This past May 23, mountaineer and cinematographer David Breashears made his final push to the summit of Mount Everest, at 29,028 feet the tallest mountain in the world. Breashears and his Sherpa assistants left camp at midnight, an hour behind the party's chief climber, Ed Viesturs, a rangy 37-year-old from Seattle. Breashears, who was making an IMAX film during the trip, assumed he and the Sherpas would reel Viesturs in because they were using bottled oxygen in Everest's tropospheric air, while Viesturs was not. Despite that handicap and despite the fact that he also had the exhausting task of breaking trail through heavy snow, Viesturs was nearly to the summit before Breashears caught him. "Let's not say 'caught,' " Breashears says in a tone of amazement. "Ed waited for me, and I joined him there."
Ed Viesturs is a mountaineer. But it might be more appropriate to view him as a pair of lungs that sprouted feet. Viesturs excels in the thin air and brutal conditions of the world's tallest peaks, his legs pumping pistonlike to move him up the slope when most other climbers are gasping and bent over their ice axes from fatigue. That ability has helped put Viesturs (pronounced VEE-stirs) close to mountaineering's Grand Slam, a feat attained by reaching the summits of all 14 of the world's 8,000-plus-meter peaks, which poke up from the great mountain ranges of Nepal and Kashmir like huge, icy shark's teeth. More remarkably, he is trying to complete all 14 climbs without the physiological crutch of an oxygen tank. With nine of the peaks in the bag and five to go, Viesturs is nearing his goal. When he makes number 14, perhaps in 1998, he'll be the first American, with or without oxygen, to have scaled all of those mountains, and only the sixth mountaineer in the world—after Reinhold Messner (Italy), Jerzy Kukuczka (Poland), Erhard Loretan (Switzerland), Carlos Carsolio (Mexico) and Krzysztof Wielicki (Poland)—to have done so.
In an era when mountaineering has split into a half-dozen sometimes abstruse branches—for example, sport-climbing on man-made walls, extreme ice ascents and rock climbing in exotic places like Thailand—Viesturs has stuck to basics. He does hard climbs on big mountains as simply as possible. At that, he's about the best there is. Says Breashears, himself a top-flight mountaineer, "One of the joys of being with Ed is knowing you're in the presence of a superior being. Ed has some sort of gift for performing at high altitude."
That gift may be that he seems to enjoy himself where others find mostly agony. Viesturs is an affable, chatty fellow of medium height, with a wide, toothy grin. He has big, strong hands and the tousled, light brown hair and perpetual tan of a California surfer. But what's most striking are his large brown eyes, which almost bug out with delight when he talks about some recent route. Viesturs unfailingly makes epic climbs on the biggest, baddest mountains sound like a stroll up a gentle incline. Take K2, the world's second-highest mountain, at 28,250 feet, and perhaps the most intimidating. In 1992, Viesturs aborted his first attempt at the summit to help a party in distress descend. Then, after summiting, his group helped another climber who was ill down the mountain. "A great summit," he says simply. Or his 1993 solo bid to climb Everest, an effort that failed because of lousy weather and avalanches: "A neat experience." Or his first ascent of Everest, in 1990. Because he wasn't using oxygen he camped lower than his partners, but some climbers in the group thought he wouldn't have enough time for the longer climb to the top and still make it back to camp: "It was great. A perfect day."
Viesturs seems to be an exception to the accepted rule that humans aren't designed for high elevations. At 16,000 feet there's one-third less oxygen in each breath of air than at sea level. Above 25,000 feet there's a lung-busting two-thirds less. The absence of oxygen molecules can result in progressively more harmful ills. Among them: acute mountain sickness (pounding headache, nausea); pulmonary edema (a buildup of frothy, bloody fluid in the lungs causing severe coughing and, in some cases, coma or death); or cerebral edema (a buildup of fluid on the brain that causes severe headache, mental confusion or hallucination, potentially fatal as well).
A slow trip up a mountain, setting progressively higher camps, can reduce the effects of altitude by giving the body time to adapt. Bottled oxygen also can help climbers cope. But even with that, the average climber in the Himalayas is a miserable specimen—half-starved, gasping for air at four times the normal rate, wracked with a cough from the thin, dry air that has been known to cause cracked ribs. Add to that bitter cold and high winds that can sweep a person from his feet. Climbers call the region above 25,000 feet the Death Zone.
Measure a population of human beings for its ability to cope with altitude, and a very small number will be on the far righthand side of the bell curve. That's where you'll find Viesturs. He has never had so much as a headache when climbing. Like most climbers at high elevations, Viesturs has difficulty eating regular meals, but he can tolerate climbing without eating, a rare ability, and thus maintain his energy. When it comes to extracting the most from thin air, he's as adapted as a fish in water.
"He's got a big, barrel chest, but he's lean—very lean," says Dr. Robert Schoene, a mountaineer and professor of medicine at the University of Washington who put Viesturs on a treadmill in August to see what makes him tick. "His lungs are huge, with a heart stuck in there somewhere. It's pretty much what I would have expected of Ed." More technically, Viesturs has a VO, max, or oxygen-uptake capacity, of 67 cubic centimeters per kilogram of body weight per minute, about equal to other elite mountaineers and slightly below that of an elite runner. What sets him apart is his ability to work at some 80% of his aerobic capacity for extended periods, well above the average, which is around 55%. Schoene compares Viesturs to a pronghorn antelope, an animal whose defense against predators is its ability to run very fast for long periods of time. Climbing companions of Viesturs find the analogy telling. "I'm fit," says Viesturs's climbing friend Eric Simonson, "but I can't keep up with him."
Surviving at altitude means more than the ability to suck in air, however. No organ is more oxygen-sensitive than the brain, and high-altitude climbers often recount weird distortions of time, an inability to perform simple tasks, such as strapping on crampons, or lengthy conversations with imaginary climbing partners. Schoene, for instance, took part in a 1981 climb of Everest during which extensive medical tests were conducted on team members, including tests of mental acuity. Recall, general coordination and other measurements of brain function "were abnormal in all of us when we got back," says Schoene. "Most of it came back within a year, and all of it will eventually. I hope." Viesturs doesn't scoff at such talk. Trained as a veterinarian, he knows physiology. "I think about it [the risks of being at high altitude], but I seem to be O.K.," he says with a chuckle. "At least, nobody has said, 'Hey, Ed, you've changed.' "
Viesturs wasn't born to the mountains. He grew up in Rockford, Ill., in the pancake-fiat Midwest. It was as a schoolboy that Viesturs found his calling in a copy of Annapurna, French climber Maurice Herzog's account of his heroic 1950 ascent, when he became the first to conquer an 8,000-meter peak. "After that I read everything I could get my hands on about climbing," Viesturs says. "Climbing was what I wanted to do." After he graduated from the University of Washington in 1981, he moved to Pullman, where he attended Washington State University's veterinary school and spent his weekends climbing the scores of peaks in the Cascade Range.