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With a heavy heart the RMI family announces the passing of our founder, Lou Whittaker

Lou Whittaker, the founder of RMI Expeditions, passed away peacefully on March 24th at his home in Ashford, Washington, surrounded by family and loved ones. Lou was born on February 10th, 1929, in Seattle, Washington. 

He and his identical twin brother Jim began mountaineering at age 12, their first foray into the sport they would help shape. At 16, he summited Mount Rainier for the first time, the mountain that would become synonymous with his life, and earned him the nickname “Rainier Lou.” The record of his time in the mountains is bursting with achievements, from the first American-led expedition on the North Side of Everest to the first successful American expedition summit of Kanchenjunga and many others. On numerous rescues, he saved dozens of lives in the mountains; if people were in trouble, nothing could stop him. 

Anyone can be a mountaineer, but not everyone can be a guide. Lou was a teacher at heart, and in 1969, he founded Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI Expeditions). Mountains were the source of his health, the wellspring of his confidence, and the stage for his triumphs, and he was one of the first to make mountaineering and its benefits accessible to the broader public. Since its inception, RMI has emphasized teaching and leading over 100,000 aspiring climbers. His leadership made mountain guiding a true profession, with many of the world's premier mountaineers benefiting from Lou’s tutelage.

When he wasn’t pushing the boundaries of mountaineering or helping to define the standard of guiding excellence, Lou was a masterful carpenter, craftsman, and builder. Lou and his wife Ingrid built unique homes of natural black basalt and massive log beams. His projects were often made more challenging by his insistence on self-reliance but were all the more beautiful for it. His enthusiasm for hard work was infectious; he was a master at pulling together a team, and the stories from those projects are still shared among those lucky enough to be included.  

Lou once said, “There’s a certain amount of risk involved in life. When it comes down to dying, I want to know what it is like to have really lived.” And he certainly did. He was a pioneer, constantly pushing the frontier of the mountaineering world. He was a philosopher, always ready with a poem, limerick, or quote. He was an innovator who never encountered a problem he couldn’t solve. He was a philanthropist, who started and chaired multiple nonprofits. He was a patriarch who loved the family that orbited him. He had the vision for American Mountain Guiding, and helped to make the industry and sport what it is today.

Above all, he was a monumental man who commanded the room when he walked in and helped influence thousands of lives. He warmed both hands on the fire of life. With his size 13 shoes, he left one hell of a set of footsteps, footsteps we should all try to follow, no matter how challenging the climb.

Lou is survived by his wife Ingrid, his twin brother Jim (Dianne), his sons Peter (Kerry) and Win, his grandchildren Kristian, Gabriella, and Kalen (Ryan), his great-grandchildren Scotty and Sage, and many nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his daughter Kim. There will be a Celebration of Life at Rainier BaseCamp at the foot of his beloved Mount Rainier this summer. We’ll have more details soon, and ask you to come raise a glass to this iconic mountain man.

“I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life….” 

                                                                                    –Walter Savage Landor

Lou Whittaker at Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier


The Whittaker family has created a Tribute to Lou Whittaker page on Facebook for you to share stories, memories, and photos.

Comments (17)

Several friends and I climbed Mt. Rainier in 2010 with Whittaker.  One day before the climb, I was in line at the base camp to get some food.  I turned around and right behind me in line was a mountain of a man.  I immediately knew who Lou was, partly because I had just finished his biography.  Even though I’m sure he would have liked to gotten around to the important business of lunch, he was very gracious with me and my friends - taking time out of his day for pictures and some pre-climb advice for us.  It was a thrill for us to meet a living legend.  I’ll never forget the experience, and I have a group pic of Lou, my friends, and myself hanging in my office.  Many condolences to all those who loved Lou.

Posted by: Dean on

I was fortunate to be on four JanSport Annual Dealer Climbs on Mt. Rainier, and met Lou on my very first climb. It was so amazing to meet a true American hero, a man about whom I had read in several mountaineering books. He and his RMI crew of guides left a permanent mark on my life. I still have a framed postcard in my home office, that I bought at the Whittaker Bunkhouse, with a Lou Whittaker quote on it: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” Words to live by, indeed! Thank you, Lou.

Posted by: Frank Henninger on

Dear Peter and Win,

I was saddened to hear this news and am sorry for your loss. 

Lou was a larger than life hero who pushed the boundaries of adventure, and inspired and mentored so many others to do the same.  I have fond memories of running into him and his brightly colored ski sweater on the Muir Route when I was teenager in the 70’s.  It normally occurred as he was cheerfully chugging past us during a rest break, with client climbers in tow.  He always provided a needed lift of encouragement, and made climbing the mountain feel a bit like a party.

Lou saved many lives in the mountains, including my father’s, on Mt. McKinley (Denali) in 1960.  I will be forever grateful to him. 

Mark Schoening

Posted by: Mark Schoening on

Sorry to hear of Lou’s passing but he left a legacy in his wake.
I did 2 climbs with RMI and they are the best.Bless him and his family.

Posted by: William Morotti on

As a young, would-be climber, I read all about Lou. I grew up in the PNW, staring at Rainier every day as a young kid. Eventually, I was hired as a guide with RMI as a wide-eyed 21-year-old. I learned many things during my time on Rainier and made many enduring friendships that remain strong 20 years later. On my off days, Lou would often put me to work in his yard. We’d take long lunch breaks where he would wow me with tails of hanging with Messner, rescuing folks on Rainier, etc. I felt like I was in the presence of a celebrity which, in the mountaineering world, he certainly was. I continue to climb to this day, and I am forever grateful for the time I spent on Rainier and fondly remember those days I got to spend with Lou. I recall him telling a group of clients about how he was one of the first to test Viagra, which, as he explained, was originally designed to treat altitude sickness…but had “additional benefits.”

