Win Whittaker still finds perfect pitch in mountains, despite hearing loss

Win Whittaker hasn’t let hearing loss slow him down. At 49 he’s still guiding climbers up Mount Rainier, making movies and performing in a band.
Win Whittaker hasn’t let hearing loss slow him down. At 49 he’s still guiding climbers up Mount Rainier, making movies and performing in a band. Courtesy

Win Whittaker wasn’t the first person to notice he was starting to lose something important.

His wife, Sarah, brought it up about a decade ago, when the mountain guide was in his late 30s.

It seemed as though Whittaker was losing his hearing.

He wasn’t so sure. He’d turned three of his passions — mountaineering, movies and music — into a career, and good hearing was important to all three.

Whittaker wasn’t having issues guiding clients for Rainier Mountaineering Inc., making movies or performing music with his band, Wet Heat.

But after a few more years, Whittaker started to realize his wife was right.

“When I was teaching climbing school, I sometimes would have to ask a client to repeat a question,” Whittaker said.

When he was working on music and movies, he’d have to compensate, taking extra steps and referencing other music to ensure he was getting the right sound.

“It started to become very noticeable,” Whittaker said.

He’d spent most of his life around loud music, and his genes probably weren’t working in his favor, either. His father, legendary mountaineer Lou Whittaker, has hearing loss. “Part of this is heredity, I think,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker talked to his audiologist, and he knew hearing aids were in his future. But he feared traditional hearing aids might amplify the sound of wind on the mountain and perhaps hinder his music- and movie-making efforts. He wanted a device he could easily control.

Then, on a trip to the Washington State Fair in Puyallup last year, he stopped by a booth for a device called the ReSound LiNX2.

He was instantly taken by the device. He could fine-tune settings using his phone or watch. He could even take calls and listen to music through the hearing aids.

Whittaker was sold. But what about the stigma of wearing hearing aids as a 49-year-old?

Whittaker is a member of the Northwest’s most famous mountaineering family. His dad founded Rainier Mountaineering. His uncle, Jim Whittaker, was the first American to summit Mount Everest. His brother, Peter, is RMI’s co-owner.

And Whittaker’s office, Mount Rainier, is the training ground for some of the most talented people in one of the world’s most macho professions.

ReSound had a solution for the hearing aid stigma issue, too, as it turned out. The tiny devices are offered in skin tones and are described by the manufacturer as discreet.

But Whittaker says he didn’t care about any stigma. He chose “Monza Red,” the flashiest of the 14 colors. “I’m flaunting them,” he said with a laugh.

He tells his clients about the devices. And he promotes them for the company.

Whittaker noticed a difference as soon as he put on the hearing aids. He remembers the sound of feet walking on wet cement and being excited to hear, once again, small sounds he’d been missing for years.

He started using the devices while guiding this summer. A quick tap of his watch allows him to turn down the howl of the wind in his ears.

Another tap and his hike has background music.

“I joke with clients that if I look like I don’t hear you right away it’s not because I can’t,” Whittaker said. “It’s because I’m listening to Pink.”

He says he never considered his hearing loss a safety issue. He could always hear rock and ice fall. But, now, he’s hearing much more.

“It’s like I can hear a small pebble falling,” Whittaker said. “I’ve had several people say, ‘Whoa, dude, how are you hearing that?’

“… I feel a little bionic.”

Whittaker climbed 14,411-foot Mount Rainier for the first time when he was 12 and has 185 summits to his credit. He says the mountain (and international windsurfing trips) is where he’s meant to be. More so than Hollywood, he now knows.

From 1994-99 he worked at making what he describes as “family movies.” His credits include more than a dozen films. He wrote background music for scenes in some of the movies. He still guided while he worked in the movie business and eventually it was these trips that inspired him to return almost entirely to the mountains.

Whittaker says one of his favorite film projects is “Sherpa: The Proving Ground,” a 2002 movie he directed. The documentary looks at the sherpa training program at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

Other movies he has worked on include “A Life Less Ordinary,” “The Runner” and “Stranger Than Fiction.”

He still plays music and is working on a new movie he hopes to release in 2016. It is a documentary on his father. Whittaker has also directed a film festival in Ashford for nearly a decade.

Reclaiming his hearing has added another level of pleasure to all of these pursuits, Whittaker said.

“It’s made a world of difference.”