Summiting Mountains of Rock and Mountains of Pain: Leif Whittaker’s Story

Leif Whittaker hiking in the hills with a backpack

Leif Whittaker hikes at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. Freya Fennwood, http://www.fennwoodphotography.com/

Leif Whittaker is no stranger to obstacles. He’s traversed icy glaciers, hiked rough terrain, and even climbed to the summit of Mount Everest twice.

“It’s in my blood,” said Leif. “It’s part of my heritage.”

But recently, Leif encountered a new kind of challenge: chronic pain. After an accident left him with a ruptured disk in his back, he turned to medtech to reclaim his life from pain and return to the freedom of adventure.

Answering the Call to Climb

In 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first American – and the tenth person ever – to reach the top of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. To many, he’s a hero. To Leif, he’s first and foremost dad.

“Ever since I was a kid, people asked me if I wanted to climb Mount Everest like my dad,” said Leif. “I didn’t know how to answer them. I didn’t even know what that meant. There was a lot of pressure and expectation out there.”

But by the time Leif was a teenager, his resistance transformed into an intense interest.

“I blame my brother for teaching me to tie into a rope,” said Leif. “He took me on a trip up Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in the mountain range where I grew up. We were just exploring and finding our way as we went,” he said. “We eventually made it to the summit and at that moment – standing with my brother, feeling the freedom of being out in the wilderness just the two of us – I think that’s where my passion really began.”

Leif continued climbing more and bigger peaks. He first visited the Himalayas in 2003, where he saw Everest for the first time.

“It changed my perspective, seeing it for the first time, the mountain I’d heard so much about my entire life,” said Leif. “It made me want to go back there, and seven years later, I had my first chance to climb it.”

Leif knew he’d need to prepare for plenty of physical dangers on Mount Everest: severe weather conditions, avalanches, and extreme altitude. But first, Leif would have to face his own physical battle with acute and chronic back pain.

Overcoming Acute and Chronic Back Pain  

Leif Whittaker downhill skiingLeif’s back pain began when he was in college on a backpacking trip around Europe.

Whittaker skis through powder in the Mount Baker backcountry. Freya Fennwood, http://www.fennwoodphotography.com/

“It was the first time I had lower back pain,” said Leif. “I was in a lot of pain, but I didn’t know why. Because I was outside of the U.S., I didn’t really know how to get medical help or treatment. So, I decided to just take it easy until I could get home to see my doctor.”

Fortunately, by the time Leif returned to the U.S., his pain had begun to subside, and his diagnosis was encouraging. Leif’s doctors used an MRI to determine that Leif had endured a herniated disc in his lower back, but it had already receded and healed well on its own. Discs are rubbery cushions between the bones that make up a person’s spine. Discs herniate when their soft cores tear through their exterior casings and irritate nerves nearby.

For two years after his herniated disc, Leif lived relatively pain free. Then, one wrong move during a pickup basketball game brought the pain roaring back.

“I had graduated college and was playing basketball one night in my hometown,” said Leif. “I was playing against a bunch of high school kids, and I wanted to show them how it’s done. Well, I went a bit too hard, went after a loose ball, and felt a sharp tweak in my back.”

Leif finished playing the game, but he could tell something was wrong. He went home afterwards to apply ice and rest.

“I did everything right, but I woke up the next morning in so much pain, I could barely get out of bed,” said Leif. “Even after a couple of days, it wasn’t any better. If anything, it was worse.”

Leif visited a team of spine specialists in Seattle, who used an MRI to identify a ruptured disc in Leif’s lower back. A ruptured disc is like a herniated disc, occurring when inner fragments of a disc burst out of their shells and into the spinal canal.

“I remember the surgeon telling me it was a Whittaker-sized rupture, and I wanted to hit him at that point!” joked Leif. “It was a huge portion of the disc that had ruptured, and it was impeding the nerves. After talking with the doctors about the condition and the risks, I decided to have corrective surgery.”

