Politics and mountaineering collide at the Gem with "Return to Mount Kennedy"

Politics and mountaineering collide at the Gem with “Return to Mount Kennedy”

50 years after Robert Kennedy and Jim Whittaker summited Mount Kennedy, their sons repeat the feat

  • Sep. 28, 2019 12:00 a.m.

On Sunday, Sept. 29, American political and mountaineering dynasties come together in an adventure to the top of North America at the Gem Theatre in Grand Forks.

Return to Mount Kennedy follows the parallel expeditions of legendary mountaineer Jim Whittaker and Senator Robert Kennedy and their sons’ ascents of Mount Kennedy – a remote mountain in the Yukon. On March 20, 1965, Bobby Kennedy became the first human to stand atop a lonely peak in the Canadian Yukon that had just been named to honour his assassinated brother, JFK. His climbing guide was Jim Whittaker, a mountain icon who, at 28, had become the first American to summit Mt. Everest.

From that solemn trek, Jim—the shy outdoorsman and eventual CEO of REI—and RFK ignited a friendship over their shared love of wilderness. In the following years their lives would intertwine, both men having a profound effect on the other. But their shared path would end with an assassin’s bullet. In June of 1968, Jim would look on as Bobby was taken off life support.

Fifty years later, Jim’s son Bobby Whittaker— a legend of the grunge music scene out of Seattle — decided that he and his brother Leif needed to scale the mountain. When they were joined by RFK’s son, Christopher Kennedy, the trio was complete and the adventure began.

Mt. Kennedy’s long shadow has loomed in all of their lives for decades. Now, half a century after their fathers’ climb, three sons will forge their own paths and find a vantage point above the shadows.

“On Mount Kennedy, Bobby and my father hit it off and, through that relationship, their passions and ideals cross-pollinated,” wrote Bob Whittaker in a recent blog post. “As my mother says, ‘Bobby went outside and Jim had to come inside.’

“Bobby became a conservation advocate with an appreciation for the great outdoors and my father came out of the mountains, branching into politics and advocacy at state and local levels. The result of their personal epiphanies saw these great men doing even more for the environment and the people around them, thanks to that adventure in the Canadian Yukon.”

The Whittaker family has worked hard to protect and preserve the natural beauty of national parks in Washington, where Bob lives.

“I now realize there’s a simple, common thread that runs throughout my meandering life, from punk rock idealism to trail advocacy, and ties me to this work: become aware, be a part of something and work to make things better,” wrote Whittaker.

“I may not have needed to return to Mount Kennedy with Chris Kennedy and my brother Leif to connect all these dots, but it sure did help, and it sure was fun. In the words of my father, ‘Any chance to go outside and climb mountains—what the hell.'”

Bob Whittaker will be on-hand on Sunday, Sept. 29 at 3 p.m. the Gem Theatre for a question and answer period about the film, Return to Mount Kennedy.

Boundary Creek Times