Feature December 30, 2016

A Life in the Sky

Ed Viesturs’ 18-year journey to the top of the world’s highest mountains

For the better part of 18 years, Ed Viesturs spent each spring and fall in places where, physiologically speaking, the human body really does not belong. These are the upper reaches of the mountains that stand at least 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) higher than the sea, places where oxygen is so scarce that as soon as a climber finally gets to such a perch in the sky, his body essentially begins to die.

Most people who dare to brave the avalanches, hurricane winds and double-digit sub-zero temperatures of these otherworldly places do so with the help of supplemental oxygen, which, in effect tricks the body into thinking it is at a lower altitude than it actually is. Viesturs did not, and in summiting Annapurna—his 14th eight-thousander—on May 12, 2005, he became the sixth person in the world and the only American to do so ever. In the history of Himalayan climbing, which dates back to the turn of the last century, approximately 33 people have achieved this mark. It is a select club but, not surprisingly, one many have died trying to join.

The Power of Failure

Despite his remarkable successes, Viesturs is very quick to point out his “failures”—the many times he didn’t summit. In one regard, however, these setbacks could be considered a badge of honor of sorts in that they just may have been the key to his long term success.

“For me to climb all 14 eight-thousanders, I went on 21 expeditions,” Viesturs told me one fall afternoon in Ketchum, Idaho, where Viesturs lives. “So, I missed on a third. On Everest, I went 11 times and climbed it seven times. I missed on a third … I knew going into this I couldn’t really decide the outcome; the mountain would … And if the conditions weren’t good and the risk was too great, I would just say, ‘It’s not happening,’ and not that I have to come back but that I get to come back. Yeah, you invest all of that time and energy and money, but, ultimately, I knew it wasn’t my choice; I would have to walk away if I needed to.”

It was a lesson Viesturs learned in 1987 on his first Everest expedition. He and Eric Simonson were attempting to summit via the Great Couloir of the North Face. After two and a half months of hiking and climbing, he and Simonson were within 300 feet of the summit. However, out of ropes, and with a very technical pitch above them and the weather worsening, the pair came to the conclusion that they could probably get to the top but might not be able to get back down. It was a stinging disappointment, one that Viesturs wrote about in his book, “No Shortcuts to the Top” (Viesturs has written four books with Dave Roberts). He wrote, “I thought about those 300 feet every day for the next three years.”

Reflecting on those critical moments in a climb, Viesturs said, “It’s all about decision making and tempering ambition. There are so many climbers out there who say, ‘I’m here, I’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of money, and I might not get another chance … I’m just going to go for it. And they don’t consider the fact that it’s only halfway. And how many accidents happen on the way down? A lot. Because everyone uses everything for the one-way trip. There’s no plan for coming down.”

For Viesturs, that decision making process is a visceral one, one partially based in fear. “People always think that we’re fearless,” he said. “But I say, no, we do have fear. Fear keeps you alive, it makes you look and listen and watch, it keeps you alert. But if you feel some uncontrollable trepidation, that something is just not right—I don’t feel good about this snow, or I don’t like what those clouds are doing, or I just feel anxiety, I’ve learned to say, based on my experience, something could potentially happen, and I’m going to turn around before it’s too late.”

In all of Viesturs’ high altitude climbing, he has gone against his instinct just once. In “No Shortcuts to the Top” Viesturs describes it as “the one big mistake of my climbing career.”

It occurred in August 1992 during an ascent of K2, the world’s second highest mountain at 28,251 feet. Viesturs was climbing with Scott Fischer (who would subsequently die during a 1996 Everest summit attempt during which eight people died. The disaster was chronicled by Jon Krakauer in his book “Into Thin Air”). The two were camped at 24,300 feet trying to sleep before their summit bid when they received word that two other climbers—Chantal Mauduit and Thor Keiser—above them were in trouble.

The next morning, Viesturs and Fischer put aside their summit plans and headed up the mountain to rescue the nearly snow blind Mauduit and exhausted Keiser. After climbing for two hours in horrendous weather with little visibility, Viesturs and Fischer had to turn back.

