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On Top of the World

Ed Viesturs completes his 16 year quest to become the first North American to climb the world's highest peaks
By Peter Potterfield - February 7th, 2007

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Ed Viesturs wears a big grin and a look of contentment as he sips a strong espresso in a Seattle coffee house just hours after returning from Nepal. He is hoarse as all get out, his voice a scary croak, but what he has to say is amazing. After becoming the first United States climber in history to reach the summit of all 14 8,000 meter peaks with his May 12 ascent of Annapurna, he is bowing out of extreme high-altitude climbing--with the notable exceptions of Mount Everest.

"Basically," he rasps, "there's no reason for me to return to the 8,000-meter peaks. In the future, there might be something interesting to do on Everest, like another film project, that's always a possibility. But beyond that, why go back? I've been there, I've been there 20 times, and I've been there without oxygen." (Read the pre-climb interview with Ed Viesturs before he left for Annapurna, Viesturs Returns to Annapruna)

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 that doesn't mean America's best known climber has turned his back on climbing.

"There's lots of interesting mountains to climb," he told GreatOutdoors on May 19, "including more challenging, more technical routes. I've already discussed some options with David Breashears and Veikka Gustafsson. But all that can wait, I'm just going to enjoy the satisfaction of this accomplishment, and relish the successful climb of Annapurna. That mountain . . . just never let up. It took three full-on attempts to get up, and I needed all the experience and judgment I've developed over the years to do it safely."

Viesturs and Gustafsson turned back on Annapurna twice, from the North Side in 2000 and from the South Side in 2002, for unreasonable objective dangers. But earlier this month, the long-time climbing partners, with the companionship and considerable assistance of a strong team of Italian climbers, were successful in a fast, direct climb that required only 10 days on the 26,545-foot peak.

"The Italians were some of the smartest, strongest and most likable people I've ever met in the mountains," Viesturs said, referring to the team of Sylvio Mondinelli, Christian Gobbi, Mario Merelli, Mario Panzeri, and Daniele Bernasconi. "Their efforts made a genuine contribution to Veikka's and my success. They had spent a month on Annapurna, they put up the route, they fixed ropes, and they invited us, even encouraged us to follow them up the mountain. And even in base camp, they were sharing with us their espresso, their chocolate, their sausage. It was an honor to be on Annapurna with them."

Gustafsson and Viesturs went first to Cho Oyu (see the post climb interview ) for a very specific reason. It was their intent to acclimatize completely on Cho Oyu, so when they arrived at Annapurna, the two climbers could put everything they needed in their packs, and make just one trip up the mountain. Their strategy, from the start, was to reduce the famous objective dangers on Annapurna by making only one trip up through the more dangerous lower sections of the route, wait at high camp until a summit bid was possible, and then go for it. That strategy was followed to the letter, and it proved successful--although Viesturs called summit day on his last 8,000-meter peak one of the toughest days he ever spend I the mountains.

"It was along, tough wait at high camp for climbable conditions," Viesturs said, " and it was a long, strenuous summit day, and not an easy descent. Nothing came easy for on this last climb, Annapurna made us earn every foot. It some ways, it's fitting that this was the end: The story of Annapurna's first ascent is what first drew me to climbing decades ago, and it's the only peak that required multiple attempts, so I guess it's just fitting that the final climb to it's summit would test us in every way. It makes a perfect conclusion to this 16-year quest. And it marks the pinnacle of my climber partnership with Veikka. We both feel a bigger sense of accomplishment for Annapurna than any other peak we've climbed together."

Viesturs and Gustafsson arrived at Annapurna Base Camp on April 30. They made one carry to camp I, and returned to base camp. That first trip to Camp I showed them that the mountain was, in Viesturs' words, "quiet." The objective danger that had turned them back twice before just wasn't there. In his words, "Annapurna was a different mountain."

After that initial trip to the first camp, the climbers made just one more journey up the mountain, stopping at their high camp, which was approximately a thousand feet lower than the traditional high camp for the North Side. There, the pair waited for tolerable conditions for a summit attempt. It took three days, but on the third morning, in marginal conditions, Viesturs and Gustafsson, along with the Italian team, made their summit bid.

