From up there, five miles above the Earth, everything looked perfect to Ed Viesturs. On the summit of Annapurna, the high-altitude climber took in his final view above the vast sea of white clouds and the jagged Himalaya mountain range that stretched beyond. Who knew that this would also be his last moment of peace? ¬∂ Fifteen years, 11 months and 25 days after he began his quest to scale the world's 14 highest peaks without supplemental oxygen, Viesturs (pronounced VEE-sturs) announced in May that he was retiring from chasing 8,000-meter (26,240-foot) mountains in pursuit of more mundane challenges. On a recent July morning this means managing the home front while his wife, Paula, goes for an hourlong run and leaves him alone with their three kids--Gilbert, 7, Ella, 5, and Anabel, 10 months.
This is an article from the Aug. 1, 2005 issue
Viesturs has been fielding business calls all morning and needs to run up to his home office on the second floor of his garage to prepare a few slides from his 1992 K2 expedition for an emergency FedEx delivery. Bored, Gilbert and Ella tag along, climbing the stairs past the Tibetan prayer flags hanging in front of the office. Viesturs, 46, runs back into the house. "Oops, I need the baby monitor," he says.
The first American to join climbing's 8,000-meter club lives in a spacious pale-yellow house on Bainbridge Island, Wash., a rustic residential community in Puget Sound that is reached by a 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. Several large nylon bags filled with climbing gear, and poster-sized prints of Viesturs grinning on the summits of all the 8,000-meter peaks, are strewn on the office floor. Gilbert is more interested in a desk drawer full of high-tech gadgets. "This is awesome," he says. "Hey, Dad, this GPS isn't working!" Viesturs, poring through a few hundred slides, runs out to the backyard to set the GPS and then back into the house to check on the baby.
"I've always liked doing things that weren't easy. I like the challenge," Viesturs says. The phone rings. He checks the caller I.D. and sets the cordless phone down. Gil wants to know if you can get "brain freeze" from being at high altitude. Ella wants a bagel with strawberry jam. "Daaaaaad," she implores. "I'm hungry." For a moment Viesturs's brown, saucer-sized eyes stare into the distance. "You know," he says, "I used to be more efficient."
By the time Paula returns, the kids have decided they want their father to take them for a bike ride around the neighborhood. As Gilbert and Ella search a shallow pond for Pacific tree frogs, Viesturs reminisces about the epic struggles he faced on 26,545-foot Annapurna, the deadliest of all peaks in the Himalayas.
Viesturs had already made two previous attempts on Annapurna, in 2000 and 2002, but turned back because of avalanche threats. In May, he and his partner Veikka Gustafsson, a former special forces operative from Finland, pressed on, despite minor avalanches on the mountain's north side, which they were scaling. After debate the pair decided to climb with a team of five Italians led by Silvio Mondinelli, who had spent weeks fixing rope along the route. Though they safely passed the towering seracs around 21,000 ft, in the riskiest section of the climb, their worries were far from over.
At altitudes above 20,000 feet the human body begins to turn catabolic--a condition in which the muscles weaken and the absorption of nutrients is disrupted. Climbers refer to this realm as the death zone. For every step, a climber takes 10 to 15 breaths. The brain becomes so starved for oxygen that judgment is impaired and "you're willing to do only the most basic task," Viesturs says. "It's a struggle just to concentrate on putting your boots on."
For three days Viesturs and Gustafsson shared a small tent at 22,500 feet as a storm pelted it with snow, and winds whipped to 80 mph. They barely ate, slept or talked; they passed the time thinking about getting off the mountain. "It was agonizing," Viesturs says. "Not only was I close to finishing Annapurna, I was that much closer to finishing this goal. I was just one day away."
When the weather finally broke, the team began the summit bid on May 12 at 3 a.m. and pushed for 11 hours straight, through heavy snow for 4,000 vertical feet. The climbers reached the peak at 2 p.m., stayed for an hour (shooting photos and videos and "enjoying the view") and then began the trek back down to base camp. When Viesturs arrived there the next day, a support team met him with beer and potato chips. "You know what it's like to climb for 11 hours? I tell people to imagine getting up, drinking coffee, driving to work, spending eight hours at work. Then going home, having dinner and watching TV. And I'm still climbing," he says. "I like [having to maintain] the mental stamina, of just stripping it down to get from point A to the next point."
