The Immovable Object Meets the Unstoppable Force

Step by step, year after year, summit after summit, never altering, Ed Viesturs has planted his flag across the top of the world. And everybody loves him. What's the deal with this guy?

Dec 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE NEXT TIME I SAW Viesturs give his slide show he was back home in Seattle, this time in an IMAX theater where 50 young corporate money managers had just watched the Everest movie.

Viesturs gave essentially the same presentation that he had given in New York—not a memorized script, but a story told so often that details of emotion, sorrow and triumph, have not survived well in the relentless repetition.

"It's not easy," he admitted afterward. "Right after the movie came out I was doing three or four shows a night for two weeks. I'd introduce the movie, answer questions, and boom—another group would come in. But all of a sudden I was making money for the first time, and I couldn't believe it—still can't, in a way. I have a family now, a mortgage, and if I do a lot more speaking than climbing these days, it's OK."

Viesturs's amazement at his good luck is intensified by memories of financial times that were "bleak and frustrating," he says. "I remember in 1992, when Scott Fischer and I got back from K2, we were something like $8,000 in debt. Things didn't start to turn until autumn of '93, when I got my deal with Mountain Hardwear. And after the release of the Everest film in 1998, everything took off."

Of course, even if he didn't have his vet credentials to fall back on, Viesturs could earn a living using the carpentry skills he employed doing part-time work during the lean years—skills that are evident in the work he's done on his small but beautiful house overlooking Puget Sound in West Seattle.

When I arrived at his door, he was holding his month-old daughter, Ella, like an armload of roses, and he was smiling as if he had never had a bad day anywhere. His two-and-a-half-year-old son, Gilbert, puttered over a table full of toys, while his wife, Paula, bustled about gathering things for an afternoon outing with the kids. An accomplished mountaineer, Paula met her future husband in 1994 and spent her honeymoon on Everest in 1996, where she managed Base Camp operations during that season's dramatic events.

Viesturs and I talked in his ground-floor office, surrounded by beautiful color photos of Everest. I was intent on getting at his deeper thoughts about those defining moments in 1996, a subject about which he tends to be circumspect and carefully diplomatic in his public pronouncements. "We certainly never expected the tragedy that happened that May while we were making the film," he tells his slide-show audiences. In private I pressed the matter with him.

"What happened?" he said. "Who knows? Many decisions were made, some perhaps weren't made right. It wasn't one person or one decision that caused the events. It was multiple small events. And when you're climbing at these altitudes, minor mistakes can turn tragic."

On his own way to the summit in '96, Viesturs had encountered the bodies of Fischer and Hall. "No bad days on the mountain?" I asked.

"That was hard," he acknowledged. "I'd never lost a close friend in the mountains before. I reached Scott on the way up, and thankfully his face was covered, as was Rob's when I got to him. There'd been talk of retrieving Scott's wedding ring and Rob's watch to bring back to their wives. But I couldn't do it." He paused as emotion saturated his voice. "Maybe with someone I didn't know..." He paused again. "But not with Scott and Rob. So I just sat for a time next to each of them, crying, paying my respects, telling myself they were living their dreams when they died."

I asked if he ever felt that he and Fischer and Hall, as guides who were selling the Everest adventure, were to some extent responsible for the glut of climbers who were on the mountain that year.

"Yeah, maybe," he replied. "But I've always thought that if you want to climb Everest you have every right to do it. Mountaineering is about freedom, and there shouldn't be some committee to limit the number of people who do it. People are going to want to go whether we're there as guides or not, and when we are there, hopefully, we help them do it in the right way."

Together with his climbing partner for the last five years, 33-year-old Finlander Veikka Gustafsson, Viesturs attempted Annapurna, one of the peaks he needs to complete his 14, this past spring, but "the conditions were just too dangerous," he said. "We're planning to go back in 2002. We'll do the northwest face, which I think is the safest route. But if I go and look and it seems too dangerous for me, then maybe Annapurna will be the mountain I don't climb. If I only ever climb 13 of the 14 peaks, so be it. There are plenty of other mountains."

This coming spring, Viesturs will return to Shishapangma and try to reach its highest point. "I made the first Shishapangma climb before I knew I was going to be going for all 14 peaks," Viesturs said. "And even though I didn't make the traverse to the ultimate summit—avalanche conditions were bad—I figured I'd done it. Now, though, it's kind of a fly in the ointment, and I want to go back with Veikka and stand on the tippy-top. Then, while we're still acclimatized, we'll go to Kashmir and do number 13, Nanga Parbat."

Later, after Paula and the kids had returned and joined us in Viesturs's office, the conversation turned to Scott Fischer's children and the baby who had been born after Rob Hall died. Ed and Paula had spent time this spring with Rob's wife, Jan, in New Zealand. (Viesturs had been hired to play himself in a cameo role for a Hollywood mountaineering thriller, Vertical Limit, to be released this month. The climbing scenes were shot in New Zealand.)

"Seeing Jan and little Sarah was really hard," Paula said, as her own baby lay peacefully in her arms.

"Sarah's a great kid," Viesturs added. "She never met her dad, so while we were there, with Gil calling me Daddy, Sarah started calling me Daddy. But Jan seemed good. She's a very strong, solid person. She had summited Everest with Rob. She knew the game. She knew that maybe one day he might die up there.

"Death scares me," he said finally, as if knowing the perils of the game would be no comfort to Paula—or to him, if the worst came true. "I'm not afraid to die of old age or whatever, but I don't want to kill myself on the mountain. That would be a sad day."

Contributing editor Craig Vetter's April 1999 story about the life and death of rock climber Dan Osman appears in The Best American Sports Writing 2000.

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