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It Takes Passion ... And Patience

FullTextImage/img/@altEd Viesturs addresses the Corps and the community. -- VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

High-Altitude Climber Describes Lessons Learned by ‘Listening’ to the Mountain


LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 14, 2013 – Mountain climbing legend Ed Viesturs told an audience of VMI cadets, faculty, and community members on Monday that teamwork, patience, and determining an acceptable level of risk are critical both when climbing mountains and confronting the obstacles of life at lower altitudes.

In 2005, Viesturs made history when he became only the sixth person in the world, and the first American, to reach the summits of all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter or higher peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen. Endeavor 8000, as Viesturs called this project, took 18 years from start to completion. In honor of this achievement, the Bainbridge Island, Wash., resident was named National Geographic’s Explorer of the Year for 2005.

Viesturs’ remarks at VMI, part of the H.B. Johnson Jr. ’26 Distinguished Lecture Series, were based on his book No Shortcuts to the Top, which narrates the Endeavor 8000 undertaking. After he spoke, Viesturs signed copies of his newly published book The Mountain: Epic Adventures on Everest.

In his talk, the 54-year-old Viesturs explained the origins of his mountain-climbing dream. As a boy growing up in the prairie state of Illinois, Viesturs happened upon a copy of Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. The book recounts Herzog’s 1950 ascent of Annapurna, the world’s 10th highest peak and one of the most challenging to climb.

Lured by dreams of Himalayan climbing, Viesturs left Illinois after high school and moved to Seattle, Wash., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Washington in 1981. While in college, Viesturs began climbing nearby Mt. Rainier, and by 1982, he was leading expeditions of less experienced climbers on that glacial peak. Today, Viesturs has reached the summit of 14,400-foot Mt. Rainier an incredible 212 times.

It was while he was guarding the lives of others on Mt. Rainier, Viesturs explained, that he developed the safety awareness that it is still with him today. “I learned so many amazing things as a guide,” he noted.

“We learned about the essence of teamwork. If we rope together as a team, and stay together, we’re stronger together as a team and safer than we are as individuals. … We always have to be thinking about contingency plans. We have to be thinking, ‘If something happens right now, how will I get out of that situation?’”

The lessons learned on Mt. Rainier served Viesturs well in 1987, during his first attempted ascent of Mt. Everest. Just 300 feet from the top, Viesturs and his climbing partner were forced to turn back due to bad weather.

“Sometimes we’re not allowed to succeed. Sometimes the conditions get so severe that we have to stop,” explained Viesturs. “We call that listening to the mountain. … It doesn’t mean you give up. It just means you have to have more patience.”

Of his decision to turn around that day on Mt. Everest, with the summit in clear view, Viesturs commented, “We had no other logical option. But imagine what a lot of other people do in this situation. Their hopes and dreams are 300 feet away, and they’ve spent a lot of money. That’s why people die in the mountains. They’re not willing to listen to the mountain.”

He continued, “For me, getting to the top has always been half of the climb. The complete and total definition of the climb is getting down as well.” In his book, and in his talk, Viesturs repeated his mantra of climbing: “Getting to the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”

Most accidents, he observed, happen on the way down, because climbers are bone-tired, and their supplies of food and oxygen are often depleted.

The reward, though, for Viesturs’ failed attempt at Mt. Everest in 1987 was another shot in 1990. This time, after 12 hours of climbing solo, in air so thin he had to take 15 breaths for every step forward, Viesturs stood on top of the roof of the world for the first time. With no climbing partner to help him, Viesturs put his camera on a monopod and set the self-timer so he could record a photograph of his achievement.

Over the next 15 years, Viesturs tackled mountains the only way they can be tackled – one at a time. Successful attempts mixed with unsuccessful ones, and at the end, Viesturs found he’d been on 21 expeditions to the 14 summits, which translates into a success rate of 66 percent. That figure, Viesturs commented, “is pretty good in the Himalayan arena.”

The celebratory moments on top, though, were dwarfed by days of simply putting one foot in front of another – or not moving at all. During his 1992 attempt to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain, and one of the most treacherous, Viesturs and his climbing partner were forced to stay inside a tiny tent for three days straight while a storm roiled about them outside.

To really find out what that’s like, Viesturs challenged cadets to go back to barracks, find a buddy, move into a closet, and stay there for three days – an idea that drew appreciative laughter from the audience.

But after those three days, the storm cleared out, and sure enough, the two men were able to reach the top. “Our patience paid off,” said Viesturs.

Later, in May 1996, Viesturs was on Mt. Everest when the unthinkable happened – a monster storm swept over the mountain during the height of the climbing season. By some accounts, more than 34 people were attempting the summit that day. In the end, eight climbers died, and many more had to be rescued. Viesturs noted that this event, the largest mountain climbing tragedy in history, is well chronicled in journalist Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air.

Viesturs, who was accompanying filmmaker David Breashers in his quest to make the IMAX film Everest, helped to rescue some of the stricken. “Nobody was willing to make a decision to turn around when they should have,” Viesturs commented, “and the rest is history.”

By 2005, only one mountain was left on Viesturs’ Endeavor 8000 list: Annapurna. At that point, Viesturs noted, only 180 people had climbed Annapurna, but 60 had died trying to do so. On May 12, 2005, Viesturs’ patience paid off, as he reached the menacing mountain’s summit on his third attempt. “That was amazing, a dream come true for me,” he remarked.

In closing, Viesturs left his audience with a quote from Herzog, the climber whose 1950 ascent of Annapurna inspired him so many years earlier. “We all have our own Annapurnas,” he quoted Herzog as saying.

“That’s a metaphor for life,” Viesturs observed. “We’re all climbing some sort of mountain.” Friends and family, partners and teammates, he acknowledged, supply support and encouragement along the way, but in the end, the will to climb must come from within.

“The Number One ingredient to success, in life and in business, is passion,” said Viesturs.

“You’ve got to love what you do. … If you love what you do, you don’t care how long it takes because you’re part of the process. You enjoy the journey. Passion is the key to climbing your own Annapurna.”

–Mary Price

-VMI-