The Mountain 1
So Close, and Yet . . .
The first time I tried to climb Mount Everest was in the spring of 1987. It was a very different mountain then from the swarmed-over scene it’s become today. By that spring, there had been only 209 successful ascents of the mountain by 191 different climbers. A single person, the Sherpa Sungdare, had reached the summit as many as four times.
It’s become almost impossible nowadays to keep track of Everest statistics, but by the end of May 2012, the number of successful ascents was in the vicinity of 6,000, performed by about 3,500 climbers. Two indefatigable veterans, Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa, have now reached the top of the world twenty-one times each.
In the spring of 2012 there were more than thirty different expeditions simultaneously trying to climb Everest via the South Col route, the line by which it was first ascended by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. I saw photos on the Internet of as many as 150 climbers on the Lhotse Face, lined up like Depression jobseekers in a free-lunch queue, as they jumared their way up the fixed ropes. In contrast, on the north side of Everest in the spring of 1987, there were only three teams. Ours hoped to climb the Great Couloir from the head of the Central Rongbuk Glacier. A Swedish team had chosen the traditional route from the North Col up the northeast ridge. And a Canadian, Roger Marshall, was attempting a bold solo ascent via the Japanese and Hornbein couloirs—a route nicknamed the Super Direct.
In 1987, I myself was a different person from the mountaineer who, eighteen years later, would become the first American to get to the top of all fourteen peaks in the world higher than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet). I was twenty-seven years old, and though I’d climbed Denali in Alaska twice and had served for five years as a guide on Mount Rainier, this was my first expedition to an 8,000er. No matter how much I’d read about Everest, I was awed by the scale and majesty of the mountain, and not at all sure I was up to the challenge of scaling its north face by the Great Couloir.
The expedition was put together by Eric Simonson, a seasoned veteran who was also my fellow guide for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). Although Eric was only four years older than I, he had been guiding since 1973, and I looked up to him as a mentor. He’d already been to Everest in 1982, with a team led by our RMI boss, Lou Whittaker, that reached 27,500 feet on the same route—still 1,500 feet short of the summit. Eric had been hampered by a bad knee after a falling rock struck him high on this daunting face, and in 1987 he was determined to give it another shot.
Our expedition was a bit of a boondoggle, for a climber from Arkansas named Jack Allsup had approached Eric, offering to raise all the funds and pay all the expenses for five RMI guides, if we’d serve as glorified Sherpas for him and his buddies. The deal was that we guides would fix ropes, establish camps, and carry loads up the route, but not actually guide the Arkansas gang on their attempt—simply set them up so they could make their own independent push toward the summit. The official name of our team was the Arkansas Everest Expedition. Quite an irony: here I was, a guy who had escaped the flatlands of the Midwest to immerse myself in the rich Pacific Northwest climbing culture, only to be going on my first Everest expedition with a team based in the South!
I was grateful to be invited by Eric, who two years earlier had chosen me to serve as his assistant guide on a traverse of Denali with clients. For Everest, Eric also picked my fellow RMI guides Greg Wilson, George Dunn, and Craig Van Hoy. A free trip to Everest! Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?
Once our team was assembled, all five us plunged into gear selection and packing, but Eric took on the brunt of the logistical work. A smart, analytical fellow, he’s good at that sort of thing. JanSport jumped aboard as an expedition sponsor, supplying clothing, tents, and packs. They also offered to have our high-altitude suits custom-made by an experienced local seamstress.
I was pretty excited at the thought of getting a high-tech suit for an attempt on the summit. I imagined an extremely lightweight, trim-fitting down suit like the ones I’d seen Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler wearing in photos from their pathbreaking climb of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978.
Only a day or two before we had to leave Seattle, Eric and I drove up to our seamstress’s house to collect the suits. When I hefted mine, my jaw nearly hit the floor. The suits were filled with bulky synthetic insulation, and the outer fabric felt more like canvas than lightweight nylon. Unnecessary doo-dads such as stripes winding around the sleeves added another heavy layer to the already bloated suits. Rather than the sleek Maserati outfits I had fantasized about, we had no choice but to head off to Everest with these cumbersome monstrosities.
