Peter Whittaker was just 12 years old when he first climbed Mount Rainier, the storied Pacific Northwest volcano, home to the Fifty Classic’s Liberty Ridge and a host of other alpine testpieces. Back then, tweens were still a rarity on the 14,411-foot summit—Washington’s high point—yet Whittaker’s climb didn’t take the local mountaineering community by surprise.
The son of legendary alpinist Lou Whittaker, who led the first American ascent of Mount Everest's north face in 1984; and nephew to Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest in 1963, Peter Whittaker (along with his family) is American mountaineering royalty. The climb—and his future as one of America’s most distinguished alpine guides—was preordained.
His love for the mountains was as instantaneous as it was anticipated. At 16, Whittaker joined the family business, Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), and began guiding clients—many over three times his age—up the steep glaciers covering the iconic mountain’s flanks. That summer job paved the way to expeditions on all seven continents and, at age 47, ownership of the United States’ largest guiding service.
Apparel giants took note of Whittaker’s achievements, and Mountain Hardwear and Marmot offered him brand ambassadorships in exchange for his real-world feedback. In 2008, Eddie Bauer CEO Neil Fiske and Whittaker partnered to create the First Ascent brand.
Bad designs can make or break an expedition. Whittaker knows this firsthand. Tiny flaws can be disastrous above treeline: Metal buttons cut into thighs, overly constrictive hoods reduce mobility, and ill-constructed puffy jackets lead to jammed zippers and perilous exposure to the elements.
His expert feedback has led to award-winning designs like the 2007 JanSport Whittaker LR backpack, and 14 industry awards for the First Ascent collection. Still, the outdoor gear and apparel industries can always do better when considering climbers’ and guides’ specific needs. As but one example, some of Whittaker’s RMI guides have self-altered jackets to improve their functionality, slicing their sleeves’ cuffs to better view their altimeter watches.
Jess Matthews, a 35-year-old guide with RMI, can relate to that impulse. She almost cut off her sleeve, mid-climb at 12,300 feet, on Rainier’s Disappointment Cleaver (DC) Route. “It was super-low visibility, and I needed to know where I was on the route and if there were any nearby hazards,” she said. “I couldn’t get my sleeve up. That’s when I wanted to cut it off.”
Matthews and her fellow RMI guides gripe and laugh about these issues, but Whittaker knew these flaws were more than just frustrating—they were also safety issues. In 2016, he decided that if he wanted to provide his guides with the ultimate alpine kit, he’d need to build it himself.
That dream is now reality. Bight Gear, a specialty outdoor apparel brand named after the bend in a climbing rope, launches today online and comes with an unprecedented promise: every Bight product has gone through a minimum of 100,000 vertical feet of mountain testing.
“We’re high up on the mountains. Corporations aren’t up there,” Whittaker said. “Our focus is building apparel, so it’s built right. We select the best fabrics and materials, and then worry about cost later. Not the other way around. Our products need to be the best.”
This mentality coupled with Whittaker’s Rainier test lab makes Bight unique in a sea of outdoor-apparel brands. Whittaker and his stable of 60 RMI guides have spent the last two years developing the perfect alpine kit. The guides spend a combined 10,000 days a year at or above treeline and directly contribute their end-user experience into the final designs.
“We wear a lot of great gear in all sorts of conditions, but things can still be better here and there,” said Matthews, who has tested Bight on summits in both North and South America. “To work with Whittaker, and have a meaningful impact on the design process, has been a wonderful experience. The gear just works.”
This real-world data allows Whittaker to translate ah-ha moments into smart designs like the Moraine Climbing Pant: a slim, stretchy softshell pant that eliminates zippers or grommets around the hips.
“My guides literally have scars from snaps on hardshell pants. The NeoShell Nuker doesn’t zip all the way up to the hip for that reason,” said Whittaker. “Anything under a harness will grind into hips and can create open wounds in the middle of a three-week expedition.”
The guides love it too; sometimes too much.
“I know it’s a good design when the guide tests it and it doesn’t come back,” Whittaker laughed.