The next day they tried again, roped together, as the face they had to climb was riddled with crevasses. The wind was blowing fiercely, and the climbers above struggling to get down were kicking off small avalanches as they moved. At one point, Viesturs got that feeling in his gut—he could sense the slope was getting dangerously loaded with snow. He yelled up at Fischer, who was above him, “Man, let’s not get ourselves killed doing this.” Viesturs then started digging a hole in the slope in which to anchor himself in the event an avalanche did occur. Moments later, Viesturs watched Fisher get swept off his feet by a wall of snow. The avalanche then engulfed Viesturs. Remarkably, his anchoring system held as the avalanche moved over him. Viesturs watched Fischer tumble past him in the wave of snow. As Fischer kept falling down the face, the rope connecting the two climbers pulled tight and yanked Viesturs from his improvised bunker. At that point, he and Fischer were pin-wheeling down the slope towards 8,000 vertical feet of cliffs. Viesturs did what he was trained to do—use his ice axe as a brake by driving it into the snow to gain purchase. After several attempts, he finally felt his axe hold in the snow. The rope joining the climbers pulled tight and Viesturs held the full weight of Fischer (225 pounds) until they stopped moving. Remarkably, neither of them were hurt.

After collecting themselves, the two still had two people to rescue. Fischer and Viesturs found a steeper but icier and safer route to them and eventually got Mauduit and Keiser down to base camp.

Despite the ordeal, Viesturs and Fischer decided to try again for the summit. After two days of waiting out a storm at 26,000 feet, they made their push to the summit. Again, with the massive snow accumulation and still four hours from the summit, Viesturs questioned whether they should keep going. But they did, and Viesturs knew that he was making a big mistake, all the while questioning himself as to whether the conditions were really that bad. After summiting, the climbers nearly got lost coming down in the newly fallen thigh-deep snow. Descending, they kicked off several small slab avalanches; all Viesturs could think was that he had made a last and fatal mistake.

But Viesturs survived it, and freely admits that he got away with one. Still, he learned from the experience that came just five years into his 18-year quest.

A Lasting Partnership

The following spring (1993) Viesturs met Veikka Gustafsson, a Finnish climber who would become for Viesturs “that perfect climbing partner” and with whom he would eventually go on 13 expeditions.

The importance of good climbing partnerships is often overlooked by non-climbers. While mountain climbing would seem to be the ultimate individual sport, it is hardly so. One is literally tied to another person in the most adverse of conditions. A mistake by one is a mistake for both.

For Viesturs, the most important condition for a partnership is that he has to like the other climber. “If I don’t like them at sea level, I’m not going to like them at 26,000 feet.” Second is trust. “We have to trust one another, otherwise, there is no reason to rope up together.” Third, Viesturs feels that partners have to have a similar level of acceptable risk.

What Viesturs learned on K2 was that he and Fischer were not well matched in terms of what was acceptable risk and what wasn’t. By contrast, he and Gustafsson were always in sync when it came to making those hard decisions on the mountain. It was a partnership that never fell apart. Viesturs still considers Gustafsson one of his “true-blue, best friends. We became like brothers.” (After Viesturs reached his goal, Gustafsson went on a few years later to summit all 14, 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen as well. He now works in publishing in Finland.)

Measuring Success

Read a few books about high-altitude mountain climbing and one can’t help but be taken aback by the number of deaths, severe injuries, and limbs, toes and fingers lost to frostbite that litter even the upper echelons of the sport. In a hypoxic (oxygen-deprived) fog, elite climbers have simply stepped off slopes falling away for thousands of feet. They have fallen in crevasses never to climb out, or have been swept away by massive avalanches. Some have simply chosen to sit down in the snow and succumb to the exhaustion and cold.

The grim facts make Viesturs’ record even more remarkable; not once during his 18-year quest to summit the world’s highest peaks did he suffer serious injury, frostbite, acute altitude sickness, pulmonary edema, or cerebral edema.

Peter Whittaker, head of Whittaker Mountaineering and an elite climber and guide who has summited Everest with Viesturs, said of his colleague: “On the big mountains you climb them on their terms. Risks are high, and it takes a laser focus to manage the hazards and maintain a reasonable margin of safety. Ed is a master at managing risk. Few climbers have pushed the limits the way he has without making a mistake and ending up a statistic.”

What’s more, never once did Viesturs have to be rescued by others on the mountain. In fact, Viesturs put his own expeditions aside on six different occasions to rescue others on the mountain and, ultimately, saved lives. As dangerous as a high altitude rescue can be, Viesturs considers it a “moral obligation.” For instance, Viesturs was on Everest with the IMAX expedition when the notorious May 10-11, 1996 storm enveloped the top of the mountain. During the storm, eight people perished on the mountain. Viesturs was instrumental in rescuing stranded climber Beck Weathers after he had miraculously survived 15 hours exposed to the horrendous storm.

