1. Ed Viesturs
Age: 41 Specs: 5-foot-10, 165 pounds
Home: Seattle, Washington
"I'VE NEVER HAD A BAD DAY in the mountains," says Ed Viesturs.
It's the kind of remark you don't usually hear from someone who's barely survived howling storms, horrendous avalanches, and the high-altitude deaths of close friends. Sitting across from Viesturs, both of us chewing steak in a Manhattan restaurant, I'm stopped by his credo of universal positivity. I know all about his reputation as an implacably sunny character, a man without any discernable dark side. But given what I also know about his brushes with disaster, especially during a couple of very bad days on Everest in 1996, his words make him sound like the Mr. Rogers of high mountaineering. "I climb these mountains to have a good time," he adds in his low-key way, as if he's describing his intention to visit all the national parks by car.
Viesturs is in New York to tell an auditorium full of rapt listeners just how good a time he's had in the mountains. His slide-show presentation, evolving versions of which he's been giving since 1996, consistently draws a sellout crowd, a fact that continues to confound him.
"It's been just amazing," he says. "I'll be doing my slide show in these venues that hold a thousand people, and kids will come up to me afterwards and they're asking, 'Where you gonna be tomorrow?' And I say, 'Boston,' and they go, 'OK, we'll start driving tonight and get there in time to buy tickets...' It totally surprised me. It was like the Dead concerts—which is why we've started calling it the Grateful Ed Tour."
Viesturs is 41 years old, a nonpracticing doctor of veterinary medicine who has spent most of his adult life climbing all over the world's highest mountains. He's a man whose gratitude runs deep. He is grateful for his wife and two young children. He is grateful for the unique physical gifts that have carried him up mountains and for the common sense that has brought him back down alive. In short, he's grateful just to be here.
Yet there's more to Viesturs's gratitude, and perhaps a cruel irony. His slide shows are popular in large part because of the role Viesturs played in the best-known, most exhaustively chronicled event in mountaineering history, the 1996 storm on Everest in which eight people died, including two of Viesturs's longtime friends, guides Scott Fischer and Rob Hall. His fame grew with his starring role in the blockbuster IMAX film Everest, which documents how Viesturs helped rescue climbers stranded near the summit in the course of his own successful climb. In the film's most wrenching scene, he pleads with Rob Hall via radio, unsuccessfully trying to motivate the guide to save himself. Becoming America's most famous and perhaps highest-paid mountaineer came with a heavy price.
Beyond the Everest debacle, Viesturs is renowned for having summited 11 (or 12, depending who's counting) of the world's 14 8,000-meter peaks, and for his addiction to Everest, which he's attempted nine times and summited five. And he's pulled off every milestone achievement in his career without an oxygen bottle.
Lately, however, Grateful Ed has been spending a lot more time in darkened rooms than on mountains. The majority of his slide shows are delivered as part of his sponsorship deals with Mountain Hardwear and other companies. (For corporate appearances, he receives up to $7,000 a show.) As this year ends, he will have given his show nearly 60 times.
I caught up with the tour in New York, where Viesturs's first stop was at a PR agency for some coaching on how to subtly insert the name of his Internet sponsor, Expedia.com, into the blizzard of satellite-television interviews scheduled for the next morning. He stands five-foot-ten and weighs 165 lithe pounds, his face carries a natural midwestern openness, he smiles easily, and he speaks about his climbing life with a boyish enthusiasm that is so upbeat it's sometimes hard to believe. Indeed, his cautious approach to this unforgiving sport and his amazing safety record seem to confirm that he climbs not to exorcise demons or prove himself, but for the pure love of taking the mountains as he finds them.
It's a style he embraced early in his career and then took on his first Everest expedition, in 1987, a grueling three-month attempt via the North Face with mentor Eric Simonson. They made it to 28,700 feet late on summit day, but had already used all their rope, and were looking at a rock climb—not a Viesturs strength—to gain the West Ridge. Worse, a storm was about to begin.
"So there we are," he tells audiences, "300 feet from the summit—spitting distance—and we turned around and walked away. It was a very difficult decision. You've spent years of training, months of preparation, thousands of dollars, and you throw it all away. A lot of people are willing to continue on, risk their lives. I'm not. We probably could have made it to the top, but with the conditions and our abilities, we weren't sure we could make it down. And that's the critical factor. Getting up is optional. Getting down is mandatory. It's gotta be a round-trip." He turned around again during another attempt the following year, and finally reached the top of Everest in 1990.
Even his decision to forgo supplemental oxygen is a reflection of his prudence—and unshakable confidence. "I decided way back in the eighties that if I ever went to Everest, I'd go without oxygen," Viesturs says. "I read about Reinhold Messner"—the first mountaineer to climb Everest without oxygen and the first to climb all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks—"doing it that way, and I wanted to climb the mountain on its terms instead of bringing it down to mine. And I've found that when you go without oxygen you train harder, you plan more, and you don't have to worry about a mechanical system that can fail." Over the next two seasons, Viesturs plans to complete the final three climbs that will make him the first American to repeat Messner's oxygen-free feat.