"Veikka and I weren't concerned about altitude, even during those waiting days at high camp," Viesturs said. "We were well and completely acclimated, that was what Cho Oyu was all about. Besides, the camp was not that high, only about 22,500 feet. Scott Fischer and I once had spent three days at 26,000 feet on K2 waiting for a shot at the summit, so by comparison, this was not extreme. But on summit day, we knew we could wait no longer: we would have to either go up and tag the summit that day, or retreat to base camp."

The climbers left their high camp at 1:30 in the morning, in "less than perfect" conditions that were barely tolerable. Just hours out of camp, trouble struck: the Italian expedition leader, Sylvio, returned to high camp when the cold conditions of summit day threatened his feet with frostbite.

"I just had so much respect for the Italians," Viesturs emphasized. "Here, the team has spent all this time in preparation for the summit, fixed rope, put in the route, and Sylvio turns back without hesitation. He knows that the summit is not worth his feet. These guys were as smart as they were strong."

From the climbers' high camp, the summit was still 4,000 feet higher, a long summit day in the Himalaya. It took Viesturs and Gustafsson 11 hours to reach the top.

"The upper part of the route was steep, sustained, continuous," Viesturs said. "There was no real place to stop and sit down, so a rest break was just to stop, and drop to one knee. It was a long day. On Everest we've had 12 hours days, so put in perspective, it's not that unreasonable. And at this stage, our attitude was, look its one day in your life, so suck it up, get it done. And the positive side is that there wasn't much objective danger up high that day."

The climbers reached the summit about 10 a.m., and after a brief celebration, soon started back down.

"But even coming down wasn't easy," Viesturs said. "It got foggy, it was hard to see, it would have been easy to make a mistake. We had to stay focused. Annapurna never made it easy for us, nothing was simple, she made us work for our success. And I have to say it was one of my hardest summit days, but one of my happiest ."

Viesturs first 8.000 meter summit, Kanchenjunga, came in 1989. It was that climb, made without oxygen, that launched the Seattle climber on a quest to climb all 14 of the highest peaks--and do it with an unparalleled commitment to safety. After 16 years of effort, his goal was finally reached, but only after one of the most challenging days the 45-year old climber had ever experienced.

"Now, I'm completely content," Viesturs says, clearly enjoying the coffee and the other comforts of being home after six weeks in the Himalaya. "I did what I said I would do, and that's a great feeling.. I didn't just talk about it, I did it. I've reached the end of a long journey, a journey I made on my own terms. I've heard from hundreds of people, both my friends and supporters, and total strangers, who have said, way to go, we've been rooting for you."

"I think if there's a message this 16-year endeavor holds for people, it is this: Go for it, do what you want to do, do it your way, and do it now. Even if it's out of the mainstream, even it people tell you it's crazy or stupid, do it, and do it your way. The contentment of accomplishment will make up for all the effort it took to get there--as long as you're doing it for the right reasons, and that means doing it for yourself."

To his detractors, those who say Viesturs' climbs were overly cautious, that they did not push the limits of technical mountaineering or usher in a new threshold of climbing difficulty, Viesturs says only this: "I did this for me. If others don't value what I've done, that's fine with me. This was for me, this was a goal I set out to accomplish, and now I've done it. I hope my success will inspire others to take on their own challenges."

Viesturs' radical notion, the commitment to climbing safely, set him apart from other climbers a decade ago. Now his success over the decades puts recent mountaineering tragedies in to bold relief. While no climber has been killed on one of Viesturs own expeditions, he has lost many friends in the mountains, including Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, who both perished on Everest in 1996.

"You know, I have to think that Scott and Rob would be rooting for me this spring on Annapurna," said Viesturs. "My friends and supports have been doing that for years, and I'm grateful for their loyalty to me, and to my commitment to climb with intelligence. For my long-term supporters, the first question has always been not 'did you get to the top?' but 'are you safe?'"

Viesturs is a family man who lives near Seattle with his wife and three children, Gil, Ella and Anabel. Perhaps his richest reward is to come home at the top of his game, and enjoy an extended and relaxed period of ease with his family. He knows the long absences from home have been hardest on his wife Paula and their children, so he owes them. He knows members of the media will be clamoring for his time, but that's okay. When you work as hard as Ed Viesturs has to make history, sharing it with the world is the least he can do.


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