International Mountain Guides Climbing and Mountaineering Expeditions
The New York Times
June 18, 2005
The New York Times

At Home at the Top of the World

by BOB SHERWIN

As Ed Viesturs methodically climbed to within 20 feet of the 26,794-foot Dhaulagiri peak in Nepal, he rose up over the final ridge to discover another climber incongruously lying across the ice. He was in full climbing gear, down to his crampons. His hair was fluttering in the breeze. It was as if he were taking advantage of the bright, stormless morning, serenely sleeping off his fatigue.

Viesturs, a Seattle-area high-altitude climber who by then, in 1999, had climbed most of the world's tallest mountains, instantly knew what he had stumbled across. The climber's clothes, reflecting technology dating to the early 1980's, had given him away. Viesturs figured the peaceful climber had been in that spot for at least 20 years.

"It really hit home that you are so far away from anything up there," Viesturs said. "It's a reality check. That could be me, if I break an ankle or do something wrong. He was lying down like he was on the beach. He had just frozen in place."

When Viesturs and his longtime climbing partner, Veikka Gustafsson of Finland, returned to base camp, they learned that the unfortunate climber was a young Swiss. He might have been a victim of changing weather conditions or was just so eager to get to the top that he didn't have the energy to climb down.

Because climbers would put their own lives at risk if they tried to carry the body down, his could be up there for centuries, a timeless sentry to imprudent mountain decisions - something Viesturs is always wary of.

"My primary goal is to get down, not to go up," he said. "If I need to wait, I'm willing to do that, whereas a lot of people think, 'If they're going, so am I.' It's called summit fever."

Such caution has kept Viesturs alive and climbing to heights few humans have approached. On May 12, Viesturs, 45, finished a 16-year quest when he climbed 26,545-foot Annapurna, perhaps the most dangerous mountain on earth.

That concluded a rare 14-peak Himalayan circuit in which Viesturs became the first American and the 12th person to climb all 8,000-meter (more than 26,000 feet) peaks. Viesturs is one of just six to do it without supplemental oxygen on the climbs.

"What it means, I don't know," said Viesturs, who lives with his wife, Paula, and three young children on Bainbridge Island, Wash. "It's interesting, but I never set out with this goal. I wanted to be the first Ed Viesturs, to do it for me."

It began in 1989 when he reached the summit of the 28,209-foot Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain. A year later, he conquered the highest, the 29,035-foot Mount Everest, in his third attempt. His first Everest assault in 1987 was aborted 300 feet from the summit when his group ran out of rope. He could have pushed on but shifting weather conditions might have prevented a safe descent. It was a failed attempt that steeled Viesturs, who was 27 years old at the time.

"That's what distinguishes Ed from other climbers," said Eric Simonson, who operates International Mountain Guides near Mount Rainier in Washington. "He can turn around and come back another day."

Simonson, Viesturs's mentor, led the 1999 Everest expedition that found and buried the legendary British climber George Mallory, who died on the mountain in 1924.

Viesturs, who has climbed Everest 10 times, reaching the summit six times, three without oxygen, said: "A lot of people in that situation would continue. They go up, then try to figure it out. Then it's too late.

"For me, it's not beating the conditions but being with the conditions. It's knowing when the mountain is letting me go up and knowing when it's telling me to go down. That's the art. You have to know when to listen."

Viesturs didn't listen to himself in 1992 on a climb of the 28,250-foot K2, a mistake he acknowledges. Against his better judgment, he crossed a perilous snow slope while tied by rope to a partner, Scott Fischer. They triggered an avalanche that dragged them down 200 feet. Viesturs managed to dig in his ax to stop what would have been an 8,000-foot fall.

Annapurna, a mountain that both intrigued and haunted him since he was a child growing up in Rockford, Ill., was his final peak. He had failed twice, in 2000 and 2002. It has the highest death-to-success ratio of any high mountain, roughly one-to-two, because of unstable séracs, or ice cliffs, at the 22,500-foot level.

"There's a relatively small window when I worry the most," Paula Viesturs said. "It's the time when he approaches the summit. I know he's careful but I also know stuff happens up there."

