As his biography, No Shortcuts to the Top, hits bookstores this month, Ed Viesturs looks back on his 18 year quest to climb the world's highest peak with a sense of accomplishment--and palpable relief.
"I'm pretty proud of what I did," he said, "and even more proud of how I did it. Looking back, there are times when I can't believe I didn't just give up. It was a long struggle. This year was the first year in a couple of decades that I haven't packed up and gone to the Himalaya to climb 8,000 meter mountains. It was nice to be home--and nice to give my family a break from the worry and concern of having me on some remote peak. It was the first year I saw the flowers bloom around my house."
His new book, written with David Roberts, covers Viesturs quest to become the first U.S. climber to reach the top of all 14 8,000 meter peaks without oxygen. It is in essence his biography as a world class climber.
"It's documentation," Viesturs says, "of what I did and how it all started. It's a book written for everybody, not just climbers. I wanted to tell some stories, give people some insight into why I did this, and how I did it. My intent was to be both informative and inspiring, to encourage readers to go seek out their own 'Annapurnas.'"
Of all the 14 highest mountains, it was Annapurna that gave Viesturs the most difficulty. He had made two attempts on the peak, notorious for it's objective danger. In both 2000 and 2002, he turned back in the face of unreasonable avalanche danger. Finally, in 2005, he and his longtime climbing partner, Veikka Gustafsson of Finland, reached the top of the dangerous peak.
"That mountain just never let up on us," Viesturs recalled. "It tested us on the way up, it tested our patience, and it tested us on the way down. The fact that an Italian climber was killed on the route just days after we left underscores that our caution was justified. It was a relief to finally summit Annapurna and come down alive. It was the fitting conclusion to a long quest, in fact in some ways climbing Annapurna symbolized the difficulties I faced climbing all the other peaks."
With his personal quest finished, Viesturs is rooting for Gustafsson to also climb the world's highest peaks.
"I'd really like to do some more climbing with Veikka," he said. "We had a rare partnership, I've heard it compared to Messner and Habeler, or Boardman and Tasker. It was a rare thing, a friendship and a partnership, it just worked. He's off to Pakistan to climb Gasherbrum I and II, and Broad Peak, then we'll do something together."
Viesturs has stated publicly that he plans to do no more 8,000 meter peaks without oxygen, but he is considering guiding a trip to Everest next year. Working with Peter Whittaker of Rainier Mountaineering Inc, and in partnership with a guiding firm called Himalayan Expeditions, Viesturs may well lead an attempt of Everest from the North Side, from Tibet, in 2007--if there are clients willing to pay $125,000.
"We're ready to go," Viesturs confirms, "we'll just see if we get the clients. I've been on the North Side twice before, and in some ways it's a less hazardous route than the South Col route. The fact that there is no Khumbu Icefall minimizes objective dangers. It may sound expensive, but we want to keep the expedition to a small group, 4 or 6, not 10 or 12."
For now, Viesturs' travel is restricted to his current book tour, and the motivational speaking he does for various corporations, including his long term sponsors such as Rolex, Timberland, Princeton Tech and Mountain Hardwear.
"Thankfully," Viesturs says, "the companies that supported me were the right ones for me. They always wished me well, regardless of whether I made the summit or not. To be honest, I was the one who really pushed myself, who really wanted to finish. I'm the one who put the pressure on to climb all 14, not my sponsors, not my family, not my friends. That was one of the best things about the whole endeavor--the people who really cared about me were not concerned whether or not I reached the top."
By Ed Viesturs with David Roberts
Editor's Note: This excerpt joins Ed Viesturs on summit day of his final 8,000-meter peak. After 18 years of efforts, and two unsuccessful attempts on Annapurna, Viesturs and his partner Veikka Gustafsson finally were on their way to the top of the 8091-meter peak. In this excerpt, Viesturs recounts the difficult and uncertain descent, made worse by a missing fixed rope--and his worries about what his wife Paula, at home in Seattle, must be going through.
All the way up to Camp II, I'd carried our sat phone, Veikka our radio. Without even thinking twice, Veikka had stuck the radio into his pack as we set out that morning for the summit. As the hours passed, I was intensely aware of what Paula must be going through. It got to be 11 a.m., eight hours after we'd left Camp III--and we were nowhere near the top.