In 1808 the British empire launched the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, which would determine the tallest peaks in the world. A half century later the 14 highest--all in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges--were measured, named and ready to be conquered. In 1950 Maurice Herzog of France summited Annapurna in the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak. When the last unscaled one, Shishapangma, was bagged by a team of Chinese climbers in 1964, the race was on to become the first climber to complete the 14-peak grand slam of mountaineering.
Reinhold Messner of Tyrol, Italy, then the world's most celebrated climber, stepped up to the challenge and began his assault on Nanga Parbat--his first 8,000-meter peak--in 1970. By the early 1980s Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka began gaining on Messner, who was forced to double his number of ascents each year to stay ahead. Messner finally summited Lhotse in 1986 to become the first to scale all of the tallest peaks.
"There's no shortage of attitude and testosterone in the ranks of hard-core climbers. It can be very competitive," says U.S. mountaineer Eric Simonson, who led a 1999 expedition on Everest to recover the body of famed climber George Mallory, lost on the mountain in 1924. "You have a bunch of alpha dogs trying to piss on the same fire hydrant."
Alpha mountaineers are broken into two camps: the Himalayan climbers, who seek the highest peaks on established routes, and the Alpinists, who focus on unexplored, technical routes on lower peaks. While Alpinists are generally unknown outside the climbing community, Himalayan climbers often receive international recognition for their achievements, which causes some resentment. Viesturs, for one, earned national acclaim after topping Annapurna. He appeared on major television programs and in photo spreads in national magazines, threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game and received a signed photograph of George W. Bush.
"The public sees Everest as the greatest challenge to mountain climbers," says Mark Richey, president of the American Alpine Club. "To the hard-core climbing sector [Viesturs's accomplishment] is not the pinnacle. The routes he's climbed on 8,000-meter peaks, they're high-altitude snow slogs. They're the easiest routes up gigantic mountains."
Yet even on the easiest routes Himalayan climbers face harsh conditions and risk of death. Before Viesturs, only 11 had summitted the 14 highest peaks and only four--Messner, Erhard Loretan of Sweden and Spain's Juanito Oiaràbal and Alberto I√±urrategi--had done it without supplemental oxygen. Nearly all paid a tragic price for time spent in the death zone. Says Simonson, "If you put yourself in harm's way over and over, the numbers start to go against you."
On his 1970 descent of Nanga Parbat, Messner lost his brother G√ºnther in an avalanche. After searching all night for him, Messner suffered severe frostbite, and six of his toes and several fingertips had to be amputated.
In 1987 Kukuczka became a national hero in Poland for finishing the 14 peaks in a record time of seven years, 11 months and two weeks. He was awarded an honorary silver medal by the International Olympic Committee in Calgary in 1988. A year later Kukuczka returned to Lhotse, his first 8,000-meter peak, to set a new route up the south face. Near the summit his climbing rope snapped, and Kukuczka, 41, fell to his death.
In 1999 the brash Oiaràbal summitted Annapurna to become the third man to do all 14 without oxygen. He returned to K2 in July 2004, at age 48, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of that peak. Lagging behind his partners during the descent, Oiaràbal went temporarily blind and collapsed in the snow when his corneas froze and fluids began to fill his lungs. Oiaràbal's team found him nearly unconscious three hours later. He suffered severe frostbite and had all 10 toes amputated. "All I think about is returning to the mountains. I can't live without them," he said last year.
I√±urrategi was the fourth man to claim the 14 peaks without oxygen and--at 34 when he finished his list in 2002--the second youngest (behind Carlos Carsolio of Mexico, who completed the feat in 1996 at age 33). The shy Basque climber had set out to complete his quest with his brother Felix. Together the pair climbed 12 of the highest peaks before an ice screw came loose on a 2000 descent of Gasherbrum II, and Felix fell 300 feet to his death.
Finally, a week after Viesturs completed his 14-peak quest, Italian climber Christian Kuntner seemed on the verge of becoming the sixth man to claim all the peaks without oxygen. Following the same route Viesturs had taken on Annapurna, Kuntner, 43, was making his way through a section of unstable ice cliffs when a large chunk of a serac broke free and crushed him. Annapurna had claimed its 55th victim.