The Training Ground

Viesturs’ path to the top of the world began in one of the flattest places imaginable, Rockford, Ill. As a teenager, Viesturs read Maurice Herzog’s “Annapurna,” an account of the first summiting of that mountain in 1950. It immediately sparked a passion for climbing and adventure. While Viesturs and a friend had taught themselves the basics of rock climbing at the nearby Devil’s Lake crags, he realized the one-day outings weren’t enough for him. “I wanted to go on longer adventures, multi-day trips when you are on snow and in a tent, and there are glaciers and giant vistas,” he explained.

During college at the University of Washington, Viesturs climbed throughout the Cascades, developing his skills and experience. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1982 when he was hired by Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) that Viesturs’ education really began. RMI had the guiding concession on Mt. Rainier and was staffed by many experienced climbers, including Eric Simonson, Phil Ershler and George Dunn, all of whom were mentors for Viesturs. “Rainier was my classroom, and these guys were my teachers.” Ultimately, Viesturs guided on Rainier during the summers for 10 years.

In 1983, Viesturs began veterinary school at Washington State University. It was in the spring of his final year there, 1987, that Viesturs was invited by one of his mentors, Eric Simonson, on his first Everest expedition (one that ended 300 feet from the top).

Following graduation, Viesturs took a job working as a veterinary doctor in Seattle. However, he was soon asking for time off to go back to Everest to climb the east face (the Kangshung Face) with his RMI friend Andy Politz. As it turned out, with ongoing avalanche activity, the group could never find a safe route to the top. Again, Viesturs had to turn back. However, the missed summit only fueled his passion for Himalayan climbing.

When he was invited to go on a spring 1989 climb of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, Viesturs had to do some soul searching about whether he could continue working as a vet and pursue his passion of climbing. “I knew I couldn’t do both things well,” he said. “If I wanted to be really good at one of them, I needed to focus. So, I thought I’d focus on climbing for a year or two and see how it goes. In the end, I just never went back.”

The decision came with a healthy dose of angst. He had invested eight years of schooling, a lot of money, and had two jobs as a working vet. “I figured I could build a career from that, but I decided to leave it and try to invent a career as a mountain climber. And Americans weren’t really doing that. There were a few Europeans, like Messner, doing it but it was easier over there because it’s such a big part of their culture. I thought, ‘Am I making a giant mistake here?”

Viesturs took on part time jobs and started cold calling outdoor companies seeking sponsorships or work as design consultant, product developer, ambassador and such. He said he’d call up companies, introduce himself and be greeted with, “Ed who?” But over time, he built up a climbing resume, and people began to take notice. Eventually, he had a stable of companies that would pay him a retainer to do trade shows, photo shoots, and product testing. Those retainers enabled him to pay his bills and go on expeditions to the Himalaya and Karakorum Mountains.

The Air We Breathe

The scope of Viesturs achievement—summiting all 14 8,000-meter peaks over 18 years—is remarkable enough, but the fact that he did it without the aid of supplemental oxygen puts him in truly rarefied company.

To appreciate the difficulty of functioning at these altitudes, it is helpful to understand basic human physiology. Put simply, we eat food—fats, proteins and carbohydrates—to generate the energy that enables our muscles to contract, cells to divide, proteins to be synthesized—all of the actions of life. Oxygen is essential to this process; without it, metabolism won’t proceed, just as a fire starved of oxygen ceases to burn.

At high altitudes, air is less dense, in other words, there is less oxygen for any given volume of air, so its pressure is reduced. Near the summit of Everest, for example, the partial pressure of oxygen in the air is one-third of that at sea level. Consequently, the pressure difference between the oxygen in the lungs and that in the arteries nearby is reduced. This pressure difference is what drives the oxygen into the bloodstream, so if it is diminished, less than normal oxygen is transported across the lung tissues to the blood. The supply of oxygen begins to fall short of the demand by the body.

Dr. Peter Hackett, one of the foremost experts on high-altitude medicine, is a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, heads the Institute of Altitude Medicine in Telluride, Colo., and has, himself, summited Everest. He is also the physician for the Rolling Stones when they are on tour.