Overcoming Setbacks and Obstacles

Unfortunately, Leif’s health team came across a series of difficulties during their attempt to remove the ruptured fragments that were affecting the nerves in and around the spinal column. While they were able to successfully remove the fragments causing Leif’s acute pain, they were forced to interfere with part of Leif’s nerve system. Once Leif awoke from surgery, doctors immediately tested his nerve function and recovery.

“They tested my fingers and toes, asking me to move everything,” said Leif. “Everything worked, except for my lower right leg around my calf and ankle. I could feel my lower leg, but I didn’t have the same motor function and strength. It was a partial paralysis. It was really discouraging at the time. It was hard to come to terms with that injury and recognize that I had a new weakness that I couldn’t be sure I would ever come back from.”

Still, Leif made a commitment to work hard at rehabilitation under the direction of his health care team.

“I pushed through that pain, and I kept going,” said Leif. “My mom and dad are the most determined people I know. They persevere through every difficulty. So, I just said, ‘I’ll work through this difficulty and get as strong as I can.’”

Leif regained his strength and then some. He was soon able to walk, train, and, most importantly, climb without trouble. Then, just two years after his surgery, he was given his first opportunity to climb Mount Everest. So, Leif climbed in his father’s footsteps, and climbed a second time another two years later.

Leif writes about these experiences and more in his new book, My Old Man and the Mountain.

Hope, Perseverance and an Innovative Medical Device

Leif Whittaker climbing the face of a mountainBack on solid – and flat – ground, Leif returned his focus to his lingering back pain.

Whittaker climbs Generic Crack (5.10) at Indian Creek, Utah.
Freya Fennwood, http://www.fennwoodphotography.com/

“After my second trip up Everest, I was having acute back pain,” said Leif. “My back would ‘go out’ and I’d have an episode of pain for a few days, but then it would subside and go back to normal.”

But about five years later, Leif’s pain turned chronic.

“Every morning, I woke up sore and uncomfortable,” said Leif. “It was less pain than my acute episodes, but it was pain every day. It was hindering my ability to strengthen myself, to do the things I love to do, and to keep in shape.”

Faced with this new painful reality, Leif connected with a team of medtech innovators who posed a solution to his problem.

“They told me about a new device, and it sounded like exactly what I needed,” said Leif. “It sounded like they designed it for exactly what I was going through.”

The device has a pad the size of a hardcover book that uses pulsed electromagnetic energy to reduce pain and inflammation, especially in postoperative settings. A patient with back pain simply lies on the pad twice a day for thirty-minute sessions. Patients with other types of pain can place the pad against their unique treatment area.

“There’s nothing attached to me,” explains Leif. “I just lie on the pad and let it work. There’s really no sensation from it. It’s like meditating for half an hour.”

While it may sound simple, this innovative medtech has been transformative for people like Leif living with chronic pain.

“I’ve been using the device for four months, and it’s incredible how it’s taken my chronic pain away,” said Leif. “I was skeptical going into it – I didn’t want to get my hopes up for a miracle cure – but, I’ve been amazed by how effective it’s been.”

Life After Pain

Now, thanks to medtech, Leif can wholeheartedly seek adventure once more. He currently works as a climbing ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State.

“There are only two climbing rangers on the entire national forest,” said Leif. “We’re up in the mountains every week, going up and down, usually reaching the summit once a week, looking out for everyone’s safety and the conservation of the park. It’s a really physical job. But since I started using [the device] I’ve been able to strengthen myself and get in better shape than I’ve been in years. Honestly, I haven’t been in pain since I started using [the device].”

Leif’s recommendation for others living with chronic pain: Recognize it and get help.

“Now that I’m on the other side of chronic pain, I realize how much that pain was affecting my life,” said Leif. “It has emotional, mental effects on your attitude and your outlook. So, if you’re suffering, know that it’s important to address it.”

Find out how medtech is addressing acute and chronic pain and learn more about Leif’s story.