America's best known high-altitude climber beams with pride as he sips a latte overlooking the slate-gray waters of the Pacific Northwest on a dismal winter day. Ecstatic over the birth of his third child--Anabel--Ed Viesturs describes the simple pleasures of living on an island in Puget Sound, raising a family in that bucolic setting, and attending to his business as a public speaker, gear consultant and writer.
But when the subject shifts to what he does best--climb the highest mountains on the planet--a subtle change comes over his relaxed features. His eyes take on an intensity, and his words come in measured phrases, without pause. Ed Viesturs clearly loves to climb high, and he's clearly ready for what may be the biggest challenge in his life.
In his ongoing endeavor to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks without using supplemental oxygen--a personal quest for almost two decades--Seattle based Viesturs announced this month that he will once again venture to the Himalaya in an attempt to climb the one peak that has eluded him. This season, Viesturs is making his third attempt in five years on Annapurna, at 26,545 feet (8,091 meters) the 10th highest mountain peak in the world. If he is successful on Annapurna, Viesturs would become the first American to climb all 14 of the world's highest peaks without the use of bottled gas.
That feat was first accomplished by Reinhold Messner, and since then has been repeated by only four other human beings. Viesturs, who has been to the summit of Everest six times, may hold the absolute record for the number of 8,000-meter summits: he has climbed mountains over 8,000 meters in height an impressive 21 times. But his goal of climbing all 14 of the highest peaks has been thwarted twice by unsuccessful attempts on Annapurna, a peak legendary for its objective hazards.
"It's a tough mountain, that's for sure," Viesturs told GreaOutdoors.com, "and if you're not on your toes it will hand you your lunch. But the fact is, Annapurna is all about conditions. Luck out and you have a straightforward climb; if you're unlucky, you're faced with a route of unreasonable, unpredictable danger. And you don't know what you're going to find until you go there."
Viesturs emphasizes that, despite the fact Annapurna is the final remaining summit in a decades-long quest, he won't be tempted to deviate from his signature commitment to climbing safely.
"Veikka and I will approach this attempt the same way we have all our other climbs. I'm quite prepared to just turn around and come home if conditions are as dicey as they were on previous attempts. I admit to being pretty motivated to reach my goal of climbing all 14 peaks, but I'm not going to take unreasonable risks to do so. No mountain, no summit, is worth dying for. I do this for fun, not because I have to. I do this for me, and I do it my way."
Once again, Viesturs will make the attempt with his long-time climbing partner, Veikka Gustafsson of Finland. The climbers aborted their first attempt on Annapurna, in 2000, when the pair, along with Michael Kennedy and Neal Biedleman, encountered dangerous avalanche conditions on the north side. The team looked at several routes, including the Dutch Rib and the original French route, but " the route was completely blocked by ice cliffs--avalanche danger was totally off the scale."
In the hopes of finding a more reasonable route, the pair returned to Annapurna two years later to try a different approach. In 2002, Viesturs and Gustafsson made their second attempt on the mountain from the south side, via a long, high route that ascends the East Ridge. After spending five weeks on the attempt, Viesturs and Gustafsson turned around in the face of dangerous avalanche conditions at 24,000 feet, just a few thousand feet short of the summit.
This time, Viesturs and Gustafsson will once again make their attempt on Annapurna from the north, the flank by which the mountain first was climbed.
"In 2002, the year we went to the south side in the hopes of safer conditions, ironically, other climbers were able to summit from the north side," said Viesturs. "Conditions on the north had improved noticeably since we were there in 2000, but had deteriorated on the south side. That's the way it goes sometimes. This year I'm hopeful we'll find climbable conditions--we're about due for some good luck. The fact is, you just don't know what the glacial architecture on the north side is going to be in any given year until you go and take a look. Right now we're thinking the original French Route will offer the best chance of success, but we'll look closely at the Dutch Rib Route too."
