure in the Seattle grunge scene, it’s really not that strange.”

It also then makes sense that “Return to Mount Kennedy” would feature some iconic Seattle music, including the new Vedder songs.

“Before I’d even talked to Leif about this concept, Eddie and I spent an evening at his house and we talked about this Kennedy family legacy thing. It was an intense, emotional conversation,” Whittaker said. “Eddie, being my friend, saw me trying to figure something out.”

Whittaker said Vedder happily contributed the songs to the film.

“I love the songs,” Whittaker said. “I had them on CD in my car for a long time. It’s really fresh because it’s just him and he’s playing all the instruments. And it fits the film very well. … And I’m so excited to have my friends be a part of the film. … If they’re not on the screen, they’re on the soundtrack.”

As a filmmaker, Becker admits it’s amazing when someone just hands you a CD of music by Eddie Vedder with a note that says, “Hey Eric, let me know if any of this works.”

“Which is something that will not happen to me again in my filmmaking career,” Becker said.

“I popped it in the stereo of my crappy old car I had at the time and listened to it as I drove away from Bob’s house, and I realized it was perfect,” he added. “The quality of a lot of the songs had a perfect sense of longing … that really worked for a lot of the scenes.”

Giving back

to the outdoors

After 12 years with Mudhoney, and as the band’s personnel changed, Whittaker left. He would follow that gig with a decade as the tour manger for R.E.M., beginning with the band’s appearance at Rock in Rio in 2001 until the day in 2011 when bassist Mike Mills called to tell him the band was breaking up. During the downtime between R.E.M. tours, he would work tours for Neko Case, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Rufus Wainwright.

He was splitting time between his home in West Seattle and his place in Malo, a rural community in Washington’s most rural county, Ferry. As his music career wound down, he turned to civic duty and activism. And outdoor recreation. In 2006, he started work with a community group to establish the Ferry County Rail Trail, a 28-mile trail starting near Republic and continuing north to Danville near the Canadian border, an effort that is ongoing. He also serves as the recreation liaison for the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, a group that brings recreation and natural resource interests together.

Whittaker would go back on the road again for the right artist and the right situation. But if it doesn’t happen, that’s OK too.

“I’m having so much fun here working on the rail trial and advocating for the Colville National Forest and recreation,” he said. “My guns are hung up, but I could dust them off someday. Never say never.”

And he’s excited about doing the thing he’s really wanted to to do in Ferry County: A festival.

Get Out Fest will bring outdoor recreation and music together June 28-29 at the Ferry County Fairgrounds.

Originally, it was going to be a music festival. “But the more I work on the rail trail, the more I enjoy the Colville National Forest, I see the abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities up there that are underutilized. I feel like a perfect dynamic would be an outdoor recreation festival with film and music in the evening. So the days are wide open to enjoy the Ferry County Rail Trail and Curlew Lake, float the Kettle River, hike the Kettle Crest,” he said.

For Whittaker, it’s all part of his work in support of public lands and outdoor recreation. He may be three decades removed from the time when he sold his skis for grunge, but he sees that a career launched by grunge is enabling him to give back.

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