The Adrenalist

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Ed Viesturs the Extreme Climber, Adventurer and Author



When high-altitude climber Ed Viesturs was at high-school in the flatlands of Illinois, water towers loomed highest on the horizon. But the young Viesturs was inspired to climb by the French climber Maurice Herzog’s story of the first ascent of Everest’s formidably difficult sister, Annapurna in 1950.

When Viesturs launched his drive to climb the world’s 14 highest peaks in the late 1980s, he brooded on the challenge that Annapurna posed.

“Of all 14 of the world’s highest mountains, which I climbed between 1989 and 2005,” writes Viesturs in his new book, The Will to Climb, “The one that came the closest to defeating my best efforts was Annapurna.”

Type-A Viesturs only summited Annapurna in 2005 after failing twice, in 2000 and 2002 – as you do.  Everest and K2 are higher, still, as Viesturs says, Annapurna remains the world’s deadliest peak.

Since the first successful ascent of Annapurna in 1950, the mountain has been climbed by over 130 people, but 53 – or 38 per cent – died trying. The reason: Annapurna makes no concessions. No ridge nor face exists on any side of the avalanche-inclined mountain named after a Hindu harvest goddess.

Underlining the risk of Viesturs’ mission, a week after his successful ascent, Italian climber Christian Kuntner died, pummelled by tumbling ice on the route Viesturs had taken up Annapurna. It would have been Kuntner’s 14th 8,000-meter peak, too, had his luck held.

“On Annapurna, no matter how much you try to control the risks, to a certain extent you’re always rolling the dice,” Viesturs writes.

Born in 1959, Viesturs enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1977 to pursue an undergraduate zoology degree.

But his main attraction to the Pacific Northwest was the icy 4,000-meter volcano, Mount Rainier, which he could see from his dorm window. He headed to the mountain whenever he could, reaching its summit for the first time in the winter of 1979.

Then Viesturs landed a job as a Rainier guide and wound up climbing the mountain 192 times. His career path was set.

One of a tiny handful of westerners to summit Everest five times or more, he has been called “superhuman”. He describes himself as goal-oriented and drawn to monumental projects that demand huge time and effort. To ensure success, he trains up to seven days a week, year round. His testing regimen helps him stay sharp and safe at dizzy heights.

His constitution helps, too. Lab tests have shown that the 5’10″, 165-pound (75-kilogram) extreme adventurer processes oxygen faster and in greater amounts than the average person. While most people’s lungs can hold up to 6.5 liters of oxygen, Viesturs’ hold seven.

Besides, he has a high “anaerobic limit” — the cramp-causing point at which lactic acids start amassing in muscles. His abilities give him the stamina to climb higher, without an oxygen tank, which he shuns.  For Viesturs, resorting to supplemental oxygen bursts would be cheating – detract from the challenge that captivates him.

“To climb to 29,000 feet – what’s that feel like? Can I push myself that hard? Am I strong enough physically? Those are the things I want to test myself with,” he told National Geographic magazine in a 2003 report.

Despite his insistence on breathing thin air, Viesturs takes a safety-first, round-trip attitude. Twice, because of treacherous conditions he has turned back when right at the brink of “conquering” Everest. While rivals recklessly pursue increasingly dicey paths to the top of towering mountains, Viesturs remains a champion of smart climbing.

His motto: “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”

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