The numerous hanging glaciers that make up the architecture of the north side of Annapurna. Photo by Ed Viesturs. Annapurna was first climbed in 1950 by a French expedition led by Maurice Herzog, and including legendary climbers Louis Lachenal and Lionel Teray. Herzog's dramatic account in his book "Annapurna" inspired Viesturs at the age of 16 to take up mountaineering. The French expedition and their historic first ascent of the mountain was the first ascent of any 8,000-meter peak.
Before attempting Annapurna, Viesturs and Gustafsson will acclimate to altitude by making an attempt first on 26,750-foot Cho Oyu, a peak which Viesturs has climbed twice previously but his partner has not. The pair plans to spend about three weeks climbing Cho Oyu, and then to travel to Annapurna by helicopter. Climbing two 8,000-meter peaks in one season is a technique that has served the climbers well in the past.
Viesturs and Gustafsson climbed two of the 8,000 meter giants in 1999--8,163-meter Manaslu and 8,167-meter Dhaulagiri. In 2000, he made an unsuccessful attempt on Annapurna, from the north side. In 2001, he and long-time climbing partner Veikka Gustafsson once again attempted two of the world's highest peaks in a single season: they were successful on 8,027-meter Shishapangma, the 13th highest peak in the world, but their attempt on Nanga Parbat a few weeks later was thwarted by heavy snow that created dangerous avalanche conditions. (Gustafsson remained to try again, and eventually reached the summit with a German expedition later in the season.). Viesturs was successful on 8,124-meter Nanga Parbat in 2002, a year in which he also made his second ascent of Broad Peak. (See an accounting of Ed Viesturs' 8,000-meter climbs.)
Viesturs' 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. His final ascent of Everest was made last year while working for a film crew producing a major feature film about the 1996 tragedy.
Viesturs and his wife Paula welcomed their third child to their family last October. The father of Gil, 7, Ella , 4 and now Anabel, Viesturs' family responsibilities reinforce his innate commitment to safe climbing.
"The birth of Anabel was a joyous occasion for Paula and me, but that in itself doesn't change my approach to big mountains," Viesturs said. "I believe that I will climb just as safely having three kids as when I had just two. Perhaps I'll be more conservative now. Having a family definitely makes it harder to leave, that's true, but I think it also makes me more focused when I am on the mountain.
"The fact is, even before I was married, I made a commitment to myself to be smart when I climb in the Himalaya. What I've learned is that life is a balancing act, you can have a family life but you still have to work, you have to do what you do. Climbing big mountains is what I do, I love it and I'd say I have been fairly succesful. But my personal style includes avoiding stupid mistakes. The life I live now shows me every day that there is more to life than climbing.
"Some people think that since Annapurna is the last one, I'm going to take more chances to get to the top, to reach the end of my quest. There is no way that's going to happen, there's just way too much to lose. Even if, in the end, after all these years of effort, and I've gotten to the top of 13, not 14 8,000-meter peaks, that's fine with me. I'm not going to change what I do or how I do it to summit Annapruna. But I'm hopeful we'll find favorable enough conditions to at least make a strong attempt."
Viesturs adds that his long term sponsors, such as Mountain Hardwear and Rolex, support his commitment to safe climbing, as do his friends. "For me and the people I care about, my style of climbing is the right style. Getting to the top is optional, but getting back down is mandatory."
One might think that nearly two decades of Himalayan climbing would have left the man a bit jaded. But even after 21 successful forays deep into the death zone above 8,000 meters, Viesturs can't hide his enthusiasm for high altitude climbing.
"I feel fortunate that I can make a living doing what I do," Viesturs told me. "And at this point it's hard not to be pretty excited. I'm reaching the culmination of a long project, a 16 year project. If I get to the top of Annapurna, I'll be one of the most content people on the planet, that's for sure. But if it doesn't happen, I won't consider it a failure. People don't believe that, but it's true. I'm going to give it my best, but I'm going to come away from it feeling good about not just what I accomplished, but how I did it."