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Ed Viesturs: The Thinking Man's High Altitude Climber

With six ascents of Everest already under his belt, Ed Viesturs is once again attempting the highest mountain on Earth without oxygen
By Peter Potterfield - April 8th, 2009

Ed Viesturs is suddenly  back in the high Himalaya, somewhat unexpectedly. But it's a place where he is no stranger.

Not only has Viesturs climbed all of the world's highest mountains without supplemental oxygen, but he's been to the top of an 8,000-meter peak no less than 20 times, and has 23 separate trips above 8,000 meters to his credit, including six to the top of Mount Everest. His record of high altitude climbing puts him in elite company. He joins a small club of just six people, including Reinhold Messner, the first, who have climbed all the Himalayan giants without oxygen.

But after becoming the first United States climber in history to reach the summit of all 14 8,000 meter peaks with his May 12, 2007 ascent of Annapurna, he officially bowed out of extreme high-altitude climbing.
 
"Basically," he told GreatOutdoors following his successful ascent of Annapurna, his last 8,000 meter peak, "there's no reason for me to return to the 8,000-meter peaks. Why go back? I've been there, I've been there 20 times, and I've been there without oxygen." (See the video interviews with Ed on his return from Annapurna.)
 
He did however keep open the possibility, even then, of returning to Everest.
 
“In the future,” he told me, “there might be something interesting to do on Everest, like another film project. That's always a possibility.
 
That possibility has become reality, as Ed Viesturs heads once again to the highest mountain on earth to try to climb it, once again, without oxygen.
 
"I always said that for me to go back to Everest," he told me, "it would take something specail, something really intresting. We'll, this is it. I'm going to launch a brand of gear that I've helped design and build, called First Ascent. Now, along with Dave Hahn and Peter Whittaker, we're going to Everest to give that clothing the ultimate test."
 
 Everest is familiar terrain for Viesturs. His six successful summits on Everest include one during the tragic season of 1996, when he climbed the mountain virtually on cue for an IMAX film following the death of his friends Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, and six other climbers, during a storm. Another was to make a PBS film about high altitude climbing, called Into the Death Zone. His last ascent of Everest was made in 2004 while working for a film crew producing a major feature film about the 1996 tragedy.
 
"The 2004 climb on Everest was a  good one," said Viesturs, "even if the film never got made. All six of us, David Breashears, Jimmy Chinn, Veikka Gustafsson, Amy Bullard, Robert Schauer and me, reached the top yesterday along with seven Sherpa. Not only did we successfully climb Everest, but David Breashears did historic filming for a feature movie at the Balcony, the South Summit and at the true summit. It was tough, to climb and film at the same time, but we did what we set out to do.This was a very capable group of climbers, and that makes it safer."
 
Viesturs said that summit day was "pretty spectacular." He added, "We left Camp Four at about 10:15 pm yesterday and climbed through the night. We reached the South Summit at sunrise and continued on to the summit where we arrived around 6:00 am or 6:30 am in the morning." 
 
"The fact is, the summit of Everest is truly an incredible place," Viesturs told GreatOutdoors.com, "and it never loses its mystery and beauty even after you've been there six times. It felt pretty cool to be back on top. That's why when this opportunity came up to climb with another strong group of climbers I was open to the idea."
 
During his 18 year quest to climb all 14 of the world's highest peak, Viesturs garnered a reputation for climbing safely, or at least as safe as high alttitude climbing allows. Twice he retreated from Annapurna when he felt avalanche danger was two high, and he did the same thing on Broad Peak and Shishapangma as well. Now some question why, with his quest complete, he is returning to the highest mountain on earth and it's inevitable risks. But Viesturs says this climb will be no different.
 
"This will by my eleventh expedition to Everest, so I don't plan on doing anything foolish now," he said. "And still, it's exciting to me. Everest is always Everest, it's the ultimate challenge. And by climbing without oxygen once again, it's a challenge that will be worth my time. I know the risks, I've discussed them with my family, but in this case the positives far outweight the risks."
 
Viesturs adds that climbing with Peter Whittaker, nephew to Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest, and son of Lou Whittaker, who lead a successful expedition to the north side, will make it more fun.
 
"Peter and I have climbed together a lot on Rainier, but he's not been to Everest before. So this will an interesting trip for both of us. And the heritage of that 1963 climb is part of the launch of the First Ascent brand. Jim Whittaker was wearing Eddie Bauer down clothing, and that's the parent company for First Ascent. So this climb brings everything full circle. I'll also be climbing with Melissa Arnot. She climbed Everest last year using oxygen, but she'll be making the attempt without supplemental gas this year. And the fact that we're all climbing with Dave Hahn, one of the most successful Everest guides ever, with 10 ascents of the mountain, makes this an exceptional team."
 
Dave Hahn will be guiding a client as well as guiding this year, but Viesturs, Whittaker and Arnot are free of guiding responsibilities. The team has already made one climb together, on Aconcagua  earlier this year.

"That climb really proved the caliber of this team," Viesturs said. "And I'm excited about returning to Everest. It has been five years, and even though I've already been there ten times, it's hard to be blase about the highest peak on earth. I'm looking forward to it." 

Read more about Ed Viesturs on GreatOutdoors.com

 



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