In 1965, Jim Whittaker, former REI Co-op CEO and the first American to summit Mount Everest, led Senator Robert F. Kennedy to the top of a mountain. There, they claimed the first ascent of a remote Canadian peak named after the senator’s late brother, former President John F. Kennedy. Exactly half a century later, in 2015, their sons—a grunge band manager, a gubernatorial candidate and a seasoned mountaineer—followed in their footsteps. But the story of “Return to Mount Kennedy,” a feature-length documentary from director Eric Becker is that and more.
The inspiration for the movie began as a way to celebrate filial connections and time spent outdoors. But as Becker began filming, Bob Whittaker, one of Jim Whittaker's sons and RFK's namesake, quickly became the documentary's focal point.
In addition to telling the story of the fiftieth anniversary climb staged by Bob Whittaker, Leif Whittaker and Christopher Kennedy, the film travels back in time to when Bob was immersed in the ’90s Seattle grunge scene, serving as the band manager for Mudhoney. Famed musicians of that era, including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Matt Lukin of Mudhoney, also play a role in the film, contributing music, archival band footage, and an abiding love of their great friend, Bob Whittaker.
“It’s like a rock ’n’ roll film about climbing the mountains,” Becker said. “People come up to me and say, ‘That’s not what I expected it to be, it’s so much better.’”
In the following scene, we get a taste for how Becker merges music and mountaineering. Here, Bob Whittaker begins his training, surprising himself and his friends—Vedder and Lukin—in the process. Equal parts profound and comical, the clip offers a window into the rest of the film.
We sat down with Becker to learn how he began documenting a climb 50 years in the making, only to discover the heart of the story was buried in the chest of a punk-rock band manager. In the end, he explains, it was a story too vast to fit into a single genre.
On how the movie came to be. It really started in 2013 when I was hired by Seattle University to make a short film about Jim Whittaker. I honestly didn’t know who he was at that point. A Life Well Lived, the film we made, wasn’t about the machismo of Jim’s life, it was about the subtle poetics of his message.
Jim's message is really about the profound effect that the outdoors can have on all of us. It’s the ultimate place to challenge yourself and grow. His reverence for the natural world is also at the core of who he is. Getting to know him has been one of the greatest honors of my life.
Bob Whittaker, one of Jim's sons, then 46, saw it and appreciated the approach. In June 2014 he emailed me and said that the fiftieth anniversary of the Mount Kennedy climb was coming up in 2015. He was kicking around the idea of climbing it with his brother, Leif , but nobody had committed.
I think, in retrospect, he thought that he could leverage my skills as a filmmaker to really tell the story in the way he wanted to tell it.
On the story Bob Whittaker wanted to tell. I think Bob is always trying to figure out how he is involved in the legacy of his father, his family. He knows it’s not through mountain climbing, like Leif and his cousins, the sons of Lou Whittaker. Bob wants to do it his own way—he wants to feel connected to the family history, feel connected to Jim, but with his own softer touch. I think he saw me as an enzyme, a pathway to doing that. So he got together this idea of the expedition to summit Mount Kennedy and I signed up.
On how the story became about Bob. The second I pointed the camera at Bob, he had this kind of dual mentality: “Oh this is cool, we’re making a film about this,” and also, “Why are they pointing the camera at me? I didn’t sign up for this.”
He was really prickly. He made it really clear that he didn’t want this film to be about him. But I knew it had to be about him, because good films need good characters. And Bob is a character—he’s a complex guy with this amazing life story who also happens to be incredibly hilarious. You point the camera at him, and stuff happens.
On the importance of humor. I love comedy. I used to do standup. It was important to incorporate humor into this thing, which was a potentially heavy topic—it’s about this climb Bob’s dad did with a United States senator, who was ultimately assassinated while running for president.
I think the best mountain genre films I’ve ever seen are also totally hilarious. Humor makes it feel like you’re having more of a good time. As hard as mountaineering is, it’s also fun.
On the inclusion of Eddie Vedder’s music in the film. We put together a cut that was an hour long. We went over to Ed’s house to show him this cut, which was super intimidating. At one point, near the end of the film, Bob went to use the bathroom and it was just me and Ed. He turned to me and said, “Thank you so much for showing who Bob is in a way that I’ve always known.”
It was really sweet because you could tell that Ed really loves Bob. And the whole reason he’d let this random filmmaker into his house is because he loves Bob. And the whole reason he’d given us his music is because he loves Bob.
On the editing process. Andrew Franks, the editor, and I really started digging into the edit and that’s when things got great. That’s the highlight of the project to me—the creative collaboration between me and Andrew. When you get that collaborative vibe going, with two people that really work well together, the sum is greater than the parts. That’s the best part about filmmaking to me, it feels exciting and effortless. Two people get together and you’re just a conduit for another dimension.
On the take-away. I really just want people to enjoy the film. Documentaries can be heavy, particularly when they deal with some of the topics we explored. My hope is that when audiences sit down to watch it they experience some emotions—they laugh, they cry, they remember that the outdoors is the ultimate place to connect.