Dec. 23, 1996
Dec. 23, 1996

Table of Contents
Dec. 23, 1996

Faces In The Crowd
Sportsman Of The Year


This past May 23, mountaineer and cinematographer David
Breashears made his final push to the summit of Mount Everest,
at 29,028 feet the tallest mountain in the world. Breashears and
his Sherpa assistants left camp at midnight, an hour behind the
party's chief climber, Ed Viesturs, a rangy 37-year-old from
Seattle. Breashears, who was making an IMAX film during the
trip, assumed he and the Sherpas would reel Viesturs in because
they were using bottled oxygen in Everest's tropospheric air,
while Viesturs was not. Despite that handicap and despite the
fact that he also had the exhausting task of breaking trail
through heavy snow, Viesturs was nearly to the summit before
Breashears caught him. "Let's not say 'caught,'" Breashears says
in a tone of amazement. "Ed waited for me, and I joined him

This is an article from the Dec. 23, 1996 issue Original Layout

Ed Viesturs is a mountaineer. But it might be more appropriate
to view him as a pair of lungs that sprouted feet. Viesturs
excels in the thin air and brutal conditions of the world's
tallest peaks, his legs pumping pistonlike to move him up the
slope when most other climbers are gasping and bent over their
ice axes from fatigue. That ability has helped put Viesturs
(pronounced VEE-stirs) close to mountaineering's Grand Slam, a
feat attained by reaching the summits of all 14 of the world's
8,000-plus-meter peaks, which poke up from the great mountain
ranges of Nepal and Kashmir like huge, icy shark's teeth. More
remarkably, he is trying to complete all 14 climbs without the
physiological crutch of an oxygen tank. With nine of the peaks
in the bag and five to go, Viesturs is nearing his goal. When he
makes number 14, perhaps in 1998, he'll be the first American,
with or without oxygen, to have scaled all of those mountains,
and only the sixth mountaineer in the world--after Reinhold
Messner (Italy), Jerzy Kukuczka (Poland), Erhard Loretan
(Switzerland), Carlos Carsolio (Mexico) and Krzysztof Wielicki
(Poland)--to have done so.

In an era when mountaineering has split into a half-dozen
sometimes abstruse branches--for example, sport-climbing on
man-made walls, extreme ice ascents and rock climbing in exotic
places like Thailand--Viesturs has stuck to basics. He does hard
climbs on big mountains as simply as possible. At that, he's
about the best there is. Says Breashears, himself a top-flight
mountaineer, "One of the joys of being with Ed is knowing you're
in the presence of a superior being. Ed has some sort of gift
for performing at high altitude."

That gift may be that he seems to enjoy himself where others
find mostly agony. Viesturs is an affable, chatty fellow of
medium height, with a wide, toothy grin. He has big, strong
hands and the tousled, light brown hair and perpetual tan of a
California surfer. But what's most striking are his large brown
eyes, which almost bug out with delight when he talks about some
recent route. Viesturs unfailingly makes epic climbs on the
biggest, baddest mountains sound like a stroll up a gentle
incline. Take K2, the world's second-highest mountain, at 28,250
feet, and perhaps the most intimidating. In 1992, Viesturs
aborted his first attempt at the summit to help a party in
distress descend. Then, after summiting, his group helped
another climber who was ill down the mountain. "A great summit,"
he says simply. Or his 1993 solo bid to climb Everest, an effort
that failed because of lousy weather and avalanches: "A neat
experience." Or his first ascent of Everest, in 1990. Because he
wasn't using oxygen he camped lower than his partners, but some
climbers in the group thought he wouldn't have enough time for
the longer climb to the top and still make it back to camp: "It
was great. A perfect day."

Viesturs seems to be an exception to the accepted rule that
humans aren't designed for high elevations. At 16,000 feet
there's one-third less oxygen in each breath of air than at sea
level. Above 25,000 feet there's a lung-busting two-thirds less.
The absence of oxygen molecules can result in progressively more
harmful ills. Among them: acute mountain sickness (pounding
headache, nausea); pulmonary edema (a buildup of frothy, bloody
fluid in the lungs causing severe coughing and, in some cases,
coma or death); or cerebral edema (a buildup of fluid on the
brain that causes severe headache, mental confusion or
hallucination, potentially fatal as well).

