Ed Viesturs: From Illinois to the top of the world
August 28, 2009
ASPEN – Ed Viesturs was misinterpreted.
In May 2005, the renowned climber’s 16-year mission to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks reached an emotional conclusion on 26,545-foot Annapurna in the Himalayas. For two weeks, he and climbing partner Veikka Gustafsson endured biting winds, snow and intermittent avalanches. At one point, conditions were so adverse that they were forced to retreat to their tent at 22,500 feet for three days, according to a National Geographic report.
Finally, in his third attempt, Viesturs reached the one summit that had long eluded him.
A few days later, a journalist approached him in Kathmandu.
“A reporter from [The Associated Press] stuck a microphone is my face and asked, ‘Are you going to climb any more?’ I said, ‘Probably not,'” Viesturs said last week from his home on Bainbridge Island, outside of Seattle. “I had just gotten off the mountain … In all the papers worldwide, it said ‘Viesturs retires.’
“I meant to say that, for the most part, I probably won’t go back to 8,000-meter peaks. I’ve been there, done that. … But I never say never.”
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Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that earlier this year, one month shy of his 50th birthday, Viesturs was back in the Himalayas. On May 19, he reached the summit of Everest for the seventh time – a number that, excluding sherpas, has been surpassed by just three men.
Viesturs will discuss his latest trip and his other mountaineering exploits at 6 p.m. Friday at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. His appearance is part of this weekend’s MountainSummit, an offshoot of Telluride’s popular Mountainfilm festival, which unites artists, activists and adventurers.
“I kind of told myself the only way I’d go back to Everest would be for an intriguing or interesting reason. … The mountain doesn’t get any easier. It doesn’t get any lower,” Viesturs said. “As far as personal ambitions, I’ve kind of fulfilled all of those. I’m pretty content with what I’ve done.”
The Rockford, Ill., native first became enamored with mountaineering as a teenager thumbing through the pages of Maurice Herzog’s book “Annapurna,” which chronicles the harrowing first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak. The passion was further stoked when Viesturs enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1977. He could see Mount Rainier outside his dorm window.
While he pursued a degree in veterinary medicine, Viesturs worked for Rainier Mountaineering (he still guides in the summer, and reached the summit for the 200th time in 2007). In 1989, he climbed his first 8,000-meter peak – 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga.
“I loved things that were not necessarily accomplished overnight, things that were challenging and difficult,” Viesturs said. “It’s part of my personality. I love the physical and mental challenges … The planning, the training and the logistics is all like doing the homework. Then, you go and take the test and climb one of these things.
“You have to be smart … and can’t be complacent. You have to manage the risk. … I’ve walked away lots of times from the mountain, sometimes 40 feet from the summit. At the end of the day, would you rather be alive, or go to the top? I have no problem turning around if the mountain tells me to turn around.”
Viesturs completed his ambitious Endeavor 8,000 project, the subject of his popular autobiography “No Shortcuts to the Top,” on Annapurna. In doing so, he became the first American and 12th climber overall to summit all 14 of the world’s tallest peaks. He is just the sixth person to accomplish the feat without the use of supplemental oxygen.
In subsequent years, he has tackled the lecture circuit, completed a marathon and matched wits with comedian Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” In July, he ushered NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a group that included Seahawks coach Jim Mora up Rainier to raise money – an estimated $380,000 – for United Way of King County’s food and housing programs.
He’s also embarked on a second book project with co-writer David Roberts. “K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain” is slated for release in October. And there’s been a foray into the world of clothing and gear design.
Retailer Eddie Bauer approached Viesturs and other elite mountaineers about a year and a half ago to gauge their interest in collaborating on a new line of outdoor apparel and gear, aptly called First Ascent. The group has since developed prototypes for everything from base layers to sleeping bags, tents and backpacks, and field-tested the new equipment in the harshest of conditions.
Eddie Bauer funded and outfitted May’s trip to Everest. It was just the intriguing and interesting reason that persuaded Viesturs to return to the world’s tallest peak.
“I don’t want to say it was routine, but it was routine,” he said of the excursion. “Everything went right, nobody got hurt, and everybody made it to the summit safe and sound. We did what we set out to do. … Big mountains are all about time and patience. If you can deal with all the bad stuff, you can get to the top.”
People who know Viesturs best, namely his wife and three children, wonder what is next. Eddie Bauer has plans to send a team to Antarctica next year, he said. He also has his sights set on tackling smaller peaks in Nepal and skiing to the South Pole.
“Until I’m physically unable to, or I don’t like it anymore … it’s hard to walk away completely,” Viesturs said.
For now, he’s content to be on solid ground. And Viesturs said he’s looking forward to looking back, not forward, at the Wheeler tonight.
“From humble beginnings in Illinois to the top of the world. … I tell people I’ve actually been able to live my dream,” he added. “I tell people you can do what you set your mind to if you’re doing what you love, even if it takes 20 years to do it.”