Behind the Scenes: ‘Return to Mount Kennedy’

A new film shows the highs and lows of finding connection in the mountains—to oneself, one's family and the natural world.

“Return to Mount Kennedy,” a new feature-length documentary, isn’t your traditional mountaineering movie. Set in present-day, the film tells the story of a climb to honor the first ascent of Mount Kennedy in Canada’s Yukon by the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the first American to summit Everest (and former REI Co-op CEO) Jim Whittaker in 1965. But it isn’t about planting a flag among barren peaks.

For director Eric Becker, the film is really about, “the connections you make to each other in that high space in the shadow of the mountain. It’s a very sacred thing.”

Indeed “Mount Kennedy,” is an intergenerational story about connecting to one’s family of origin while falling in love with the grueling art of mountain travel. Bob Whittaker is the film’s protagonist—a former scenester turned tour manager for the band Mudhoney—who now leads environmental initiatives in Eastern Washington. Early in 2014, Bob and his brother Leif Whittaker persuaded Christopher Kennedy to join them in a 50th anniversary climb to honor their fathers’ historic 1965 feat.

Weaving together images of the 1965 ascent with footage from Bob’s immersion in Seattle’s nineties grunge culture, the film follows Bob, Leif and Christopher as they prepare for their own 2015 expedition in Canada’s Yukon Range. 

In making the film, Becker and editor Andrew Franks unearthed never-before-seen photos of the original summit push, plus hundreds of archival images, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film and Kennedy and Whittaker’s historic accomplishment. 

A black and white photo of Robert Kennedy

A black-and-white photograph of the late Senator Robert Kennedy. (Photographer Unknown; Photo Courtesy: The Whittaker Family)

Robert Kennedy wears a blue vest beside another image of Eddie Vedder wearing the same vest

Left: Robert Kennedy dons a blue vest during the 1965 Mount Kennedy summit. Right: Nearly thirty years later, in the 1990s, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder wears the same vest beside Mudhoney lead singer Mark Arm at Jim Whittaker’s beach cabin on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. (Photo Courtesy: The Whittaker Family)

A laydown with the director and all of his gear

An overhead shot of director Eric Becker with filming and climbing gear for the 2015 Mount Kennedy expedition, taken the night before departing for Canada’s Yukon Territory. (Photo Credit: Chip Rountree; Photo Courtesy: Eric Becker)

Robert Kennedy on the 1965 summit push

Robert Kennedy pauses for a breath during the 1965 summit push. (Photo Credit: Jim Whittaker; Photo Courtesy: The Whittaker Family)

A team of mountaineers hauls gear up a snowy face

Members of the 2015 anniversary climb haul gear up to a base camp from the landing zone on Mount Kennedy’s Cathedral Glacier. (Photo Credit: Eric Becker)

Mountaineers stop for a break on a snowy face

The 2015 anniversary expedition stops for a break on summit day. (Photo Credit: Eric Becker)

Robert Kennedy pauses with Canadian Mounted Police

Robert Kennedy with members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse Airport in Yukon, Canada, 1965. (Photo Credit: Malcolm Taylor)

Robert Kennedy stands beside his young children during a whitewater rafting trip

Following the 1965 climb, the Kennedys joined the Whittakers on a summer whitewater rafting trip. (Photographer Unknown; Photo Courtesy: The Whittaker Family) 

A filmmaker pauses for a photo inside a tent

Cinematographer Mikey Schaefer in his tent during the 2015 expedition. (Photo Credit: Eric Becker)

A filmmaker sorts through old footage and photos

Director Eric Becker sorts through the archives of Dee Molenaar, a member of the 1965 Mount Kennedy first ascent team. (Photo Credit: Lou Karsen)

Two men in a boat

Eddie Vedder and Bob Whittaker row their way through the Puget Sound off the coast of West Seattle in the mid-1990s. “Return to Mount Kennedy” is set to new original music by Vedder. (Photographer Unknown; Photo Courtesy: Bob Whittaker)

Two men disembark a helicopter

One of the many previously unseen photos to appear in the film, this one depicts Robert Kennedy and Jim Whittaker disembarking a Boeing Chinook helicopter in 1965. (Photo Credit: Malcolm Taylor)

An aerial shot of a white, snowcapped peak

An aerial shot of the summit of Mount Kennedy with the 1965 climbing party. (Photo Credit: Malcolm Taylor)

A man holding a camera in a bright-red parka

Robert Kennedy holding a camera back at camp during the 1965 expedition. (Photo Credit: Dee Molenaar)

“Return to Mount Kennedy” is now available to stream or download.

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