A slow trip up a mountain, setting progressively higher camps,
can reduce the effects of altitude by giving the body time to
adapt. Bottled oxygen also can help climbers cope. But even with
that, the average climber in the Himalayas is a miserable
specimen--half-starved, gasping for air at four times the normal
rate, wracked with a cough from the thin, dry air that has been
known to cause cracked ribs. Add to that bitter cold and high
winds that can sweep a person from his feet. Climbers call the
region above 25,000 feet the Death Zone.

Measure a population of human beings for its ability to cope
with altitude, and a very small number will be on the far
righthand side of the bell curve. That's where you'll find
Viesturs. He has never had so much as a headache when climbing.
Like most climbers at high elevations, Viesturs has difficulty
eating regular meals, but he can tolerate climbing without
eating, a rare ability, and thus maintain his energy. When it
comes to extracting the most from thin air, he's as adapted as a
fish in water.

"He's got a big, barrel chest, but he's lean--very lean," says
Dr. Robert Schoene, a mountaineer and professor of medicine at
the University of Washington who put Viesturs on a treadmill in
August to see what makes him tick. "His lungs are huge, with a
heart stuck in there somewhere. It's pretty much what I would
have expected of Ed." More technically, Viesturs has a VO2 max,
or oxygen-uptake capacity, of 67 cubic centimeters per kilogram
of body weight per minute, about equal to other elite
mountaineers and slightly below that of an elite runner. What
sets him apart is his ability to work at some 80% of his aerobic
capacity for extended periods, well above the average, which is
around 55%. Schoene compares Viesturs to a pronghorn antelope,
an animal whose defense against predators is its ability to run
very fast for long periods of time. Climbing companions of
Viesturs find the analogy telling. "I'm fit," says Viesturs's
climbing friend Eric Simonson, "but I can't keep up with him."

Surviving at altitude means more than the ability to suck in
air, however. No organ is more oxygen-sensitive than the brain,
and high-altitude climbers often recount weird distortions of
time, an inability to perform simple tasks, such as strapping on
crampons, or lengthy conversations with imaginary climbing
partners. Schoene, for instance, took part in a 1981 climb of
Everest during which extensive medical tests were conducted on
team members, including tests of mental acuity. Recall, general
coordination and other measurements of brain function "were
abnormal in all of us when we got back," says Schoene. "Most of
it came back within a year, and all of it will eventually. I
hope." Viesturs doesn't scoff at such talk. Trained as a
veterinarian, he knows physiology. "I think about it [the risks
of being at high altitude], but I seem to be O.K.," he says with
a chuckle. "At least, nobody has said, 'Hey, Ed, you've changed.'"

Viesturs wasn't born to the mountains. He grew up in Rockford,
Ill., in the pancake-flat Midwest. It was as a schoolboy that
Viesturs found his calling in a copy of Annapurna, French
climber Maurice Herzog's account of his heroic 1950 ascent, when
he became the first to conquer an 8,000-meter peak. "After that
I read everything I could get my hands on about climbing,"
Viesturs says. "Climbing was what I wanted to do." After he
graduated from the University of Washington in 1981, he moved to
Pullman, where he attended Washington State University's
veterinary school and spent his weekends climbing the scores of
peaks in the Cascade Range.

While he was in vet school, he worked for Rainier Mountaineering
Inc., a guide service that leads clients up 14,411-foot Mount
Rainier, and made the first of what would be 187 summit trips
there. Viesturs's climbing partners regularly single him out for
his even temper and ability to keep cool when things look grim,
and his Rainier experience perhaps accounts for his equanimity.
It was on Rainier, dealing with the slow, the annoying and the
terrified, as well as Rainier's Himalaya-like conditions, that
Viesturs learned to handle people and himself. "The way I judge
my guides is in the letters that come back to me," says Lou
Whittaker, one of the owners of Rainier Mountaineering Inc. "I
never received a negative letter about Ed."