I was just finishing my doctorate in veterinary medicine at Washington State University in Pullman, out on the state’s eastern plains. I envisioned a career as a vet, although climbing was my true passion. To leave for Everest in March, I had to rearrange my senior-year schedule so that I could graduate two months early. Fortunately, my classmates and teachers fully supported my “hobby,” going so far as to buy expedition T-shirts. Still, in 1987 I could not have dreamed of making a living as a mountaineer. As it was, earning a modest income guiding on Rainier in the summers, but pouring that money into my tuition bills, I was living as cheaply as I could, renting a room in the Seattle home of my buddy Steve Swaim, who ran his own veterinary clinic. Just before the expedition, a woman I’d been involved with for two years abruptly broke off our relationship. I was hurt and baffled, but in another sense, comfortable with the freedom that gave me. I was fresh out of school, with no full-time job or major obligations, so taking off to Asia for an indeterminate length of time didn’t bother me one bit. As I wrote in my diary at base camp, “I guess my life’s pretty simple & uncomplicated at this point—yahoo!”
My Denali expeditions, the longest I’d been on so far, had each lasted about three weeks. But Everest in 1987 would turn into a three-month-long ordeal by logistics, weather, and high-altitude conditioning—literally eighty-eight days’ round-trip from Kathmandu. Although I’d never been above 20,320 feet, I’d already made up my mind to try Everest without bottled oxygen. The example of great mountaineers such as Messner had instilled in me a purist aesthetic. I didn’t want to “lower” the mountain to my level simply to reach the summit, but rather to take on Everest at its level. And the prospect of having to carry oxygen bottles and wear an oxygen mask on my face, in effect isolating me from the mountain, was unappealing.
Yet having made that decision, I approached the challenge with a lot of trepidation and self-doubt. As early as March 28, I wrote in my diary, “I still wonder what it’s like up there without oxygen—have to see how I do as we go higher. It’d be great to do it without O2—gotta be strong though ’cuz the summit day is gonna be an ass buster, especially coming down wasted. Hope I at least get a chance for the top.”
Today, a truck road leads through Tibet from Nepal, and a spur leads straight to base camp on the north side of Everest. It’s become a milk run—albeit a bureaucratically tangled one—for trekkers and climbers alike. But in 1987, the north side felt so isolated that Eric claimed it was “like going off to the Moon!” The Great Couloir route that we were going to attack is not the easiest or safest way to climb Everest from the north. In 1924, the third British expedition to the mountain reached the North Col at 23,000 feet via the East Rongbuk Glacier, a hidden tributary that the reconnaissance expedition of 1921 had completely overlooked. From the North Col, a shallow spur leads up to the high crest of the northeast ridge. It was on this route that George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine went for the summit on June 8, 1924, and never returned, launching one of the great mysteries in mountaineering history.
Our team, however, made no use of the East Rongbuk approach. Instead, we established an advance base camp (ABC) at only 18,300 feet at the head of the Rongbuk Glacier proper. From there, the face sweeps up in a daunting rise of more than 10,000 feet to the distant summit. The face is also far more threatened by falling rocks and avalanches than the North Col/northeast ridge route pioneered in 1924. Although Greg Wilson, George Dunn, and Eric Simonson had all tried Everest before without success, and all three desperately wanted to get to the top, Eric chose the harder north face route because he wanted to finish the line that he and George had attempted in 1982.
On a three-month expedition, there are bound to be tensions among the climbers. We had a cordial but ambivalent relationship with the Swedish team. Although we shared some meals with them at base camp and benefited greatly from weather forecasts their team received from back home, we had an uneasy truce about the route itself. The Swedes planned to go up the East Rongbuk to the North Col and follow the Mallory-Irvine route along the northeast ridge. It was only late in the expedition that they changed their plans and decided to go diagonally across the north face and go for the top via the Great Couloir, thereby overlapping with our line on the upper half of the mountain. This worried us, because it meant the Swedes would depend on our fixed ropes, and their presence in the Great Couloir might create additional hazards by virtue of having too many climbers on the same part of the mountain at the same time.
As for the Arkansas gang, their sponsorship of our attempt was something of a mixed blessing. It’s true that the five of us could not have afforded an Everest expedition on our own, and we were very grateful to have our way paid. But several of the Arkansas climbers were, frankly, too weak to have a chance on Everest, and the stronger ones were infected with a mild case of hubris, underestimating the difficulty of the route and overestimating their own strength and ability.
