DATE OF CLIMB ||
8,586 m (28,169 ft.) ||
May 1989 ||
Bags first 8,000-meter peak by going up technically demanding northwest face |
8,848 m (29,029 ft.) ||
May 1990 ||
Tallest peak is "almost impossible without [supplemental] oxygen," says Viesturs |
8,611 m (28,251 ft.) ||
Aug. 1992 ||
Uses ice ax during avalanche to save himself and partner Scott Fischer
8,516 m (27,940 ft.) ||
May 1994 ||
Blitzes up in three days after summiting Everest (again) the week before |
8,201 m (26,906 ft.) ||
Sept. 1994 ||
Returns to Nepal in fall to claim this one with Kiwi climber Rob Hall |
8,463 m (27,766 ft.) ||
May 1995 ||
With Hall and Veikka Gustafsson, it's a tight squeeze on pyramid-shaped summit |
Gasherbrum II ||
8,035 m (26,362 ft.) ||
July 1995 ||
Makes a solo summit from high camp in the Karakoram Range
Gasherbrum I ||
8,068 m (26,470 ft.) ||
July 1995 ||
Ticks off his fourth 8,000-meter peak of the past 12 months in 30 hours |
Broad Peak ||
8,047 m (26,401 ft.) ||
June 1997 ||
Turns back 150 feet from highest point; returns in 2003 to confirm his conquest |
8,163 m (26,781 ft.) ||
April 1999 ||
With Gustafsson, reaches remote peak in one of driest seasons on record |
8,167 m (26,795 ft.) ||
May 1999 ||
Acclimatized from Manaslu, the pair push through a three-day Alpine climb |
8,027 m (26,335 ft.) ||
May 2001 ||
Reaches the top after turning back three meters lower on the middle summit in '93 |
8,126 m (26,660 ft.) ||
June 2003 ||
After an unsuccessful bid in '01, Viesturs tames Killer Mountain |
8,091 m (26,545 ft.) ||
May 2005 ||
"I don't have the desire to repeat these mountains," he says after summiting |
From up there, five miles above the Earth, everything looked perfect to Ed Viesturs. On the summit of Annapurna, the high-altitude climber took in his final view above the vast sea of white clouds and the jagged Himalaya mountain range that stretched beyond. Who knew that this would also be his last moment of peace? � Fifteen years, 11 months and 25 days after he began his quest to scale the world's 14 highest peaks without supplemental oxygen, Viesturs (pronounced VEE-sturs) announced in May that he was retiring from chasing 8,000-meter (26,240-foot) mountains in pursuit of more mundane challenges. On a recent July morning this means managing the home front while his wife, Paula, goes for an hourlong run and leaves him alone with their three kids-- Gilbert, 7, Ella, 5, and Anabel, 10 months.
Viesturs has been fielding business calls all morning and needs to run up to his home office on the second floor of his garage to prepare a few slides from his 1992 K2 expedition for an emergency FedEx delivery. Bored, Gilbert and Ella tag along, climbing the stairs past the Tibetan prayer flags hanging in front of the office. Viesturs, 46, runs back into the house. "Oops, I need the baby monitor," he says.
The first American to join climbing's 8,000-meter club lives in a spacious pale-yellow house on Bainbridge Island, Wash., a rustic residential community in Puget Sound that is reached by a 30-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. Several large nylon bags filled with climbing gear, and poster-sized prints of Viesturs grinning on the summits of all the 8,000-meter peaks, are strewn on the office floor. Gilbert is more interested in a desk drawer full of high-tech gadgets. "This is awesome," he says. "Hey, Dad, this GPS isn't working!" Viesturs, poring through a few hundred slides, runs out to the backyard to set the GPS and then back into the house to check on the baby.
"I've always liked doing things that weren't easy. I like the challenge," Viesturs says. The phone rings. He checks the caller I.D. and sets the cordless phone down. Gil wants to know if you can get "brain freeze" from being at high altitude. Ella wants a bagel with strawberry jam. "Daaaaaad," she implores. "I'm hungry." For a moment Viesturs's brown, saucer-sized eyes stare into the distance. "You know," he says, "I used to be more efficient."
By the time Paula returns, the kids have decided they want their father to take them for a bike ride around the neighborhood. As Gilbert and Ella search a shallow pond for Pacific tree frogs, Viesturs reminisces about the epic struggles he faced on 26,545-foot Annapurna, the deadliest of all peaks in the Himalayas.
Viesturs had already made two previous attempts on Annapurna, in 2000 and 2002, but turned back because of avalanche threats. In May, he and his partner Veikka Gustafsson, a former special forces operative from Finland, pressed on, despite minor avalanches on the mountain's north side, which they were scaling. After debate the pair decided to climb with a team of five Italians led by Silvio Mondinelli, who had spent weeks fixing rope along the route. Though they safely passed the towering seracs around 21,000 ft, in the riskiest section of the climb, their worries were far from over.
At altitudes above 20,000 feet the human body begins to turn catabolic--a condition in which the muscles weaken and the absorption of nutrients is disrupted. Climbers refer to this realm as the death zone. For every step, a climber takes 10 to 15 breaths. The brain becomes so starved for oxygen that judgment is impaired and "you're willing to do only the most basic task," Viesturs says. "It's a struggle just to concentrate on putting your boots on."
For three days Viesturs and Gustafsson shared a small tent at 22,500 feet as a storm pelted it with snow, and winds whipped to 80 mph. They barely ate, slept or talked; they passed the time thinking about getting off the mountain. "It was agonizing," Viesturs says. "Not only was I close to finishing Annapurna, I was that much closer to finishing this goal. I was just one day away."
When the weather finally broke, the team began the summit bid on May 12 at 3 a.m. and pushed for 11 hours straight, through heavy snow for 4,000 vertical feet. The climbers reached the peak at 2 p.m., stayed for an hour (shooting photos and videos and "enjoying the view") and then began the trek back down to base camp. When Viesturs arrived there the next day, a support team met him with beer and potato chips. "You know what it's like to climb for 11 hours? I tell people to imagine getting up, drinking coffee, driving to work, spending eight hours at work. Then going home, having dinner and watching TV. And I'm still climbing," he says. "I like [having to maintain] the mental stamina, of just stripping it down to get from point A to the next point."
In 1808 the British empire launched the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, which would determine the tallest peaks in the world. A half century later the 14 highest--all in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges--were measured, named and ready to be conquered. In 1950 Maurice Herzog of France summited Annapurna in the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak. When the last unscaled one, Shishapangma, was bagged by a team of Chinese climbers in 1964, the race was on to become the first climber to complete the 14-peak grand slam of mountaineering.