ON HIS LAST NIGHT IN New York, presenting his slide show for a hundred or so journalists at the Explorer's Club, Viesturs once again told the story of his own closest brush with death.
"Only five Americans had climbed K2 by 1992, when my great friend Scott Fischer and I made our attempt," he said about halfway through the show. "The weather was atrocious, snow conditions were bad. And we were on the Abruzzi Route, which had never been climbed by an American."
He never lingers on the point, but it was unusual for Viesturs to be on a rarely climbed route. His few critics like to point out that most of his 8,000-meter climbs have been on well-established, conservative lines, and they sometimes suggest that his technical climbing ability is well below that of the elite vertical dancers of the sport. "There are murmurings here and there about what I don't do," he says. "But most of the climbers I know are impressed by the fact that I make fast, lightweight climbs and go without oxygen. Anyway, I don't climb for anybody but myself. Maybe I'm not climbing new routes, but they're all new to me."
His friends dismiss the critics. "He's one of the best climbers of all time," says Neal Beidleman, an aeronautical designer from Aspen who has climbed in the Himalayas with Viesturs several times. "He may not be the best technical climber, he may not be doing new routes, but when you look at his determination, his stamina, his ability to make good decisions, and the number of times he's gone safely into the mountains—it just defines a good climber."
"He's the closest thing to a superman I have ever seen" affirms David Breashears, the director and cameraman for the IMAX film, who's summited Everest four times.
Viesturs himself acknowledges that he's a thin-air powerhouse. "It's something you can't train for," he says. "Basically I'm a freak of nature. It's not easy for me at extreme altitudes. But it's not slobbering, crawling, agonizingly hard the way it is for many other people."
As for his legendary unemotional style, Beidleman thinks it's a major factor in Viesturs's success. "Steady Eddie," he says. "The name fits him well. No highs, no lows. He's pretty boring almost, but that's exactly what you want up there. I watched him on Annapurna this spring. I knew it was important to him, but the avalanche conditions were bad, and he just refused to force himself on the mountain. He turned around and walked away with such grace, totally cool, smiling, and it's not a facade. He's made his own rules, and he sticks to them."
The one and only time he didn't was on K2. The climb began badly when Fischer fell into a crevasse and injured his arm, which sent them back to Base Camp for two weeks of healing time. On the mountain again, hurrying to beat the weather, they made a single 12-hour push to Camp Three, at 24,000 feet, and pitched a tent in anticipation of a summit push the next day. That night they got a call for help. French climber Chantal Mauduit had used the last of her strength to make the summit and was stranded just below it with her partner, snowblind and unable to move. Viesturs and Fischer started the climb toward her in a whiteout storm that was priming the steeps for an avalanche. When small clumps of snow began to fall on him, Viesturs knew what was coming and began digging a hole, where he hunkered as the slide hit. He held as the snow roared over and around him, until Fischer, who was above on the rope, shot past in the torrent. Viesturs was dragged out of his burrow, but somehow managed to arrest their fall with his ice ax. Then, despite the still-worsening conditions, they finished the climb to Mauduit and her exhausted partner and spent three days getting them back to Base Camp.
Ten days later, on the brink of another summit bid, they were once again pinned down by a storm.
"I knew I'd made a serious mistake putting off the decision to go down," he says of those days. "I'm a very safe and conservative climber, but somehow that had slipped away from me. And on the morning of the third day, as the weather cleared and we made it to the top, I watched the clouds close in below us and I knew I'd made the stupidest mistake of my life. We were going to be descending in a storm, in waist-deep snow, through perfect avalanche conditions, and I was convinced we were going to die.
"We made it, but what I came away feeling the most was that I would never again go against my gut instincts. We were lucky to get down alive."