Rest high in the skies, Lou. Wow, what a life well lived. What a legacy. My best to all of my friends in Ashford and of course the Whittaker family.
-Clint Helander
Anchorage, Alaska

Posted by: Clint Helander on

I worked for Lou and RMI the summer of 1994. It was a summer I will never forget, with a cast of incredible characters. I have the honor of saying I have stood at the top of Rainier, with the best of the best. Thank you Lou for all the memories.

Posted by: Jennifer Penfold on

As an RMI guide in the early 1990s, I have great memories of Lou. What a role model and champion for mountaineers everywhere.

Posted by: Aleksei Krasnokutsky on

I grew up in Eatonville and I remember someone asking Lou if he went to church and he said the mountain is my church. I finally was able to climb the mountain with RMI and stand on top the most beautiful cathedral in the world. Thanks Lou Mark Simons.

Posted by: Mark simons on

I am sorry too here of Lou’s passing. Both he and brother Jim had lunch at the old Moore family restaurant in Ashford. My parents had vacation property across the highway from their office. They were on a first name basis with both brothers. I joined the one day, a tour bus pulled up full of Japanese tourists.  As the group entered the restaurant,  they recognized the brothers. Through their English speaking guide, the group were mountain climbers in Japan, and knew of both Lou, and Jim, and were very excited to actually meet them in person. Lou and Jim posed for pictures for over a half hour. I must have taken 50 pictures for the tourists! Lou and Jim not only posed for the photos, but interacted with each one and shook hands with each. Their personal interaction was heart warming, and a show of their humanity. What an example! I will never forget that event, and how their small gesture impacted across the world! May God bless Lou, and Jim for setting g such a positive example.  Rest in Peace, God Bless you.

Posted by: Larry on

As I read an obituary in my Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper this morning ….I shed a tear because I have known Lou since I worked for him at Whittaker’s Chalet in Tacoma back in 1972-73. In 1976 I climbed Mt Rainier (Tahoma) with the RMI guide service and was blessed with having Marty Hoey as my guide. I found my passion of the outdoors and still to this day at 73 I am hiking for 5-6 miles a day enjoying the mountain air at over 7000 ft. Fly free Lou! God speed and rest in Love, Power and Peace. Thank you for being you

Posted by: Dene Canon on

In October 1972, I arrived at McChord AFB as a Telecommunications Technician in the 1905th AFCS. My first tent was a JanSport from REI. I found out about RMI thru Gerry Lynch, Lou’s RMI Co-founder. 16 McChord people, family and AF personnel. We did a weekend of training at Paradise with Lou, Dan Boyd, Larry Nielsen. and Phil Ershler. To my surprise, I was matched to a Rope with Phil for our climb from Camp.Muir to the summit. In Winter like conditions in late June ’ 75. Eight of us successfully reached the Summit for a 20 minutes Stay !.  Marty Hoey accompanied a 1905th colleague down to Paradise as he developed Tingling in his shoulders. That would be the one time I would meet Marty.  In October ’ 84, TV national news showed a telephoto of Phil Ershler waving his Ice Axe upon reaching the Summit of Chomolungma from the North Side, the first American to do so. I got chills and goosebumps !!! remembering our meeting 9 years earlier, with Profound THANKS to the Founder of RMI ~ LOUIS WHITTAKER and PHIL ERSHLER.

I would dearly love to attend the Celebration of Life this Summer for Mr. Louis Whittaker. 

With my Profound Sympathies to Lou’s Family, Phil, Dan, Andy, Eric,
Larry and All the Present RMI GUIDES.

Dennis Marrotte
Westbrook, Maine. ( ME.)

Posted by: Dennis Marrotte on

RIP Lou Whittaker. I am so thankful for RMI and the wonderful adventures to date. To really live indeed!  Gods speed

Posted by: Hollyanne samuelsen on

climbed with lou in 1973 in a blizzard…in 1981 i was part of a research group which led
to the discovery of a massive gold deposit…lou shaped many people…
i miss him…

Posted by: mark maki on

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of being around Lou during a summit of Rainier as far back as 1973 with my two sisters Katy and Marcia.  Katy and I have continued climbing, often with RMI.

The thought of Lou and his enthusiasm and love of the mountains continues to challenge and inspire….

Posted by: John Murray on

I had the privilege of climbing both Baker and Rainier many years ago with RMI guide, Eric Simonson. The professional qualities that the RMI guides demonstrated can be attributed to the leadership and professionalism that Lou instilled in them. Lou has joined the other legendary mountaineers in the throne room of the mountain gods. RIP Mr Whittaker on a life most of us can only dream of.

Posted by: Mike Lee on

Lou created a legacy that will last for many generations. My father climbed rainier when I was young, guided through RMI.  I followed in his footsteps, sumitting as an adult… both following the footsteps of Lou. Rest in peace Lou and peace to the Whittaker and RMI family.

Posted by: Kirsten on

I grew up looking up Mt Rainier every morning it was clear enough to see. There was so much mystery and majesty that always held my attention since I was a little kid. Lou made the mountain accessible for those who wanted to explore it in many ways. I fell in love with Mountaineering in my late teens and Lou was always an inspiration. One of my fondest adventure memories is going on a trip with a good friend who submitted many times. We made it to base camp and he we decided to not chance the weather. That evening we stayed at the Lodge and it was a great time to be some small part of the community. Thank you all for what you do. I send my deepest condolences. I’d like to think Lou Whittaker is climbing new mountains far away. Peace to you all

Posted by: Dave on

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