Viesturs's safety record is impeccable. Many climbers attribute that to his meticulous planning and preparation and his ability to understand the changing conditions on a mountain. He has made 26 attempts on the 8,000-meter peaks and has spent roughly 40 days in the death zone, believed to be more than any other climber. "It's a risky environment, but we're not seeking danger. We try to be smart and minimize the risk," Viesturs says as he pushes Anabel on a back-porch swing. "There's an art to mountaineering and of doing it right and of knowing when to go and not go."
Viesturs has made a point of never pushing his luck to make a summit. On his first trip to Everest, in 1987, he and Simonson turned back 300 feet from the top because they ran out of rope. Viesturs went on to make six Everest summits, including three without oxygen, in '90, '91 and '96. On a '93 expedition to Shishapangma he got to 20 vertical feet below the peak and turned around because of unstable snow conditions. He reached the summit with Gustafsson in '01.
"I remember [on the '01 trip] we were the only guys roped on a glacier," Gustafsson says. "I know some of the glaciers were not that dangerous, but there could be something. It's very brave to be as safe as you can. Many other climbers, maybe they look at us and say, 'Those guys are wimps and losers. They use their helmets all the time and are roped up.' But I don't argue. If someone does it without a rope or helmet, it's their problem."
While Steady Eddie has been lucky to avoid disasters, he got a firsthand account of mountaineering's worst accident, in 1996. On May 11 of that year a sudden blizzard struck the top of Everest as at least 19 climbers were on their way to the summit. Eight died in the storm, including two of Viesturs's close friends, New Zealand guide Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, whose wedding Viesturs had flown to Mexico to photograph a month earlier. Viesturs was a mile below the summit leading an IMAX expedition with filmmaker David Breashears. Unable to save his friends, Viesturs spoke to Hall through radio contact and listened to Hall's last words with his pregnant wife back in New Zealand. Twelve days later, on his way to his third Everest summit, Viesturs trudged through knee-deep snow past his two friends, sat down beside their frozen bodies and sobbed. "This is a man with tremendous resolve," Breashears says. "Despite the death of his two good friends he still wanted to finish the task."
Viesturs's love affair with the tallest peaks started when, at 16, he picked up a copy of Herzog's Annapurna. "He liked adventure books like Shackleton's Incredible Voyage--anything [about explorers who] faced lots of difficulty," says Elmars Viesturs, Ed's father. Elmars, a mechanical engineer from Latvia, and his wife, Ingrid, a native of Germany, settled in Rockford, Ill., where they raised Ed and his older sister, Velta.
Determined to leave the flatlands of the Midwest, Ed moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington and climb 14,411-foot Mount Rainier on weekends. He graduated from veterinary school at Washington State in 1987. For two years Viesturs worked four days a week for two veterinary clinics, handling a wide range of challenges. "I once had a woman come in with a pet squirrel named Rocky. Her little girl had been wrapping presents and accidentally snipped the tail off with a pair of scissors. I figured it had meningitis because it kept running in circles. We tried antibiotics, and he was cured," he says proudly.
However, Viesturs was taking too much time off to go on expeditions, and in 1989 he quit to begin climbing full time. By '92 he had knocked off the three tallest peaks in the world--Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga--and he committed to crossing off the remaining 11. Finishing the project, he says, "was bittersweet. It's been such a huge part of my life, and I don't have that now."
"It's weird," Paula says, turning to her husband. "When you finished, I thought you'd go, 'Oh, whew.' For me, I was just anxious before you left. I'd be eight weeks alone with the kids."
"You were telling me to just call in sick [and skip the climb]," he says.
Those days are over. Viesturs says he has seen enough of the 8,000-meter peaks. Standing in his kitchen, with his family around him, he thinks about the next step. "I just want to try some other peaks with David [Breashears] and Veikka and have fun," he says. "I don't think I have to be gone as long. And maybe we can take the kids to Kilimanjaro."