"The mental challenge for climbing is that you have to, in many cases, will yourself to keep moving, to take that next step, and somehow enjoy that it's very difficult," Viesturs says. "If you will yourself and focus…and get to the summit, then the feeling is amazing."
He first tested his own will as a teen with some basic rock climbing and soon after left his hometown of Rockland, Illinois, in 1977 to attend college at the University of Washington in Seattle. There began an obsession with a peak that dominated the view from his dorm window—Mount Rainier. Recalling himself as "maniacal," he'd hitchhike out to the mountain almost every weekend to climb. Finally at 23, he got his big break when he secured a job as a guide on it. Since then he's guided more than 180 groups up Mount Rainier.
Viesturs describes himself as a goal-oriented person who is attracted to projects that require tremendous time and effort to achieve, which explains something he calls Endeavor 8000—an effort to climb all of the world's 8000-meter mountains. These mountains, all in the Himalayan region, range in height from 26,286 to 29,035 feet (8,012 to 8,850 meters). By 1994 he had already climbed four of the 14 tallest peaks—Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, and Shishapangma—and at that point decided to go for them all.
Nine years have passed and he's climbed them all except for two: Nanga Parbat and Annapurna. In the past three years he's attempted both, but each time conditions proved too dangerous for an ascent. So Viesturs plans to try again in May 2003 when he'll head to Pakistan's Nanga Parbat with his French climbing partner Jean Christophe Lafaille and a group of Kazakh climbers. Annapurna, the mountain responsible for his climbing fixation, is scheduled for 2004.
"I would love to do the remaining two; that is my goal. But I'm not going to die trying, and I'm willing to walk away if I have to," Viesturs says.
Safety is one of his mantras. Twice Viesturs has turned around less than 300 feet (90 meters) from Everest's summit because of unsafe climbing conditions. As more professional climbers are pushing the extreme by taking increasingly dangerous routes to the top, Viesturs remains an advocate of conservative climbing.
He's also set some basic rules for himself like carefully assessing snow and weather conditions and turning around if he's not near the summit on Everest, or any mountain, by 2 p.m. Around that time a climber should be making his descent before weather turns or darkness falls. It's possible that following this simple rule could have changed the tragic fate of eight climbers who died when a brutal storm passed over Everest on May 10, 1996. At the time, Viesturs was at Camp II on Everest, working as a deputy leader of an IMAX filming expedition. Two of his close friends, Scott Fischer and Robb Hall, were among the casualties.