Dispatches from the top of the world
November 14, 2006
In his new autobiography, “No Shortcuts to the Top,” Ed Viesturs writes that as a young boy growing up in flat Rockford, Ill., he first dreamed of climbing the world’s highest peaks after reading “Annapurna,” the famed narrative of the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak by French mountaineer Maurice Herzog.This bit of information helps tie together Viesturs’ account of his 18-year quest to become the first American to climb the 14 mountains above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) without supplemental oxygen. It is Annapurna that dogs Viesturs more than any other peak, and at times makes him rethink his goal. After a second failed attempt in 2002, Viesturs writes: “I couldn’t help wondering, Where in God’s name can I go on this mountain? How am I ever going to get up it?”Three years later, after having crossed off all the other 8,000ers, Viesturs could no longer run from his arch nemesis. He never intended for Annapurna to be the last in line, but the struggle to claim the summit of the world’s most deadly 8,000er provides a natural narrative arc to Viestur’s story.
Any good book needs conflict, and “No Shortcuts to the Top” doesn’t lack for it. The author’s best writing comes when he touches on the internal strife he faces in pursuit of his goal. His passion for mountaineering forces him to walk away from a career as a veterinarian. Later on, after he’s become successful and fully sponsored, Viesturs writes of how hard it is to leave his wife, Paula, and his young children in Seattle for months at a time to chase down his life’s dream.Like Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” Viesturs’ book is a compelling glimpse into the dangerous world of high-alpine mountaineering. His personal account of the 1996 Everest disaster provides new insight into the fatal mistakes that were made by Viesturs’ close friends and former climbing partners, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, and offers some chilling images.Viesturs explains why he decided to go back up the mountain, even when it meant encountering his dead friends. He had returned to Everest in 1996 to star in David Breashears’ acclaimed IMAX film, and the thought of pulling the plug on the expedition – after so much preparation – went against natural instincts.The author writes: “I wanted our film to send the message that you can climb Everest and live to talk about it. I’d already done that just three times. I wanted people to learn that you can walk away from Everest without frostbite. The urge to climb is not a death wish.”While the subject matter is undeniably intriguing, Viesturs doesn’t possess Krakauer’s sense of pace, nor his deft storytelling ability. On the other hand, the task of chronicling an entire climbing career is more difficult than recounting one expedition. What’s confounding is Viesturs’ way of skipping over events, then backtracking before jumping ahead again. There is also a section near the middle of the book where Viesturs goes over all the ins and outs of high-alpine mountaineering, including how climbers poop in the Death Zone.
It’s interesting stuff, but its place in the story feels awkward; it might have fit better as an add-on to the book’s glossary. It’s easy to forgive Viesturs, however, for all of the book’s flaws. He comes across as an honest, plainspoken guy, not a braggart. And while his climbing feats have earned him fame and money, he is believable when he says that the goal to climb all the peaks was never rooted with those motives in mind.”I may be done with my own 8,000ers, but I hope I can continue to use the example of my expeditions to inspire and motivate others,” Viesturs writes. “If that, as Paula insists, contributes some small good to the world, then maybe mountaineering needn’t be quite as selfish as I used to think it was.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com