Family, fortitude and music combine in the legacy climb of – Return to Mount Kennedy.
In 1965 Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest and former REI CEO, led Robert Kennedy on the first ascent of a remote mountain in the Yukon named after JFK. Fifty years later, Jim’s sons Bobby (who spent 30+ years in the music industry starting with Sub Pop Records and tour promoting for R.E.M.) and Leif revisit the site of the iconic climb to learn more about the endeavor that shaped their families. Bobby also calls upon Christopher Kennedy, 52, the son of RFK and Ethel Kennedy to join them on the mission. Chris is a businessman and politician who lives in Illinois and is equally as unequipped to scale a mountain. Nevertheless, he has a powerful desire to honor his father and family and he accepts the invitation. Like their fathers before them, the trio bring out the best in each other. Confronting deeply emotional memories from a tumultuous era of American history, Bobby, Chris, and Leif finally understand why they were so driven to go there and why they must continue to do good in the world.
Return to Mount Kennedy spans generations, reminding how every trail connects through the enduring friendships built in the mountains. It features new instrumentals by Eddie Vedder and never before seen footage of the climb, the film sits at the intersection of politics, human rights, environmentalism, and adventure.
I recently had the opportunity to connect with the film’s director, Eric Becker, who here, takes us inside the journey of documenting such a unifying expedition.
How did you get involved in the making of this film?
Bob Whittaker and I met after I made a short film about his father, Jim. We hung out a few times and he casually dropped in an email at one point that he was interested in climbing Mt. Kennedy and I said ’I’m in’ not really thinking anything of it. I went back and found the thread a few months ago. I replied at around 8pm on a Thursday, so the chance that I was a few beers deep was probably in the 99-100% range.
Do you remember the moment where it was decided to make this a documentary?
I thought this was going to be a short film about us climbing the mountain with a little bit of history. When the editor (Andrew Franks) and I really started to dig in, it quickly became apparent that we couldn’t cover all the content we were unearthing in less than a feature length piece.
What was your personal experience like in climbing?
Let me be very clear – I am not a mountaineer. Other than some higher altitude camping around Washington state, I haven’t done any climbing. I’m terrified of heights and I am really shitty at tying knots. But because of years of bike racing and other sports, I have a pretty high suffer-tolerance. I’m also down to be out of my comfort zone, because I think that’s what makes you a better person. So, even though climbing Mt. Kennedy was one of the most challenging things I’ve done, physically, I enjoyed it. Much more challenging was trying to weave together all the disparate story lines, years, and characters into a film that was watchable.
As the director, are you able to create a story-line going into such an adventure? I imagine it comes as you go?
Going in, I really thought this was going to be a short film about our climb as I mentioned earlier. I approached the climb with the intention of just covering as much as we could. In that sense, other than the physical difficulty of shooting in the cold at altitude attached to a rope, mountain stories are somewhat simple. You prepare, you climb, and you summit or you don’t. The real heavy lifting story-wise came about during the edit. Making a film is like any type of exploration— you follow a path that seems right at the time. Sometimes you hit a dead end, sometimes you find gold. Intuition and practice play a bit part in the way that I work.
The music that accompanies the film is incredible with originals from Eddie Vedder, R.E.M. Mudhoney, Yeah Yeah Yeahs etc. I envision it really compliments the narrative. How important was it to place the right music?
Music wise, I’m always keeping lists of songs that I like whenever I hear something. That way, I can refer to my lists and see if something matches well. Ed’s music was perfect— it came in at a point where we were already well into the editing process. He basically handed us a CD with 9 songs on it and said, “use whatever.” Some of the pieces were literally perfect for the feel of the scenes that we were going for.
Like climbing a mounting physically, this story seems to have its challenges and the reward is the journey itself. Is that a fair assessment?
There have been moments where it’s felt really great. A festival flew me to Spain in November, wined me and dined me, and awarded the film their Grand Jury Prize. That felt like a once in a lifetime experience. It’s also been great to get to know Ed a bit and share the stage with him at a few events, not to mention the countless other people the film has connected me to. But honestly, things don’t tend to feel ‘rewarding’ for me. I guess I get a confidence boost when we win something or when people give me positive feedback. But at the end of the day, I think I’m more wired to just figure out “this has been cool, but what are we doing on Monday?” I’m always on to the next thing.
What do you want the takeaway to be for the viewer?
Well, first and foremost I want people to enjoy it. Sometimes documentaries can be a real bummer. They can also be really fucking boring. It was really important to me to make something that was entertaining and engaging. We’re dealing with a heavy issues here— assassinated political figures and strained relationships between families. It could easily wander into feeling like too much too fast. So, I tried to make people laugh and cry, sometimes within small spaces of time. Good filmmaking is about taking people on an adventure.
The trailer closes with the lyric – “When I return again, how will you be?” A very relative line to the film. What are your thoughts on that?
I love that song— the band is Luluc, another track from Sub Pop. That was just a coincidence, meaning I didn’t choose the song for that. I chose it because it had a good flow for the way we had the trailer laid out. One of the real questions with the film was “Why does Bob want to climb mount Kennedy?” The other question which is directly related to that was “How did climbing Mt. Kennedy change Bob?” That’s something the viewer has to decide.
Scroll through the Return to Mt. Kennedy gallery
Well, the brutal reality is that the journey continues. Making a film is kind of the halfway mark these days. Then comes all the work in promoting it, paying off debt and finding a distributor. Even now a big part of my spare time is handling that stuff. I really want as many people to see it as possible, so I’m working on it every day.
There’s a line in the press release, “Every trail connects thru the enduring friendships built in the mountains.” It’s a very profound perspective on this story.
I really like this idea. Mountains, wilderness, adventure— all of those things build relationships between people. The film I made about Jim climbing Mt. Everest led to the crazy experience that has been making Mt. Kennedy. And I’m in the final stages of another short film that 100% came out of connections I made to people I met making Mt. Kennedy. It’s strange to think that a mountain climbed by two men in 1965 is still shaping my life. Bob’s life too.