On the surface, Return to Mount Kennedy, directed by Eric Becker, looks like your typical climbing doc, but Mount Kennedy is anything but. Jumping back and forth between 1965 and 2015, Return to Mount Kennedy focuses on Bobby Whittaker, a constant presence in the 1980s–’90s Seattle music scene, and his father, Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest.
After coming down Everest in 1963, Jim Whittaker was hailed as a hero and found himself hobnobbing with celebrities and politicians, including the Kennedy family. Then, after JFK was assassinated that November, the Canadian government named a mountain in the president’s honor as a gesture of the two countries’ kinship. Who should be the first man to summit the mountain? Bobby Kennedy, of course. And Jim Whittaker was just the man to take him there.
But RFK was no climber, and neither is Bobby Whittaker—who decided to climb the mountain with his brother, Leif Whittaker, and RFK’s son, Chris Kennedy, on the 50th anniversary of their fathers’ climb—but that didn’t stop either.
“Not only do I sit behind a desk all day,” an out-of-breath Whittaker says in Mount Kennedy during a training exercise four months before the climb, “I follow that with a five-hour dinner of rich food and wine. My philosophy has always been—Fuck, I’ve never had one.”
“I’m a lowland trail guy,” Whittaker tells me. “I like the outdoors, but I’m not a big mountain guy.”
Whittaker doesn’t need the thrill of the summit to derive an emotional connection to nature—the history of conservation and the civic duty behind preserving the wilderness is all he needs. But Whittaker’s brother, Leif, followed a little closer in their father’s footsteps, summiting Everest twice. As Whittaker says, he teased Leif: What are you going to do, climb it a third time? Let’s do Kennedy instead.
Leif agreed, much to Whittaker’s chagrin—“I always say I’m half-kidding,” he explains—and the two invited Chris Kennedy along for the climb and called up Becker to document it.
“And, as a result, I think [Becker] kind of captured a pretty cool, rare bird,” Whittaker says. “I appreciate it now, but it wasn’t easy when it was happening.”
And though the familial connection of the climb wasn’t Whittaker’s initial motivation, Becker found a beautiful rhyme in watching three sons follow in their fathers’ footsteps.
“There’s a moment in the film where [Becker] splits between old footage and new footage,” Whittaker explains, “where we’re all roped up going up Cathedral [Glacier], and it’s just incredible.”