Part of me realized that we should stop and phone base camp with an update--that way Jimmy (Jimmy Chinn, a team member) could call Paula and reassure her that we were gong fine, just a bit behind schedule. But meanwhile, Veikka was charging off in the lead, and though I could stay even with his pace, I couldn't catch up with him. We were so consumed with the climb, it seemed too much of an effort to wave Veikka down to stop for a call. In this once in a lifetime push, all I wanted to do was keep moving upward. Committed to the task at hand, neither Veikka nor I paused to take a single photo on the way up. In the cold and the wind, trying to do so would have been to invite frostbite. It seemed too much of a distraction even to swallow my energy gel or take a drink of water, let along get out the radio for a call to base camp. Both Veikka and I needed to stay completely focused in the moment. Yet, unable to keep Paula's anxiety out of my mind, I tried to send a thought to her through some kind of telepathy, winging my plea twelve thousand miles around the globe: Be flexible, babe, you know that eight hours was only a guess, you now it can take longer.
At Base camp, though, Jimmy himself was starting to worry. At some point he called Paula. "They left at three a.m.," Jimmy told here "but we haven't heard from them since. We don't know where they are."
Paula knew the game on the 8,000ers. We'd always agreed, in principle, "No news is good news." Unless you hear the worst, assume the best. But Jimmy's call hit her hard.
Paula went to bed, but of course she couldn't sleep. Nighttime is the worst time for one's darkest thoughts. As the minutes ticked by, her fantasies increasingly dwelled upon the worst case. Something's gone wrong, she agonized. Eddie's not coming home.
She told me later, in those wee hours, she modulated from being heartbroken to feeling just plain pissed off at me for choosing this career. But then, around three a.m., came the joyous call from Jimmy, with the news that we had reached the top. But Paula's flood of relief quickly ebbed. She knew the climb was only half over. If it had taken us eleven hours to get to the summit, not the eight I had predicted, what might happen on the way down? Through the rest of her sleepless night, the dark scenarios came fluttering back. And by six a.m., with the morning sun above the horizon over Puget Sound, she knew that night was falling on Annapurna, and that we had not yet gotten back to Camp II.
Indeed, at that hour, Veikka, and I were crisscrossing the slopes, searching by headlamp for the fugitive fixed ropes that might lead us back to our tents. And we still had no idea where the Italian climbers were, no doubt benighted themselves farther up the mountain. Fortunately, the weather continued benign.
As we traversed the slope, following Veikka's hunch, things began to look vaguely familiar. I figured that we had to be in the right general area, and by now we were probably a little bit below where the uppermost rope had been fixed--the one we couldn't find. Thus, it occurred to me that the string of fixed ropes winding through the seracs leading back to camp III probably lay somewhere hereabouts, covered with a thin layer of new snow.
It didn't feel like a life-or-death situation. The weather was fine, we were around 23,0000 feet, not 28,000 on Everest, so we could almost certainly have bivouacked. But it would have made for a miserable night. All I wanted was to be home--for now, in that cozy tent at Camp III, but ultimately back with Paula on Bainbridge Island.
As we traversed, I started dragging my crampons with every step. After only a few minutes, my right crampon points snagged on something under the surface. "Veikka!" I called out jubilantly. "I found the ropes!"
We were home free--the fixed ropes, strung end to end, took us directly back to camp. Holding the cords in our hands, we could almost have made our way with our eyes closed. As it was, however, we didn't get to the tents until ten p.m. We'd been going almost without pause for nineteen hours straight. Seldom had I been so tired.
As soon as we got inside our tent, I said, "Veikka, give me the radio." I pushed the transmit button, raising Jimmy. "Base camp, base camp," I crowed, "the Eagle has landed!" after their own celebration at base, Jimmy called Paula once more with the news.
I still had strength enough to write in my diary, all in caps: "TODAY WE DID IT! UN-BE-LLEVE-ABLE! DREAM COME TRUE!"
Copyright (c) 2006 by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts From the book No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.