Ed Viesturs (1959- ) with David Roberts
Ed was born in Ft. Wayne Indiana and raised in Rockford, Illinois. He was energetic and ambitious, learning persistence and grit from his experiences as a competitive swimmer in high school. He loved animals and after graduation moved to Seattle to study veterinary medicine. To support himself in college he took whatever jobs he could find, but soon connected with a house builder and learned carpentry, which supported him in his idle moments for years. He had a friend with a disreputable orange VW bug, a convertible, and they explored the Cascade mountains on the weekends. The first mountain they climbed was St. Helens, about three years before it erupted. (Curiously enough, i climbed it a year before the explosion, and i had a disreputable black VW bug). By the time Ed was in vet school (he was a fully-accredited veterinarian), he was working as a guide on Mt. Rainier and doing carpentry in his off hours. He climbed Rainier 194 times. And he was constantly improving his physical condition by exercising: running and working out in the gym.
The book opens with Ed and his partner Scott Fischer waiting in Camp III at the 24,300 foot level of K2 in the Himalayas for two team-mates to return from a summit attempt. They were wakened by a roaring sound and an avalanche swept over them, wiping out their tent and propelling them down the mountain. Ed managed to take advantage of a small dip in the snow and jammed in his ice axe, thereby arresting their descent. (Curiousier enough, the same thing happened to me on St. Helens, when i slipped while descending a couloir: i managed to drive the sharp end of my axe into the sidewall thus slowing myself down so could avoid being killed by falling several thousand feet, haha).
Ed goes on to describe the salient features of the Himalayas: Mt. Everest is the highest of 14 peaks that are above 8000 meters in height: that’s about 26,000 feet. Access is not easy, requiring up to weeks of hiking to reach base camp unless one spends lots of money for helicopters or in some cases cargo planes. The climbing difficulties are formidable, most successful ascents requiring staged planning and almost military adherence to whatever route or procedure is adopted by the team leaders. The world’s attention was first directed toward the Himalayas by the 1950 French expedition that first successfully climbed Annapurna. The published accounts tell of Lionel Terray, Gustav Rebuffat, Louis Lachenal and Maurice Herzog, four of the most accomplished alpinists of the day, and their struggles against technical difficulties, treacherous avalanches, steep glaciers, and temperatures well below zero. Lachenal and Herzog both lost toes and fingers from frostbite. The mountain wasn’t climbed again for years. Ed made his ascent in 2005 with Viekka Gustafson, a Finnish climber and known for his endurance. Annapurna was thought by Ed to be the hardest 8K peak to climb, partly because the only feasible route required crossing a giant couloir with avalanches constantly roaring down it (they called it the shooting gallery), and partly because once on top they had to traverse four miles of jagged peaks to get to the highest one. At 26,000 feet without bottled oxygen, that was prohibitively arduous. During Ed and Viekka’s successful attempt, Viekka led, breaking trail through snow and ice, and climbing the inevitable ice-bound cliffs that seemed to bar their way in a never-ending series. Ed stated at several points previously, that progress at that height required fifteen breaths to every step. Once Ed was willing to give up, but Viekka just kept relentlessly placing one foot after the other. At last they stood on top.
One of the points Ed kept repeating, and was really his mantra for mountain climbing in general, was that the most important part of planning a climb was getting back down. Reaching the summit was meaningless if you died doing it.
After descending successfully, they were devastated to hear that one of their fellow climbers, Christian Kuntner, had been killed by an ice block in the shooting gallery.
Ed had a lot of experience climbing Everest, and was hired as guide numerous times. At the end of 20th century, all sorts of persons were cuing up to climb the highest mountain in the world. One Swedish climber, Goran Kopp, bicycled from Sweden all the way to base camp in order to make the ascent. Selling permits became a money maker for the surrounding nations, and too often monetary gains superseded safety considerations. Some persons who weren’t really capable of the intense effort required were allowed on the mountain. In 1996, there was a major disaster in which 12 Climbers died on one day, mainly due to a sudden storm, but also due to the overwhelming desire for success on the part of some of the climbers. Two of Ed’s friends froze to death near the top, and he had to observe their bodies every time he climbed the mountain. (It was too high for helicopter rescue, and they were too heavy to bring down over the steep descents and glaciers, even with the rescuers using bottled oxygen.)
One of the friends Ed made in those mountains was Jean-Christophe Lafaille, a French climber who eventually became recognized as perhaps the best Himalayan climber in the world. The two were partners more than once. After Ed finished his goal of climbing all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks, he heard that Jean-Christophe had died on Makalu. He’d been trying to climb it solo without oxygen, and apparently did so, but on the way down was last heard from at the 24,000 foot level, where he was evidently overcome by pulmonary edema ( in which the lungs fill with fluid), cerebral edema (the brain swells up), or was simply too tired to continue… At any rate he was never heard from again. Contrary to most idealized impressions of mountaineers, Lafaille was only 5’2″ tall.
Mountain climbing books can be addictive. This one was more in the nature of an autobiography than a strictly technical description of ascents and techniques, but was well written and fascinating. It’s amazing what a human being can do if he devotes his life single-mindedly to one achievement. Ed was so taken by the mountains that he abandoned his veterinary career after only three years (he did get his degree from Washington State University, where my father taught, btw) to follow his hunger for heights. He no longer is so avid about his career, and has adopted another role, that of husband and father. He gives inspirational lectures in public and private sectors, and continues guiding on Mt. Rainier in his spare time.