High-altitude adventurer got his start in the Midwest
Ed Viesturs was 16 when he and a friend would drive the 120 miles north from the flatland of Rockford, Ill., to Devil's Lake State Park, 2 miles south of Baraboo.
Scaling the quartzite cliffs rising 500 feet above 360-acre Devil's Lake in 1975, he would pretend he was a world-famous mountain climber ascending the treacherous Himalayas.
For the junior at Rockford East High School, the modest hills of Wisconsin proved the stepping-off point on a long, glorious climb to the top of his sporting profession -- not to mention to the top of the world.
"From Rockford, it's the only place there is (to climb). Where I was, I knew that if I wanted to actually practice or learn, that was the most convenient place," Viesturs said recently in a telephone conversation from New York City, where he kicked off an 11-city book tour to introduce his memoir, "No Shortcuts to the Top."
"It was pretty well-known as a climbing area. That's where I learned the basics," added Viesturs, who will give a slide-show presentation at a book-signing appearance in Chicago Wednesday beginning at 7 p.m. at Borders Bookstore on Michigan Avenue.
A skilled carpenter and former veterinarian, Viesturs produced a 330-page book with author David Roberts that chronicles his life as a mountaineer, focusing on a remarkable 18-year, death-defying obsession to reach the summit of all 14 of the world's "8000ers" -- peaks exceeding 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) above sea level beyond which point high-altitude climbers enter the oxygen-thin "Death Zone."
Viesturs became only the sixth person to reach all 14 summits without the use of supplemental oxygen and is the only American to accomplish the feat.
His ascent of Annapurna -- at 26,545 feet it is the world's 10th-highest but most lethal peak -- completed his Endeavor 8000 quest in May 2005. It was an appropriate, though circumstantial, conclusion, considering his interest in mountaineering was piqued as a teen after reading French climber Maurice Herzog's account "Annapurna," which detailed the first successful ascension of an 8000er in 1950.
"It was such a big project. Now that it's done, people ask 'What's next?' " said Viesturs, now 47 and a husband and father of three children residing on Bainbridge Island, Wash., just outside of Seattle. "I always respond, 'Do I have to do something next?'
"I'll just do other climbs. Maybe not as notable, but I don't see myself completely stopping climbing."
Lure of the mountains
After graduating from high school in 1977, Viesturs attended the University of Washington in Seattle. From his dorm room he could see Mount Rainier -- the 14,410-foot mountain upon which he would hone his craft as a longtime guide for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.
When the call to climb began to interfere with his fledgling veterinarian career, he judged his departure from a traditional career path as an acceptable risk. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Viesturs went on to make 30 expeditions up 8000ers -- all are located in the Himalayas, a mountain range in Asia separating the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau across the countries of Bhutan, China (Tibet), India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He reached the top 20 times, including six of his 10 ascents of Mount Everest, the summit of which is the world's highest point (29,028 feet).
"When you get to the top, it's the ultimate metaphor for achievement, I think. 'Climb that mountain,' " said Viesturs, who is much in demand on the corporate motivational-speaking circuit. "When you're standing on the top of Everest, you're looking down on everything, there's nothing higher."
In a profession filled with risk-takers, Viesturs earned a reputation as a thoughtful, cautious man of sound judgment.
In "No Shortcuts to the Top," Viesturs brings readers on several of his most harrowing expeditions, some stretching for months halfway around the world. The book details his thinking on several trips in which such misfortunes as foul weather, treacherous climbing conditions or human tragedy led him to scuttle exhaustive planning and climbing short of his goal -- but allowed him to return to Seattle with his life.
He says "Summit Fever" is common, especially on guided ascents when clients shell out upwards of $65,000 or more with the expectation of reaching the top. Too often, climbers would push themselves to exhaustion to reach the summit, only to realize they have nothing left for a safe descent, which, he says, can be even more perilous.
Viesturs repeats his mantras: "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory," and "Just because you love the mountains doesn't mean the mountains love you."
"I think you have to be willing to minimize risks -- and it might mean you have to walk away," said Viesturs, who came up agonizingly short of the summit on several climbs, including on Shishapangma (26,289 feet), Broad Peak (26,400), Nanga Parbat (26,658) and Annapurna. "No, it doesn't mean you've failed or quit. If conditions are bad you pull back. In anything you do, you don't plow ahead stubbornly."
Viesturs never lost a climbing partner, although nearly a dozen of his friends and colleagues never came down from the mountains. In "No Shortcuts to the Top," he discusses his life-saving role as a member of a climbing contingent filming an IMAX production on Mount Everest when New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer, team leaders of concurrent expeditions, lost their lives in a disastrous 1996 climb that was the basis of Jon Krakauer's 1997 best seller "Into Thin Air."
Viesturs primarily blames the disaster, which ultimately claimed a dozen lives, on the failure of his two friends to weigh the consequences of taking too much time to idle along the way to the summit, where too many climbers clogged the final few hundred feet. By the time people reached the summit, supplemental oxygen supplies were running on fumes and exhaustion was setting in. When a storm suddenly blew in just below the summit, he suggests, the mountaineers were unprepared to handle the remaining challenges.
"That may seem a harsh judgment to lay on Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, but they lost their lives in part, I believe, because they didn't subscribe seriously enough to the second half of the formula: Getting down is mandatory," Viesturs writes in "No Shortcuts to the Top."
Climbing with no regrets
The tragedies did not extinguish his love of his sport, however, and he continued to climb, making nine successful attempts in 14 climbs between September 1996 (Cho Oyu at 26,904 feet) and his trip last year to the summit of Annapurna - a mountain he topped on his third try and one that claims the lives of one out of every two climbers.
"Personally, I'm happy with what I did and how I did it," Viesturs said. "I'm very proud I finished what I set out to do. I was true to myself, I don't think I buckled to pressure from media or to prove anything to anyone but myself.
"My regret, if anything, I regret the loss of the people I climbed with. Some of them were the closest friends I've ever had. . . . that's sad. It's a strange reality. People would say 'What? You lost another friend? It's almost a dumb thing to be a part of a sport where friends can potentially die.'
"I've always justified that maybe I was doing it differently, that I was more conservative. Not that I was invincible, but that the way I did it works. . . . Somehow I was able to minimize the risks."
So, what's on the horizon?
Viesturs, who checks in on his parents and sister in Rockford about once a year, said a return to Mount Everest is a possibility, but he has washed his hands of the remaining 8000ers.
"There's too many other mountains I want to climb," said Viesturs, whose endeavors can be followed at www.edviesturs.com.
Autor: JOHN NOLAN, firstname.lastname@example.org
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