In addition, tensions developed among our group of five guides. It was almost inevitable that the weeks of strain as we slowly advanced the route should produce conflicts. For various reasons, not everyone was able to contribute equally to that effort. That’s a given on big expeditions: good teamwork depends on everyone making the contribution he can muster. And sometimes your effort is diminished not by any unwillingness to pull your weight, but by illness or trouble acclimatizing. Eric had also hired five Sherpas, who helped carry loads, especially for the Arkansas team members, but we RMI guides accomplished all the leading and fixing.
Though a savvy expedition leader, Eric had a tendency to find fault with others if he thought they hadn’t performed up to his own high standards. One of the roles of a leader, to be sure, is keeping the expedition rolling at a steady and consistent pace, even if it means “directing” the show from below. But on April 7, after George, Greg, and I put in a strenuous day getting gear up to Camp III, Eric called us over the radio from Camp I and voiced his disappointment that we hadn’t moved faster. As I wrote in my diary that evening, “Geo called him an asshole—only half jokingly—over the radio.” Since George had been on Everest with Eric in 1982, their close friendship allowed this kind of sharp repartee. I didn’t say a word. I’d already long since formed my resolve in the face of criticism by someone who was my boss. As I wrote in my diary, “I’ll just do my job and keep my mouth shut. Actions speak louder than words!”
As I would subsequently learn on my thirty-one expeditions to 8,000-meter peaks, I almost never suffer at altitude from any kind of illness. I’d get the occasional mild headache after a long, hot day of climbing to a new high point, or a touch of traveler’s diarrhea, but nothing incapacitating. Part of this is attributable to the rigorous conditioning I always undertake before an expedition. A lot of it has to do with simply being smart and knowing how to take care of myself. But part of it’s the luck of my genes, which have given me a physiology that functions well with little oxygen in my lungs. I’ve never suffered frostbite or been afflicted by pulmonary or cerebral edema, which has stricken even the strongest mountaineers, including Simone Moro and Jean-Christophe Lafaille, who would become my partners on later expeditions.
But on Everest in 1987, from breathing the cold, dry air, I developed a sore throat so painful that I could barely speak above a whisper. It lasted for weeks, and added to my doubts about getting to the top. On April 17, I wrote, “My throat feels like raw meat from breathing this dry air—really painful. The only way to alleviate it is to suck on hard candies.” Two days later: “I’m losing my voice—it’s rough and crackles and makes me cough. . . . At night my throat gets really dry and painful. Last night I sucked candy, drank some cough suppressants and finally had to take some Nuprin just so I could sleep. Augh!!”
At ABC one night, desperate to halt the coughing, ease the pain, and get some sleep, I took twice the normal dose of hydrocodone, a morphine-based drug that not only has pain-relieving properties but is also a powerful cough suppressant. Sure enough, the pain and the cough went away, but the morphine filled my head with paranoid thoughts about how completely isolated we were and how far from any hope of rescue. My drug-addled anxiety kept me awake all night and I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up and the drug to wear off!
At one point or another, all five of us RMI guides developed dry, hacking coughs. That’s a common ailment on Himalayan expeditions. Climbers have even been known to break their ribs from coughing so hard. That’s exactly what had happened to Greg Wilson on a 1984 expedition to the north side of Everest, wiping out his hopes of getting to the top. But in 1987, the nonstop coughing that spread among us like a contagion didn’t help our morale, which through April and early May veered wildly up and down.
Slowly, however, we advanced the route, fixing ropes on all the hardest passages. And gradually my sore throat healed, and I began to feel really fit. Those days were long and arduous, and sometimes we didn’t get back to camp till sunset. The fixed rope came in huge spools. One of us would uncoil the spool while the other climber pulled the free end behind him as he moved upward, placing intermediate anchors along the way. Once they were in, the ropes allowed safe passage on each subsequent load carry, and we could zip down them, often using just arm rappels, as we descended.
After a long day of fixing rope and hauling loads, getting back to camp didn’t exactly amount to rest and relaxation. Outside the tent, we had to remove all of our climbing gear—crampons, harness, packs, and hardware. The first person into the tent took off his boots and outerwear, then started the stove to begin the tedious process of turning snow and ice into water. After drinking as much as we could and filling our water bottles, we had to scrounge up a dinner out of whatever we found in our food bags. Altitude and fatigue played havoc with our appetites. Dinner might mean ramen noodles with tuna and freeze-dried p...
