By Ned Morgan.
Ed Viesturs has summited the world’s highest mountain – seven times.
In his new book The Mountain, he traces his time on Everest – which Tibetans call Chomolungma or “Goddess Mother of the World” – beginning with his first attempt in 1987 when he and his partner decided to turn back just 300 feet short of the top. They were out of ropes and pitons, and bad weather loomed. Clearly, Viesturs is one of the world’s top mountaineers due in part to his ironclad resistance to the contagious, deadly, and all-too-common “summit fever.”
His insights in The Mountain stem not just from his experience on Everest but also from his broad knowledge of all who followed in George Mallory‘s ill-fated bootprints. In addition to his survey of summit attempts both successful and not, Viesturs shines brightest when offering even-handed appraisals of the complicated rivalries and group dynamics among climbers.
He also excels in conveying the little details – the frightful handicap of a hacking, constant cough due to the dry air, or the almost-comical difficulties of sleeping at 20,000 feet crammed into tiny, overcrowded tents. Only a mountaineer who’s lived through Everest can offer these and many other details, in addition to the expected sky-touching heroics.
Viesturs came down from Everest unscathed, though he witnessed a lot of suffering and death there. Yet The Mountain does not wallow in the terrifying aspects. Instead, one comes away with a clear picture of the deadly human drama playing out again and again since the first British Reconnaissance Expedition in 1921.
We recently caught up with Ed on the phone from San Diego where he was promoting his book.
ML: In The Mountain you write about the bulky, awkward suits custom-made for your first Everest attempt in ’87. Since the ‘80s, gear has come a long way. So why do people keep dying on Everest?
Ed Viesturs: Equipment and clothing can’t save your life. If you’re at 28,000 feet and a storm comes, you’re the one who has to keep yourself warm – the clothing and the down insulate you, but as soon as you stop moving, if you become incapacitated, you’re going to start cooling down. No matter what equipment you have, you can get hypothermia, hypoxia …. And there’s a little bit of a misconception that with GPS and satellite technology, people think they can start pushing the envelope a little more and think, “Oh, well I’ve got a satellite phone so if something goes wrong, I can just call for help.” Now in certain situations, that does work, but in the big mountains, you can’t call for help.
Gear is lighter these days, it is more protective, more insulating, but people still get frostbite. So it’s about managing yourself as well, not just the equipment. If you’re caught out in the open in a storm and the windchill increases and there’s no visibility, obviously survival is very difficult – that’s when you really have to keep it together. If you’re in a tent – and you hope you brought one of the best tents available – and you’re sitting in the storm and the wind’s blowing 100 miles an hour, even if it was built very well in the factory, it’s also dependent on how you set it up and anchor it.
ML: You write about how you’ve been blessed with a natural climber’s genes – ie, you don’t get altitude sickness. But I’m wondering how much mental discipline you need on 8000ers when you know the chances of death are so high? Have you always had control over fear?
EV: I’ve always said that fear is good. If you go into big mountains and you’re fearless, you’re going to get in trouble. Fear is an instinct. Every time I go into the mountains, if I’m in a situation where I feel fearful – if for some reason, my instinct is telling me something’s not right, I’ve got to listen to that. That’s the key to survival in the mountains. To know when to stop and say, “let’s analyze this situation. Maybe there is a storm coming in. Maybe the snow we’re on isn’t very stable. Let’s not blindly move forward – maybe we need to stop. Maybe we need to go down.”
ML: You write that you admire fellow mountaineer John Roskelley’s willingness to voice his opinion and not be swayed by others. Did you ever second-guess your decisions while on Everest?
EV: No. I always tried to make very conservative decisions. If I turned around, for whatever reason, and didn’t go to the summit, I never doubted myself. I never came down and then questioned that. If it feels wrong, it is wrong. You can’t second-guess yourself. You can’t let other people sway you. Don’t get sucked along and fall into the trap of groupthink. If you come down and you’re alive, you made the best decision in the world.
ML: Was groupthink behind the disaster on Everest in 1996?
EV: There were two groups, Rob Hall’s and Scott Fischer’s. Obviously both of them wanted to have a successful climb. Nobody wanted to turn around. And there’s also that psychological feeling of safety in numbers. “If everybody’s doing it, why not? It’s got to be okay. I’ll go with that group who made the first decision.” That perpetuates itself and people get drawn along and don’t raise their hand and say, “I think we’re making the wrong decision here.”
ML: You mention that you’ve never taken Everest for granted. But after spending the equivalent of over two years on the mountain (and seven summits) didn’t climbing it become a tiny bit easier than the first time?
EV: I’ll say I became familiar with the mountain. It never got easier. The mountain never got lower. It was always 29,000 feet high. But I think I just knew where to take a left, where to take a right. How to climb a slope I’d been on so many times. But I didn’t want to become complacent. Experience breeds complacency, and you think, “You know what? I’ve got this figured out. I’ve been here a hundred times!” Then you start making mistakes. I never had a horrific problem on Everest, so I look at it in a positive way. But if I went there tomorrow, something might happen to me. There’s that great quote, “Just because you love the mountain doesn’t mean it loves you.”
“It never got easier. The mountain never got lower. It was always 29,000 feet high.”
ML: If you had to pick one section of Everest that proved the most challenging for you, which would it be, and why?
EV: It’s got to be the summit day. You’re above 26,000 feet for 18 hours. You’re out there. You’re beyond rescue. All your decisions have consequences. If you get yourself in trouble, you pretty much have to get yourself out of trouble. Maybe there are people who could give you a certain amount of assistance, but realistically, not a lot can be done if you get into a big mess. It’s a very interesting place to be. It’s one of the few places on the planet where nobody, no kind of vehicle can come and get you. You’ve broken that umbilical cord of safety. You’re on your own – and that’s what makes it interesting. And also the most dangerous section of the climb.
ML: In the midst of a climb, how did it affect you to see friends, partners or other mountaineers fall or become sick? Did it harden your resolve or did it increase fear among those still climbing?
EV: It was always a reminder that things can go very wrong. One misstep can get you into big trouble. So if I saw an accident, or bumped into a body high on the mountain, for me it was, “I need to be on my toes. I can’t let down my guard, because that could happen to me.” I wasn’t ignoring it, I was stowing it my psyche, saying: “Be careful. Be careful.”
More about Ed Viesturs on Eddie Bauer’s blog.
I just finished reading The Mountain while visiting relatives in Dallas, TX. It’s a great read and hard to put down. I’ve read over 25 books on Everest, K2, Annapurna, Aconcagua, and Rainier – this book is in my top 5!