Published: May 2003
The Will to Climb
By Miki Meek

Over the past 15 years Ed Viesturs has made a career of scaling the snowy tops of 12 of the world's 14 highest peaks. All located in the Himalaya's rugged playground, he's climbed some of them more than once and all without supplemental oxygen. One of two westerners to summit Everest five times or more, he has been called "superhuman" by other climbers.

But despite the herculean title, there's one thing he hasn't mastered. After hundreds of media interviews, roles in three films, and a large fan base that Viesturs calls the "Grateful Ed Tour," he still struggles to fully answer this question: Why climb?

America's premier high-altitude climber can tick off the positives of mountain climbing: personal satisfaction, trips to exotic locales, and the incredible view from the top. But he's not sure if those things quite cut to the core of why he does what he does—and loves it.

"I read a saying once that if you have to ask, you'll never know. It's a very internal thing," Viesturs says. "Most of the climbers I know, we don't have a death wish. We don't seek danger. We seek to challenge ourselves."

The Physical Challenge

But the inability to find all of the right words doesn't stop him from trying to explain his passion. Part of the allure of high-altitude climbing for Viesturs is the physical challenge of doing it without supplemental oxygen. It's a standard that sets him apart from most of the mountaineering world and an extreme feat that's physically impossible for most climbers.

"Using oxygen takes away from experiencing the mountain for what it is or challenging yourself and seeing what you can do physically," Viesturs says. "To climb to 29,000 feet (8,800 meters), what's that feel like? Can I push myself that hard? Am I strong enough physically? Those are the things I want to test myself with."

When Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler stunned the world in 1978 by making the first ascent of Everest without oxygen, Viesturs, who was just getting into climbing, decided to follow suit.

"It inspired me, and I thought if I ever had the chance to go to Everest or some other Himalayan peak, I didn't want to use oxygen just so I could get to the summit," he says.

On May 8, 1990, at 1 p.m., Viesturs finally realized that aspiration. Relying on his lungs, he stood on top of Everest for the very first time. While a schedule based on training up to seven days a week, year round, helps him to keep functioning at high altitudes, Viesturs also has a rare physiology to thank.

Clinical laboratory studies have confirmed that the 5'10", 165-pound (75-kilogram) climber processes oxygen faster and in bigger volumes than the average person. While most people's lungs have the capacity to hold 4.5 to 6.5 liters of oxygen, depending on their size, Viesturs' can hold seven. He's also been blessed with a high anaerobic threshold—the point at which lactic acids start accumulating in muscles, causing cramping—which gives him the raw endurance to climb longer.

Playing the Mental Game

The mental challenges of climbing have also played a big part in Viesturs' drive to get to the top ever since he came across the book Annapurna in his school's library at age 15. He was inspired by the true account of the 1950 French expedition and its dogged efforts to find and climb the 26,503-foot (8,078-meter) Himalayan peak Annapurna, the tenth highest in the world.

"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" First

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.

"Everybody was caught up high on the mountain, running out of oxygen, then darkness and the storm came in. Up there, things fall apart quickly in subzero temperatures and zero visibility," says Viesturs, who assisted in search-and-rescue efforts.

Thirteen days later, after much discussion with his teammates and his wife and basecamp manager, Paula, the IMAX expedition made its way to the summit and finished its filming project.

"I wanted to show people that climbing is not a death wish, you can live to talk about it," Viesturs says. "If we ran away at that point, we would have left this gloom and pall hanging over the mountain. I wanted to turn that into something positive."

Life After 8,000-Meter Mountains

A couple months shy of 44 years, Viesturs feels he's as strong and smart a climber as he's ever been. He knows the completion of his ongoing quest to summit all 14 of the world's highest peaks remains to be seen, but hopes to accomplish it in the coming years.

Viesturs won't stop there, though. He still has more mountains to climb and says he might even see a future for himself outside the Himalayan region he's come to know so well over the past decade and a half. Canada, Alaska, Antarctica: A realm of endless opportunities for the veteran climber.

"Just because I've climbed the highest peaks doesn't mean the other mountains aren't as challenging or interesting," Viesturs says. "There are thousands of mountains on this planet I would love to go climb."

In climbing he claims to have found his fountain of youth, and he says if things go his way, he'll still be feeding his desire to scale mountains in his fifties, sixties, and seventies.

"I guess the hardest thing is to try to explain to people why we climb mountains," Viesturs says. "We seek to challenge ourselves, we love the companionship, we love the environment we're in.…These feelings are so rewarding that I want to experience them time and time again."