Indeed, stuff happened on May 19, exactly a week after Viesturs's climb. As the renowned Italian climber Christian Kuntner rushed through a band of séracs, one collapsed, crushing him to death. It was Kuntner's fourth attempt at Annapurna. Had he completed it, he would have become the 13th climber to summit all 14 peaks.

Simonson said that as high-altitude climbers gain experience they are shadowed by two curves. One is the knowledge curve and the other is the danger curve. "The more times you go up, the greater the chances of bad things happening," he said. "You can't always control things. Over time, that weighs against you and at some point those two curves cross."

Unwise choices and unforeseen storms have claimed hundreds of lives. Many victims are spread throughout the so-called Himalayan death zone, a surreal region in the range of 24,000 feet where life can't be sustained.

"It's like running your car with no oil in the engine," Simonson said. "You can go for a while, but at some point it's going to lock up. It's the same with the brain. At a certain point, you're going to break it. You get stupid, clumsy, weak and slow. And once you sit down, it's over. The key is you can't linger."

Speed is Viesturs's fundamental strategy. Before Viesturs and Gustafason attempt a major summit, they will climb a shorter adjacent peak. Once acclimatized to a higher elevation, they say they can cross through the death zone at a faster pace.

"For me it's a most interesting place," Viesturs said. "It's one of the few places in the world where no one can come and get you. You're so dependent on your own decisions. Every decision has a consequence. It's not that I like to tempt fate, but I like to see what I can do and can't do."

The death zone is also unusual because of its near rule-less environment. It is nature's gray area, so fragile and precarious that the usual earth-below courtesy, kindness and interdependence is often suspended.

"There are many cases where people are unwilling to render assistance," Simonson said. "It's a tough call. There is not much you can do for some people, give extra oxygen and help them walk. Everyone knows the risk. The difficulty is in helping someone without putting yourself at risk."

Viesturs can't reconcile that attitude at that altitude. He said he would never walk away from a person in need. "But you do see people doing that," he said. "You see people stepping over people on the way to the summit, saying, 'That's not my problem.'

"There are some situations when someone is dying that you put your life at risk to help them. Then you weigh the odds. You can't physically drag him down. Do I have time to run for help or do I stay and comfort him?

"I don't see why the rules seem to be different, but there are people who say, 'I've spent my money and you're ruining my day.' Then it becomes a moral issue. It's not black and white. It's what you can live with."

Nine year ago, Viesturs was conflicted with the malice of the death zone when he worked on the IMAX film "Everest." His friends Fischer and Rob Hall passed them as Viesturs guided a group to the summit.

A ferocious storm, however, engulfed the Fischer-Hall group above 28,500 feet. Paula, back at the base camp, radioed Viesturs about the trouble above. Viesturs then spent the next six hours talking on the radio to Hall to prevent him from sitting down and dying. But Hall, Fischer and six others perished that day, May 10, 1996, the deadliest single event in Everest history. The tragedy was chronicled in Jon Krakauer's best seller, "Into Thin Air."

An emotional Viesturs then had to decide whether to continue his commitment to the film project. He talked it over with Paula, whom he had married a month earlier. Fischer had been the wedding photographer. They were close friends with both the climbers and their wives. "When I made the decision to go back up, imagine how she felt," Viesturs said.

Viesturs continued, reaching the summit alone on May 23. "On the way down, I spent time with Rob and I spent time with Scott knowing this would be the last time I'd ever see them," he said. Their wives asked Viesturs if he could bring back a wedding ring and other personal items. "It was too intimate, too soon, too close friends of mine. I couldn't do it."

Now it's over for Viesturs. He says he probably will not climb another 8,000-meter peak. He has settled back at his rustic farmhouse, walking on carpet, taking his son to the bus stop, to a ballgame or just fishing.

In retrospect, he reached the summit 21 times on the 8,000-meter peaks, more than anyone in history. Combined with another five near summits, his time in the death zone was in the range of 40 days, which is believed to be the most by anyone. He has left friends in that inhospitable and unforgiving place. He has walked past legends, Mallory and his colleague, Sandy Irvine, as well as that sad Swiss lad.

And although he never saw her, he talks in gentle reverence about a German woman way up on Everest who died sitting up. Her long brown hair still buffets in the breeze as climbers trek past. It stays with you.

© The New York Times

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