VIESTURS WAS BORN in 1959 and grew up in the flatlands of Rockford, Illinois, where the highest objects on the horizon were water towers. His parents were immigrants—his father, a mechanical design engineer, from Latvia; his mother from Germany—who arrived in the early 1950s. In high school, Viesturs read and was captivated by Annapurna, the French climber Maurice Herzog's famous and grisly account of the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in 1950. I reminded Viesturs that Herzog's tale had a lot more frostbite, amputation, and near-death suffering than it did fun. "That's not what interested me," he replied. "What I liked was that these guys had a goal and they just wouldn't give up. They spent months and months finding the mountain; then they climbed it. So simple, so basic. I'm a very goal-oriented person, and I like things that take a long time to accomplish."
After some beginner's rock climbing at Devil's Lake, Wisconsin, Viesturs left the Midwest for the University of Washington in 1977 and inaugurated a long-running obsession with Mount Rainier. "I could see it from my dorm window, and it became my focus," he says. "I was maniacal about it. Every weekend, I'd bum a ride or hitchhike, rain or shine, just to be on the mountain." He eventually landed a job as a guide with Rainier Mountaineering Inc., then began a four-year period combining veterinary studies at Washington State University in Pullman and guiding during the summer. After becoming a vet in 1987, Viesturs practiced in two clinics run by friends who reluctantly gave him months off at a time to climb in the Himalayas. Finally, his absences were too long and too frequent, and he was forced to choose: be a vet or be a climber.
He chose the mountains. In 1989, he topped India's 28,208-foot Kanchenjunga, his first 8,000-meter summit. Climbing Everest the following year was "one of the greatest moments in my life," he says. "And I thought, 'Memorize this view, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Nobody in their right mind climbs Everest twice.' Little did I know that I'd be there time after time." In fact, he claimed his second summit in 1991. In 1992, he summited K2. In 1993, he reached the middle summit of Shishapangma, in Tibet, but declined to attempt the true summit, which is three meters higher (thereby complicating his goal of climbing all fourteen 8,000ers). In 1994, after climbing Everest as a guide with New Zealander Rob Hall and summiting for the third time, he looked over at the adjacent 27,943-foot Lhotse and suggested that they go for it.
"That was a great season," he says. "Rob and I got six clients to the top of Everest, shook hands, took pictures, got everybody down safe, rested at Base Camp for two days, then made a rapid three-day ascent to the summit of Lhotse, the fourth-highest peak in the world, and seven days later we were on top. It was like combining a marathon with a sprint, which was a hard thing to do as far as maintaining strength and desire. Most people come down from Everest and they're wiped out for the next three years."
The following year Viesturs successfully knocked off three more 8,000-meter peaks.