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The Will to Climb

Ed Viesturs, America's best known high altitude climber, recounts his epic adventures on Annapurna with a new book
By Peter Potterfield - November 10th, 2011

After making three separate attempts over five years to climb Nepal's 26,545-foot Annapurna, Ed Viesturs successfully reached the summit in 2005. The storied peak was more than just another 8,000-meter summit. For Viesturs, it was the fourteenth, and final, peak at that landmark altitude that he had climbed without supplemental oxygen.

His quest to climb all fourteen of the world's highest peaks--what he called Endeavor 8,000--was finally over. But more than five years later, Viesturs still marveled at the difficulty of climbing Annapurna, and the fine line between commitment and obsession required to reach the top. So he decided to write a book, The Will to Climb.

"I wasn't interested in rehashing what had happened," Viesturs told, "but I did want to delve deeply into the mental process required to overcome a challenge like that. And not just for me. The mountain has been the venue for landmark expeditions for more than fifty years. I wanted to tell those stories, too, some of which are virtually unknown, and to see what could be learned from the totality of those extreme efforts made on that very dangerous mountain. I found common themes."

 In the book, Viesturs recounts his own three attempts, in 2000, 2002 and 2005, all three with his trusted long-time partner Veikka Gustafsson. But he and his co-author David Roberts weave in tragedy and triumph from other expeditions to the storied peak. Perhaps best known is the 1950 French expedition, the first ever to reach the summit of an 8,000-meter peak, made famous by Maurice Herzog's book, entitled simply Annapurna. Chris Bonnington's famous 1972 expedition to the mountain's steep south face, that put Don Whillans and Dougal Haston on top after a long siege, contrasts greatly with the early French climb. But Viesturs clearly was fascinated by a Swiss attempt in 1984 that traversed the peak in a bold style, putting climbers Erhard Loretan and Norbert Joos in a class by themselves.

Viesturs too examines the 1997 Christmas attempt, a rare winter attempt on an 8000 meter peak, by Anatoli Boukreev, the Russian climber who became a controversial figure after the 1996 Everest tragedy chronicled by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air. Bourkreev's and Italian Simone Moro's patently perilous attempt resulted in the death of Boukreev  by avalanche.

"Anatoli was just an amazing person," Viesturs recalled. "I’d met him long before the Everest tragedy, in the early '80s when I was guiding in the Pamirs. He was one of the coaches in the Soviet sports federations back then, when I traded him gear for badly needed ice screws. One thing I gave him in return was this old fleece-lined JanSport bomber hat, he wore that thing on almost all his climbs after that. Anatoli spoke English very poorly, and for that reason a lot of people did not appreciate his skill as a climber and did not realize how thoughtful, introspective and poetic he was."

The expeditions together create a litany of suffering and achievement that casts new light on the dangers of Annapurna, and its odd ability to bring out the best in some climbers. The fact that many of the stories recounted in The Will to Climb have seldom, if ever, been well told, adds interest to the book for all climbers and armchair mountaineers.

"We found some great stories that hadn’t been fully revealed, at least not in English," said Viesturs. "They were just such great stories, great anecdotes, that they really shed light on the Annapurna experience. David and I wanted to tie it all in with my own journeys to Annapurna. It's a mountain that usually is not on your list of peaks to climb--unless you are doing all the 8000 meter peaks, for obvious reasons."

That final ascent of an 8,000 meter peak, when he climbed Annapruna in 2005  (read more about Ed's successful climb to Annapurna's summit, and see the video interviews with editor Peter Potterfield) put Viesturs in rare company indeed. Not only has he climbed all of the world's highest mountains without supplemental oxygen, but he has more than 24 separate trips above 8,000 meters to his credit, including seven trips to the top of Mount Everest. His resume of high altitude mountaineering puts him among the elite, where he joins a small club of less than 10 people, including Reinhold Messner (the first) who have climbed all the Himalayan giants without oxygen. (See the record of all of Ed Viesturs ascents of the 8,000 meter peaks.)

But even after that final milestone, Viesturs keeps climbing, including the highest mountain on earth.

"It was after Veikka and I climbed Annapurna that I got connected with Eddie Bauer and its First Ascent line of clothing," Viesturs said. "It was a great opportunity to work with them, design actual products you see in the store, and then go off to Everest to test it.  We went to Everest in 2009, with Peter Whittaker and Dave Hahn to test the gear we had designed, and that's when I got my seventh summit of the peak." (Read more about Ed's final climb of Mount Everest, and hear his live dispatches as he reported in live every day to via satellite phone from the world's highest peak.)
 Viesturs undertook other challenges as well, including an expedition to the Vinson Massif in Antarctica, and several trips to the Canadian Arctic on Baffin Island, including a long dog sled trek with famed musher John Stetson.

"That was a little different," Viesturs recalled, "it's quite interesting, I refer to it as horizontal mountaineering. (Read about Ed Viestur's adventure in the Arctic with John Stetson.) One of the nice aspects of having finished Endeavor 8000 is that I've got the time to indulge myself in other adventures, to have a new bucket list, if you will."

And while Viesturs still ventures into the wilds, a lot of his time lately is spent speaking to business and other groups.

"The speaking gigs are going very well," Viesturs said. "A lot of people randomly read my book and then contact me to speak to their groups. The metaphors and messages in my books really apply to businesses as well. It's a new way of seeing issues and problems, and enables me to  show them parallels to what they face in a different environment. I find it pretty cool to be able to inspire others to face their own Annapurnas."

 For more on Ed Viesturs' Endeavor 8000, see and check out the new app.



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