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Reflections on Everest

Ed Viesturs looks back at his sixth trip to the summit
By Peter Potterfield - February 7th, 2007

Ed Viesturs and Veikka Gustafsson on Everest summit-7:30 AM May 17th, 2004. Ed Viesturs collection. On a week when Ed Viesturs was leaving home to guide a climb of Washington State's Mount Rainier-a reprise of the role that got him started climbing big mountains two decades ago-the high altitude climber took a moment to reflect on his recent successful climb of Mount Everest, his sixth ascent of the world's highest peak.

"The summit of Everest is truly an incredible place," Viesturs told, "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."

Viesturs was on Mount Everest last April and May as part of a film crew working on a major motion picture that will depict the tragic events of May 10, 1996. That day afternoon saw a sudden storm take the lives of eight climbers near the summit, including guides Rob Hall, from New Zealand, and Scott Fischer, from the United States. Viesturs himself was on the mountain at the time of the accident, making another film, the IMAX movie, Everest. In fact, the spring 2004 filming expedition amounted to a reunion of sorts for the 1996 team.

"It was great to be back on the mountain last spring with some of the old IMAX team," Viesturs said. "It was definitely an added bonus to be there with David and Rob." Film-makers David Breashears and Rob Schauer did the high altitude filming for the IMAX movie. In 1996, their work on the IMAX film was suspended while Viesturs and the rest of the IMAX film crew pitched in to help rescue survivors of the storm from the higher camps.

This spring, however, Breashears, Schauer and Viesturs were on Everest in happier circumstances, as they shot high altitude footage for the upcoming feature film tentatively titled Everest. The movie is a project for Working Title Films and Universal Pictures, and will start principal photography in spring 2005 under the direction of Stephen Daldry.

"I can't say enough about what Breashears and Schauer accomplished, both this year and in 1996," Viesturs said. "I'm not sure people understand how difficult it is to do what they do. Just to get high on Everest is pretty tough, but then to do something as delicate and precise as big time movie making above 25,000 feet is incredible. It's amazing what they do at that altitude and those conditions. Not very many people can handle both the filming and the climbing.

"And it was a great team. Many of us had climbed the mountain before, and everybody could take care of themselves. Having to work and climb at the same time was a challenge, but to be part of the film project made the climbing more interesting."

Last spring's film crew included Viesturs long-time climbing partner, Veikka Gustafsson of Finland, with whom Viesturs has reached the top of many 8,000-meter peaks. Jimmy Chinn and Amy Bullard completed the expedition members. The climbers filled in as "doubles" for the actors at various locations on the mountain, and helped get the expedition to the top. "All the team members were successful in reaching the summit," Viesturs said, "and we got the footage we needed to get, so the expedition was a success in every way." (Read about the ascent in the interview Ed Viesturs did for from Everest's South Col just hours after the team reached the summit.)

Viesturs had kept open the possibility that he and Gustafsson would, after reaching the summit of Everest and completing their work for the film, travel immediately to Nepal's Annapurna, at 26,545 feet, the only one of the world's 14 8,000-meter peak Viesturs has yet to climb. But the film making on Everest last spring went longer than planned, making an attempt on the other Nepalese giant impractical. "Annapurna is not something you want to undertake lightly," said Viesturs, "so we'll wait until next spring to make another attempt."

Now that he is home from the Himalaya, Viesturs this summer is making two guided ascents of Mount Rainier. Both climbs are under the aegis of his former employer, Rainier Mountaineering Inc, one in late July, and one later in August. For Viesturs, the climbs are a blast from the past. While a student at the University of Washington, Viesturs began his climbing career by guiding on Mount Rainier. This year, the climber returns as a celebrity to give others a chance to climb alongside one of the world's best known high-altitude climbers.

"I worked on Rainier day after day for many years," Viesturs said. "So it's fun to go back. Peter Whittaker is also going on the climb, so it's going to be a reunion of sorts. I still love the mountain, and I have a lot of respect for it. A lot of the safe climbing practices I use today I learned while guiding on Mount Rainier." Peter Whittaker is the son of Lou Whittaker, one of the founders of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.

With only Annapurna standing between him and his long-time goal-of being the first American to climb all 14 of the world's highest peaks without using supplemental oxygen-Viesturs can view his recent ascent of Everest with a rare perspective.

"It was a great expedition," Viesturs said of the 2004 climb, "but I still have to say that the real treat was to be on the summit again. Even though I'd been there before, and even though you only spend an hour or even less on top, it's still amazing to go and stand at that place once again.

"I have had the privilege to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience six times now," Viesturs concluded, "and it never loses its magic. There's just no way around it. To be there on the summit of Everest, to see it again, to stand on the highest point on earth, it's a very cool thing."


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