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Mountaineering: It Came from Rockford

Outside magazine, March 1996

Mountaineering: It Came from Rockford

High-altitude mutant Ed Viesturs's careful assault on the top of the world
By Andrew Tilin

"It was all about putting another deposit in the Karma National Bank," says Ed Viesturs about his 1992 climb of K2, the world's second-highest peak.

A Seattle-based alpinist who specializes in the world's biggest mountains, Viesturs had been waiting out stormy weather in his tent at Camp 3 when he got a radio call from a teammate who was exhausted and snow-blind and needed help off the mountain. He obliged, trudging up a thousand feet to the victim and escorting her 9,000 feet down to base camp. Then came the remarkable part. Having already spent several brain-swelling days above 24,000 feet and taken a dicey ride on an avalanche, Viesturs turned around and headed up to the summit of the world's deadliest mountain.

Such Herculean feats at heights better suited for jet travel are business as usual for Viesturs, who over the last decade has distinguished himself as arguably the world's busiest and most reliable mountaineer, if not its most daring. "I just take it steady," he says, with trademark understatement. So far, the slight, perpetually suntanned 36-year-old has climbed Everest three times and--perhaps more astonishing--stood atop nine of the world's 14 peaks that measure 8,000 meters or higher. He will depart for the Himalayas again this month to lead a film crew up Everest before trying for his tenth 8,000-meter peak, eastern Nepal's 26,760-foot Manaslu. By the end of the century, if all goes as planned, Viesturs will become the first American to have climbed all 14. So why, relatively speaking, is he such an unknown?

What he does is "boring," says Reinhold Messner, a boyhood idol of Viesturs and the first person to climb all the 8,000-meter peaks. A few other top mountaineers guardedly agree, saying Viesturs rarely puts up new routes, opting instead for well-worn lines that offer better odds for success. "If your point is to get the top, then you might as well take the easy way, if there is such a thing," says Scott Fischer, a fellow guide who was on K2 with Viesturs. There's also the helicopter factor. Viesturs has been known to zoom from one big mountain to the next, forgoing the long slog into base camp to maintain his conditioning and acclimatization. The hit-and-run approach rankles a few in the climbing community. "I'm not one to criticize anyone's style," says Alex Lowe, whom many consider to be America's finest and purest all-around alpinist. "But I know a few people who could do what Ed's doing."

Perhaps--but there are reasons Viesturs is so prolific. Because of his conservative ways and friendly guy-next-door demeanor, sponsors line up to pay his bills, including those for the expensive helicopter jaunts. "He's reliable when other climbers aren't," explains Paige Springer, marketing director for Mountain Hardwear, one of Viesturs's sponsors. "You can bank that he's going to come back alive, and there's a good chance he'll have summited." In other words, while some climbers enter the market whenever they need someone to pay for their next extreme vacation, Viesturs looks for long-term relationships to keep his 8,000-meter dream alive. "There are no free lunches anymore in the sport of climbing--nobody's willing to send out a bunch of packs and not hear from you again," says Viesturs. "The climber-sponsor relationship needs constant nurturing."

Viesturs's planned expedition this month, his eighth trip to Everest, is something of a publicist's dream, with an IMAX film crew tagging along to make a documentary that's slated to appear in museums and other giant-screen venues nationwide in 1997. Viesturs, of course, will play the familiar role of the likable and utterly competent mountain guide. But Everest is just a warm-up. Once Viesturs returns to base camp, he'll hop aboard a helicopter and touch down near the Manaslu base camp. (Watch for Viesturs's own exclusive reports from the mountain on Outside Online, http://www.starwave.com/outside.)

The Great Messner, of course, wouldn't have done it that way, but Viesturs doesn't seem to care: He's racking up serious time at the top of the world, the place he loves most. Almost two decades ago, Messner's stories from the Himalayas gave goose bumps to the teenage Viesturs, a Rockford, Illinois, high school student who developed his work ethic in the swimming pool. He swam freestyle on a national-record-holding medley-relay team. "The more I pushed, the more I endured, the better swimmer I knew I'd be," Viesturs says. "That's why climbing inspired me--it's about realizing human potential."

Viesturs moved to Seattle, he says, "to go to college and walk up mountains." He ultimately earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine and, in 1982, a guiding job with Rainier Mountaineering Inc.

In the years since, Viesturs has lived the oft-quoted climbing mantra "safety before success." In camp, he's an inveterate clock-watcher, often setting out before anyone else, at midnight or even earlier, to ensure returning from the summit before dark.

Viesturs's most prized asset is his lung power. "Ed's got superb hypoxic ventilatory response," says Eric Weiss, a Stanford Universitybased physician and Himalayan veteran who's treated hundreds of cases of acute mountain sickness. Translation: Viesturs is a master at breathing hard. "That's not to say he doesn't feel lousy in high places, just like the rest of us. He just pushes through it like few others."

For his part, Viesturs doesn't seem preoccupied with his detractors or with building lasting fame. "Whether three people or a hundred have climbed the world's tallest mountains is irrelevant," he says. "I'm doing this for me."

The approach is working. As Mountain Hardwear's Springer says, "There isn't a sure thing in mountaineering, but if there was, Ed would be it."

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