Revue de presse
“Mr. Viesturs has crafted a breezy tour through his many Everest ascents. . . . Armchair adventurers will rip through this addition to the Everest canon, and for anyone not intimate with Everest’s adventurous history, The Mountain marks a fine beginning.” ( The Wall Street Journal)
"Viesturs peppers the narrative with commonsense wisdom, . . . but the book's best moments come when he focuses on the unsung Everest achievements that inspire him. The tale of the Polish expedition that made the first winter ascent and the badass exploits of little-known Swiss climber Erhard Loretan are a welcome distraction from all the dead bodies." ( Men's Journal)
"Fans of adventure, mountaineering, extreme sports, and Everest history will thoroughly enjoy Viesturs's latest book." ( Library Journal)
“In this amiable history/memoir hybrid . . . Viesturs is a fountain of firsthand knowledge and straightforward narration, and the book makes for a good read. As the only American who has summited the world’s 14 highest peaks without bottled oxygen, Viesturs has a different ruler than the rest of us by which to measure risk.” ( Publishers Weekly)
"[Viesturs] . . . unearths some interesting tidbits that may be well-known to his community but new to laymen. The author, who has been lauded for his compassion and assistance to other climbers, also brings an unexpected attribute: attitude." ( Kirkus Reviews)
"This book is Ed’s love letter and farewell to Everest. . . . It is written in an engaging, approachable manner that will have you turning the pages just to find out what happens next. Whether you routinely visit the Himalaya on your own adventures or find yourself out of wind simply going up a flight of stairs, we wholeheartedly recommend this book." (Kraig Becker Wegner Adventure Blog)
"A detailed, nicely told account of a man’s endurance and perseverance in achieving a singular goal." ( Publishers Weekly)
“Viesturs and Roberts have written an exhaustively researched and wonderfully compelling history of the most fascinating and dangerous of the Himalayan giants.” (David Breashears)
“ The Will to Climb captures the essence and spirit of the great sport of mountaineering… For anyone who loves the outdoors and for those who admire the will of mankind, this book is a must-read." (Tod Leiweke, CEO of Tampa Bay Lightning)
"An American master of the climb…Viesturs's you-are-there narration communicates effortlessly the enormous effort, and high adventure, of scaling K2." ( Publishers Weekly (starred review))
"Magic...[An] outstanding piece of nonfiction." (Christopher Reich for Amazon.com)
“A compelling story of dedication, desperation, danger, derring-do, and devotion (physical and spiritual). Fans of extreme-sport books, especially tales of high adventure, will want to add this one to their collections." (Booklist)
“Ed Viesturs was an inspiration to me personally and to the Seahawks team in 2005. I highly recommend reading this account of one of America’s heroes.” (Mike Holmgren, coach of the Seattle Seahawks)
"From the drama of the peaks, to the struggle of making a living as a professional climber, to the basic how-tos of life at 26,000 feet, No Shortcuts to the Top is fascinating reading." (Aron Ralston, author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place)
"Ed Viesturs—the first American to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks without bottled oxygen—is an animal. A human animal blessed with enormous strength balanced by intelligence, honesty, and a heart of gold. And besides, HE IS A NICE GUY. This is a great read for those of us who climb, those who want to learn to climb and live to tell about it, and those who like great adventures." (Jim Whittaker, first American to climb Mount Everest,)
“From his earliest climbs on the peaks of the Pacific Northwest to his final climb up the Himalayan mountain of Annapurna, Viesturs offers testimony to the sacrifices (personal and professional) in giving your life over to a dream, as well as the thrill of seeing it through.” (Publishers Weekly)
"Ed Viesturs is not merely one of our strongest mountaineers; he’s also one of the most remarkable. He’s demonstrated that it’s possible to climb the world’s highest peaks without taking reckless chances, and without sacrificing one’s honor or integrity. He has never hesitated to help other climbers in need, even when it meant putting himself in danger or sacrificing his own opportunity to achieve a summit. Ed, simply put, is a genuine American hero.” (Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air)
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