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Peak performance

Post Independent/Kara K. PearsonEd Viesturs talks with a fan during his booksigning Friday at WestStar Bank in Glenwood. Viesturs was also in town giving a slideshow presentation at the Hotel Colorado.
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Ed Viesturs may be regarded today as America’s top mountaineer because of what he hasn’t done rather than just what he has.If it weren’t for Viesturs’ repeated willingness to turn around when conditions didn’t feel right on his Himalayan adventures, he might have ended up like good friends whose bodies remain high on Mount Everest and other remote peaks.Instead, the Seattle man has lived to climb again, and tell about it. On Friday night, he brought his story to Glenwood Springs, giving a slide show to a crowd at the Hotel Colorado about his quest to climb all 14 of the world’s peaks over 8,000 meters without supplemental oxygen.Viesturs’ judiciousness helped allow him to succeed in that quest – body intact.”I’ve got all my fingers and toes, and I’ve never lost a partner on any single expedition,” he said.Viesturs approaches mountains as something to be listened to rather than conquered. When they tell him it’s not safe to proceed, he has been willing to turn around, even when tantalizingly close to his goal.Such was the case during his first try on Everest, where conditions worsened and he chose to abort his climb a mere 300 feet from the top.”Imagine how agonizing that would be, after years of training and months of preparation and weeks of climbing, to stop within spitting distance of the top, but that’s often the difference between life and death,” he said.

He didn’t regret his decision, but also knew he had unfinished business on Everest.”I had this 300 feet of climbing left to do, and it bothered me,” he said.Turning back helped ensure Viesturs got the chance to try Everest again. In 1990 he joined the International Peace Climb, in which American, Soviet and Chinese climbers jointly attempted to climb the world’s highest peak.The day of his summit attempt, Viesturs climbed with two Soviets, but they went ahead of him because they were using bottled oxygen. Thus, he got to enjoy the surreal experience of summiting Everest alone.”It is the most unique place on the planet, in my opinion, and at that point I was the highest person in the world, looking down on everything.”Viesturs said he didn’t know at the time he would return to the summit five more times.One of those times was during the fateful 1996 Everest climbing season. Two of Viesturs’ good friends, guides Rob Hall, of New Zealand, and Scott Fischer, of Seattle, were among eight who perished on the mountain when a storm hit.Again, Viesturs’ caution paid off. He was part of an IMAX film crew that was climbing Everest. The team members chose to go down the previous day because they didn’t like the weather outlook.When things went bad, the IMAX crew lent oxygen bottles and helped evacuate climbers off the mountain. But they couldn’t reach stranded climbers high up the peak, including Hall, with whom Viesturs was in radio contact during Hall’s final hours.

Rather than abandoning their own expedition after the tragedy, the IMAX crew made another summit attempt once the weather cleared.”I wanted to turn this season into something a little more positive than running away and leaving this pall of death hanging over Everest,” he said.On Viesturs’ way back down, he stopped at the bodies of Hall and Fischer, hugged them and said his goodbyes.Over the years, Viesturs pursued his 8,000-meter peak quest in earnest. He said his decision to not use oxygen was part philosophical.”I thought that was kind of bringing the mountain down to my level simply so I could make the summit,” he said.He also doesn’t like relying on a mechanical device that could fail.When he was acclimatized to the altitude, he also increasingly made use of alpine-style climbing that involved going fast and light, rather than spending weeks establishing ever-higher camps up a mountain.”I always thought the faster that you were at these altitudes the less risks you were exposed to, so for me speed is safety,” he said.Last year, Viesturs finally finished his 8,000-meter-peak goal, summiting Annapurna. A book about the first climb of Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog in 1950, had inspired Viesturs as a boy in Illinois to take up climbing. But the mountain proved to be Viesturs’ biggest Himalayan challenge.



Only about 100 people have climbed it, and some 50 people have died trying. Viesturs gave up on the mountain in two previous expeditions when conditions didn’t look safe, before finally finding success last year.”It was very poetic in a sense that Annapurna ended up being the last mountain on the list,” he said.Viesturs said he’s glad he followed his dreams in life rather than wondering what might have been, and he tells youths not to be afraid to pursue their own ambitions.”If it’s something that you’re passionate about, something that you like, something that you want to do it even if it’s not normal, go and do it and live your life,” he said.Viesturs was in town as part of a weekend of activities surrounding the inaugural 24 Hours of Sunlight uphill/downhill race at Sunlight Mountain Resort. The event benefits the Heuga Center and its battle against multiple sclerosis. Earlier in the day Friday, he held a booksigning for his National Geographic book, “Himalayan Quest,” which features spectacular photos from the region’s peaks.He plans to resume his climbing next year, on relatively lower mountains. This year, he is finishing writing a book called “No Shortcuts to the Top,” which is due out in September.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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