“The body has a normal response to low oxygen levels,” Hackett explained. “Its number one defense is to increase breathing (the rate and volume of breaths) and how much you do that is genetically determined. A climber can consciously increase his breathing when climbing, but when he goes to sleep automatic mechanisms take over. It’s called hypoxic ventilatory response (HVR). A lot of studies have shown that to be a good high altitude climber it is helpful to have a vigorous HVR.”

Hackett explained that over time at high altitude—approximately five to 10 days—the body increases its ventilatory response. So, for example, a climber who walks into Everest base camp at 17,600 feet might have an oxygen saturation of 78 percent. After a week acclimatization period during which his breathing response increases, the climber’s oxygen saturation level might go up to 85 percent. Also over an extended time, the body will produce more hemoglobin, which, in effect, helps deliver more oxygen to the body.

Through various studies of his physiology, Viesturs has learned that his lungs are very large, nearly 40 percent bigger than average (7 liters versus the average 5 liters). So, at any given altitude, Viesturs can move more oxygen into his system than most people.

When Hackett studied Viesturs, he found that the climber had a high “VO2 max,” which is a common measure of maximum physical exercise capacity. “It’s good to have a high VO2 max so you can move quickly, and it’s good to be in good shape, but it doesn’t guarantee success for high altitude climbing.”

Dr. Terry O’Connor, an ER physician at the Wood River Medical Center, a climber who has also summited Everest, and a member of the faculty of the University of Colorado’s section of wilderness and environmental medicine agrees with Hackett. O’Connor considers VO2 max “a useless predictor of illness or success at altitude. In general, people with good VO2 max are ‘fitter,’ therefore may be more efficient at altitude for a given workload. But the amount of oxygen you have available to burn and how you respond in that oxygen ‘starved’ milieu is way more important than how much fuel you can burn if given an unlimited supply. Oxygen transport during exercise at high altitude is exceedingly more dependent on the ventilatory drive (HVR).”

Dr. Hackett emphasized another aspect of Viesturs’ physiology: anaerobic threshold. This is the point of physical exertion at which the body begins to carry out metabolism without oxygen, and lactic acid begins to build up in the muscles. It is the “burn” people feel during intense athletic exertion. As Hackett explained, at your anaerobic threshold “your muscles can’t push any farther, lactic acid builds up and you just have to quit.”

According to Hackett, the national average for anaerobic threshold is 55 percent (of VO2 max). “Ed Viesturs’ anaerobic threshold was 85 percent, which is very, very high. I think that’s one of the more outstanding features of Ed’s physiology,” he said. As Viesturs put it to me, between the larger than average lungs, high VO2 max and high anaerobic threshold, he could go “longer and farther before going anaerobic than the average climber… in other words, because of the physiology I had by accident, I suffered less.”

Hackett emphasized that summiting in these extreme environments is more than a physiological feat. “Just being athletic and being able to exercise a lot doesn’t mean you can move across snow and ice and rocks easily. And that has a lot to do with biomechanics and experience and training. No matter what your VO2 max is, you can’t be a klutz.”

There is also a psychological factor that can’t be overlooked. On a summit push, Viesturs told me, one travels agonizingly slowly, and it gets harder the farther one goes. “You might be breathing 15 times for every step. Imagine that’s all you do hour after hour. There are a lot of times when you could come up with an excuse to say, ‘I’m too tired, or I’m too cold, or it’s not worth it.’ That’s when your mind has to keep pushing you.”

Climbing mountains at altitudes at which the human body really isn’t meant to live clearly demands more than superior physical attributes. Fitness, a vigorous HVR, big lungs, large heart stroke volume, high hemoglobin count are certainly necessary but perhaps not sufficient. The path to the top of the world demands a lot more. Pure strength of will, decision making skills, experience, teamwork, prodigious self confidence that can coexist with humility, patience, and luck are all critical pieces of the puzzle.

Perhaps most basic to the endeavor is desire. What kid hasn’t looked up a neighborhood peak and wondered, “what’s up there?” For some kids it’s a localized curiosity; for others, like Viesturs, it goes beyond that. The seed of curiosity blossoms into a curiosity about the world, the mysteries it might hold, and, ultimately, curiosity about ourselves. The question comes down to: Can I make it? What exactly am I capable of on this Earth?

This article appears in the Winter 2016 Issue of Territory Magazine.