That ability to please now serves Viesturs well in another
regard: Outdoor gear manufacturers and others are financing his
14-peak effort and supplying him with gear, giving him perhaps
the deepest pockets of any mountaineer on the scene. Whether in
dealing with sponsors or with mountains, Viesturs is organized
and punctilious. He climbs by his watch, estimating how long it
will take to reach a summit, then calculating a departure time
that will allow him to reach the top before his predetermined
turnaround time, the point at which he feels he must start his
descent to get back safely. And he won't hesitate to turn around
even when he is close to the summit, as he did in 1987 when he
and Simonson were a mere 350 feet from the top of Everest but
stopped because they had run out of rope needed for a technical
section and, with darkness approaching, were concerned about
getting down safely. "Getting to the top is optional, but
getting down is mandatory," Viesturs says. "A lot of people get
focused on the summit, and forget that."

Viesturs believes that "summit fever" contributed to last
spring's Everest tragedy. On May 10 Viesturs was in Camp 2, well
down the mountain. Through a telescope, he watched as guided
parties led by Scott Fischer, an American climber, and Rob Hall,
an elite climber from New Zealand, began their disastrous
ascent. "We could see they were moving slowly," Viesturs says.
"I couldn't understand why they were still going on." As midday
became late afternoon, a storm swept in, pinning down the two
teams and another from Taiwan. By late the next day, eight
climbers were dead, among them Fischer and Hall.

Their deaths devastated Viesturs. He had climbed K2 with Fischer
in 1992. The three men had planned to helicopter out of Everest
base camp after their May climbs and zip over to 26,760-foot
Manaslu, another on Viesturs's still-to-climb list. Instead,
Viesturs eavesdropped as a dying Hall spoke by radio with his
wife in New Zealand. Viesturs made a futile effort to get up the
mountain and save his friends. "I finally realized there was no
way Rob was going to survive, and I just stood there and wept,"
he says. When Viesturs finally did ascend Everest less than two
weeks later, he passed the bodies of both of his friends. They
were left on the icy slopes of the summit ridge because
attempting to recover them would be too dangerous and strenuous.

The Everest tragedy underscores the hazards of Himalayan
climbing, hazards that perhaps have been obscured as guided
parties have become common and the sense has grown that anyone
can climb a big peak if he can afford a decent guide. But
historically, for every 10 climbers who reach a summit in the
Himalayas, one does not come back. Those are tough odds.
Viesturs, though, doesn't think they're stacked against him.
"The more I go, the more I've learned from all the times I've
gone before," he says, sitting in the living room of his west
Seattle home, which he recently bought with his wife, Paula, a
teacher in a day-treatment center for abused children, who is
not a mountaineer. "So every time I climb, I'm safer,
smarter--and more conservative."

Viesturs has knocked off perhaps the largest obstacles to his
bid to climb all of the world's tallest peaks (including the big
three--Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga). But he still faces some
difficult climbs, notably Annapurna, the peak that first
inspired him, and Nanga Parbat, a fierce minaret of rock and ice
in Kashmir. Those who know Viesturs figure he'll make his 14,
and do it safely. What then? Perhaps Breashears's IMAX film, due
out early in 1998, will place Viesturs among the handful of
American mountaineers who have gained widespread fame, such as
Jim Whittaker, twin brother of Lou and the first American to
climb Everest. Viesturs may go back to veterinary medicine, or
perhaps he'll join one of the companies that sponsors him. If
hard work and organization are what the job requires, he'll do
well. If good lungs help, he's a lock.

Seattle writer Douglas Gantenbein has climbed Mount Rainier 11

COLOR PHOTO: ARACELI SEGARRA Viesturs ascended Everest in May without oxygen.[Back view of Ed Viesturs climbing mountain]COLOR PHOTO: VIESTURS COLLECTION Viesturs (left, center) saw Hall (far left) perish on Everest, where, later with Breashears (foreground below) he retrieved another victim of the storm. [Rob Hall, Ed Viesturs, and other]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT SCHAUER [See caption above--David Breashears and others]COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN Viesturs never forgets that "getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory." [Ed Viesturs]