Viesturs's safety record is impeccable. Many climbers attribute that to his meticulous planning and preparation and his ability to understand the changing conditions on a mountain. He has made 26 attempts on the 8,000-meter peaks and has spent roughly 40 days in the death zone, believed to be more than any other climber. "It's a risky environment, but we're not seeking danger. We try to be smart and minimize the risk," Viesturs says as he pushes Anabel on a back-porch swing. "There's an art to mountaineering and of doing it right and of knowing when to go and not go."
Viesturs has made a point of never pushing his luck to make a summit. On his first trip to Everest, in 1987, he and Simonson turned back 300 feet from the top because they ran out of rope. Viesturs went on to make six Everest summits, including three without oxygen, in '90, '91 and '96. On a '93 expedition to Shishapangma he got to 20 vertical feet below the peak and turned around because of unstable snow conditions. He reached the summit with Gustafsson in '01.
"I remember [on the '01 trip] we were the only guys roped on a glacier," Gustafsson says. "I know some of the glaciers were not that dangerous, but there could be something. It's very brave to be as safe as you can. Many other climbers, maybe they look at us and say, 'Those guys are wimps and losers. They use their helmets all the time and are roped up.' But I don't argue. If someone does it without a rope or helmet, it's their problem."
While Steady Eddie has been lucky to avoid disasters, he got a firsthand account of mountaineering's worst accident, in 1996. On May 11 of that year a sudden blizzard struck the top of Everest as at least 19 climbers were on their way to the summit. Eight died in the storm, including two of Viesturs's close friends, New Zealand guide Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, whose wedding Viesturs had flown to Mexico to photograph a month earlier. Viesturs was a mile below the summit leading an IMAX expedition with filmmaker David Breashears. Unable to save his friends, Viesturs spoke to Hall through radio contact and listened to Hall's last words with his pregnant wife back in New Zealand. Twelve days later, on his way to his third Everest summit, Viesturs trudged through knee-deep snow past his two friends, sat down beside their frozen bodies and sobbed. "This is a man with tremendous resolve," Breashears says. "Despite the death of his two good friends he still wanted to finish the task."
Viesturs's love affair with the tallest peaks started when, at 16, he picked up a copy of Herzog's Annapurna. "He liked adventure books like Shackleton's Incredible Voyage--anything [about explorers who] faced lots of difficulty," says Elmars Viesturs, Ed's father. Elmars, a mechanical engineer from Latvia, and his wife, Ingrid, a native of Germany, settled in Rockford, Ill., where they raised Ed and his older sister, Velta.
Determined to leave the flatlands of the Midwest, Ed moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington and climb 14,411-foot Mount Rainier on weekends. He graduated from veterinary school at Washington State in 1987. For two years Viesturs worked four days a week for two veterinary clinics, handling a wide range of challenges. "I once had a woman come in with a pet squirrel named Rocky. Her little girl had been wrapping presents and accidentally snipped the tail off with a pair of scissors. I figured it had meningitis because it kept running in circles. We tried antibiotics, and he was cured," he says proudly.
However, Viesturs was taking too much time off to go on expeditions, and in 1989 he quit to begin climbing full time. By '92 he had knocked off the three tallest peaks in the world--Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga--and he committed to crossing off the remaining 11. Finishing the project, he says, "was bittersweet. It's been such a huge part of my life, and I don't have that now."
"It's weird," Paula says, turning to her husband. "When you finished, I thought you'd go, 'Oh, whew.' For me, I was just anxious before you left. I'd be eight weeks alone with the kids."
"You were telling me to just call in sick [and skip the climb]," he says.
Those days are over. Viesturs says he has seen enough of the 8,000-meter peaks. Standing in his kitchen, with his family around him, he thinks about the next step. "I just want to try some other peaks with David [Breashears] and Veikka and have fun," he says. "I don't think I have to be gone as long. And maybe we can take the kids to Kilimanjaro."
"Do they have lions there?" Gilbert asks. His dad nods with a smile. "Well, what are we waiting for?" says Gilbert. "Let's go!"