Dot-com death zone

Local climber surmounts unexpected low-altitude technical challenge.

HYPOTHERMIA, hypoxia, edema, and avalanches are dangerous enough, but climbing one of the world's highest peaks only to discover that a key expedition sponsor has folded is a particularly timely though still unwelcome hazard. This April, Ed Viesturs was "on the mountain," Tibet's 26,300-foot Shishapangma, when the bad news arrived. The affable 41-year-old West Seattle resident's "Endeavor 8,000" project has the goal of scaling the world's 14 summits over 8,000 meter (26,000 feet) without using bottled oxygen; he would become the fifth man and first American to accomplish the feat.

Hard enough with extra oxygen, this effort became harder still when San Francisco-based Quokka Sports stopped answering Viesturs' satellite phone calls. "We'd kind of heard some rumors before we left that Quokka might possibly go under," he remembers. "So [climbing partner Veikka Gustafsson] and I were having dinner one night—we were at base camp—and we were joking about it, and I said, 'Well, I gotta make my report.' I get a busy signal. And I go, 'That shouldn't happen.' And I looked at him, and he looked at me, and we're thinking, 'Uh-oh.' Finally we start calling home to see what was going on. And sure enough, the news had been released that Quokka was bankrupt."

Poof! The money had disappeared, er, into thin air.

Back in March 2000, Quokka acquired Seattle's in a $25 million stock-swap deal. At its apex, Quokka had a market cap of some $550 million and boasted 600,000 unique visitors a month. Founded in '96, MountainZone had enjoyed a prior relationship with Viesturs and other world-class mountaineers. Expedition dispatches are incorporated into slick Web page journals that can draw millions of visitors (as was the case for MountainZone during the '99 Everest search for the body of George Mallory). Sites link those eyeballs to their partners' pages (typically outdoor-gear retailers), sometimes receive a steering fee for click-throughs, sell ads, and do a little merchandising.

RISKING LIFE and frostbitten limb, elite alpinists gain fame via Web sites, which aids their salability with sponsors and the lecture-circuit crowd. "I help them with visibility—they love that," Viesturs notes of local sponsors, including, JanSport, and Outdoor Research. Such symbiotic publicity has gotten him on the cover of Outside magazine and earned him an advisory role and a speaking part—"Welcome to base camp!"—in the movie Vertical Limit. The flip side, as he's well aware, is the peril of mountaineering. His fellow climber Alex Lowe died in a '99 avalanche on a Shishapangma expedition Webcast on MountainZone.

So where did Quokka's bankruptcy leave Ed?

Shishapangma was to be the 12th of his 14 big peaks. Time to pack up and go home to his wife and two young kids? Not likely. "They were one of my larger sponsors," Viesturs says of Quokka. "I would say like 10-15 percent. It hurt, but it wasn't like, 'Oh, I can't go climbing now.'" Instead, he got his wife to give their credit card number to the satellite phone company, then turned to a little-known, just-launched Seattle site called—what else?—

"Thankfully, we had my Web site up," he says. "I wasn't reporting to [it] initially, because I had an exclusive deal to report online to Quokka." That deal expired with the company's bankruptcy, and Viesturs' Seattle manager begged Quokka to add a link to Viesturs' site. (His earlier expedition accounts and photos are presently being added.)

The climb continued upward, successfully, as did his site. "You could definitely see on the chart how, right around summit day . . . more and more people were logging on. So there was this big spike in traffic," he says, sounding like a dot-com executive. Unique visitors surged from the hundreds to some 5,000 per day— despite lack of advance promotion.

BACK IN SEATTLE, speaking the day before he leaves for Pakistan's Nanga Parbat (number 13 on the list), Viesturs contemplates his swift change in fortunes: "I would've never thought that I'd have my own Web site and . . . have people following along." Of his Shishapangma bulletins, he reflects, "I think I spoke a little bit more freely, thinking, 'OK, this is mine. I can say whatever I want. I don't have to worry about editorial.' And if I want to toot the horn of my sponsors more, I can, because . . . it's my thing."

That sense of ownership differs from his relationship with Quokka, which boosted climbing, motor sports, and sailing with the same breathless avidity. "It was like this little-bit-more-distant relationship. I think as long as I was dealing with the MountainZone aspect, the editorial was as I said it. They didn't change things."

Freed from Quokka, master of his own domain name, Viesturs looks to capitalize on the foundation he's built. "When we're approaching potential sponsors, we can say, 'Check out our Web site. Look at the traffic we're getting.' It's relatively high visibility."

Hoping to top Nanga Parbat this week, he sees a parallel between dot-com entrepreneurialism and his preferred fast-and-light alpine-style approach to expedition climbing: "Right. You do have a lot more freedom." Between that summit and his planned spring '02 ascent of number 14, Annapurna, the accidental CEO adds pragmatically, "We want to figure out a way to generate income. There's a bazillion things to do."

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