Legendary climber Ed Viesturs picks a peak time to bid adieu
SEATTLE – As he hit the peak of his career as perhaps America’s most accomplished mountain climber, Ed Viesturs decided to retire.When he reached the summit of 26,545-foot Annapurna in Nepal on May 12, Viesturs became the first American and 12th climber overall to summit all 14 of the world’s mountains higher than 8,000 meters (26,240 feet) – and he did it all without using bottled oxygen.As he came down, he announced he was turning his back on the sometimes deadly lure of the high peaks to spend more time with his wife, Paula, and their three young children, Gil, 7, Ella, 4, and Anabel, 7 1/2 months.”At my age, I think I’m smarter than I’ve ever been,” said Viesturs, who turns 46 on Wednesday. “I’m maybe not quite as strong as I’ve been, but having the smarts and knowing how to function at high altitude compensates for that, and that’s important.”Like Rocky Marciano, the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, he doesn’t plan any comebacks.”I have no need or desire to go back,” he said. “Why climb ’em again? There are risks involved. It’s obvious. People die in the mountains.”The first person to scale all 14 mountains was Italian Reinhold Messner, who completed the task in 1986 at age 42.Viesturs insists his wife did not pressure him to quit climbing mountains such as Annapurna, Shishapangma and Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, or the 28,250-foot K2 in the Karakoram mountain system along the China-Pakistan border.
“She’s been with me the last 10 (8,000-meter) peaks,” Viesturs said. “She never asked me to quit and she never suggested I quit. But still there’s always that question: What if something happens? She had some concerns.”Viesturs isn’t done climbing mountains – just mountains above 8,000 meters. He doesn’t have anything scheduled, but he’s looking at some mountains in India and Tibet. And he may even be back on Everest, a mountain he has climbed six times, although he won’t be shooting for the summit this time.”There could be something that I’ll do on Everest again,” he said. “But as far as the other peaks, no. There’s no desire. There’s no need to go back.”Viesturs decided climbing mountains was what he wanted to do when he started rock climbing as an Illinois high school student. He’s leaving as a big-time climber who speaks modestly of his accomplishments and says he’s not as technically talented as many others in rock climbing and ice climbing.”No, no way,” Viesturs said when asked if he thinks he’s the best mountain climber in history. “You know there’s a guy, Reinhold Messner, the Italian climber. He was like a mentor or hero to me. I’m not as good as him.”He makes a good living from his website, designing mountaineering equipment for corporate sponsors and public speaking.”How long I’ll be interesting to people, I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t predict that. I’m not assuming I’ll be interesting to people for five more years because the next guy will come along. I may have to just get a normal job.”After graduating from high school in 1977, Viesturs headed toward Seattle, where he could tackle the Cascade Mountains, including Washington’s Mount Rainier and Oregon’s Mount Hood.He earned degrees in zoology and veterinary medicine and worked briefly as a vet before he quit to focus on mountaineering.
“I guess that would be my most normal 9-to-5 job that I had,” he said with a laugh.There’s no question about Viesturs’ legacy in the mind of Jim Whittaker, 76, the first American to climb Everest. Whittaker thinks Viesturs is the best American mountain climber in history.In Whittaker’s heyday, all the climbers used oxygen.”I think it’s awesome,” Whittaker said, “to do it without bottled oxygen. Mountaineering has changed a lot. The gear. The equipment. You keep pushing the limits, and that’s certainly what Ed did.”Viesturs was cautious in tackling Annapurna, known as one of the deadliest of the high peaks. He turned back in 2000 because of bad weather, and in 2002 because of avalanches.He’s been fortunate in an endeavor that has claimed many lives. He survived the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Everest, when two close friends died.”For whatever reason, I was always at the right place at the right time,” he said. “We climbed Annapurna and a week later an Italian climber died where we had climbed. Why did the avalanche occur when he was there rather than when we were there? I have all my fingers and all my toes. None of my teammates were ever injured or killed. Is that luck or planning or being conservative?”In 1989, Viesturs reached his first 8,000-meter summit at 28,169-foot Kangchenjunga in Nepal. In 1990, he climbed 29,035-foot Everest in Nepal for the first time. In 1992, he climbed K2.
In 1994, Viesturs climbed 27,939-foot Lhotse in Nepal and 26,750-foot Cho Oyu in Tibet. In 1995, he reached the summit of 27,765-foot Makalu in Nepal, and 26,360-foot Gasherbrum II and 26,470-foot Gasherbrum I in the Karakoram range. He climbed 26,400-foot Broad Peak in the Karakorams in 1997 and conquered 26,758-foot Manaslu and 26,794-foot Dhaulagiri, both in Nepal, in 1999.In 2001, he added 26,300-foot Shishapangma in Tibet and, in 2003, he climbed 26,658-foot Nanga Parbat in Pakistan.During his climbing career, Viesturs felt he was close to death just once. That came when he climbed K2 with the late Scott Fischer in 1992. At that time, no one had climbed the mountain in six years.At the 25,000-foot level, they were asked to go up the mountain to help rescue a woman who was snow blind and exhausted. She had spent the night just below the summit.Viesturs and Fischer were tied together with a 50-foot rope when they nearly got swept off the face of the mountain. Viesturs, who is exceptionally strong at 5-foot-10 1/2, 165 pounds, stopped the pair with his ice ax 200 feet down the mountain.In 1996, on his way to the summit of Mount Everest for the fourth time, Viesturs came across the body of his good friend, Fischer.Fischer was one of eight climbers to die on Everest on May 10, 1996, as they were descending from the summit. It was the deadliest single tragedy in Everest’s climbing history, and was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s best seller “Into Thin Air.”Viesturs would like to write a book about his experiences to inspire young climbers, but right now he’s focusing on spending a lot of time with his children.”They’ve been on me like glue,” he said. “The weather is nice, so we’ve been outside and riding bikes and catching frogs.”
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