Tales From the Tops

Having bagged all the 8,000-ers, mountaineering legend Ed Viesturs shares his life story. Just don't expect a climb-and-tell.

BITCHY, CATTY, egotisticalprima donnas. Did you think those categories were limited to showbiz? Athletes are no less high-strung than actors (or accountants or journalists, for that matter), though we tend to attach more noble adjectives to their exploits. Especially when it comes to outdoor sports—the mellow surfer, the spartan distance runner, the patient fly fisherman, the noble mountaineer who ascends those sublime peaks garlanded in mists of German romanticism. But in truth, it takes a huge ego to climb a huge, dangerous mountain—especially those 14 rock piles extending above 8,000 meters and into the so-called "death zone," where most need bottled oxygen. Then there's the problem of Ed Viesturs, as we're reminded in his new memoir, No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks (Broadway, $23.95). The guy is too damn humble. He's got a colossal non-ego. When faced with adverse weather or conditions, his basic mantra could be described as, "Turn around to climb another day." Which he has, of course, successfully and safely in more than 30 years of climbing (he moved to Seattle in '77 to attend the UW). Humility has kept him alive while many of his peers, including local guide Scott Fischer, who perished on Everest in 1996, pushed past those subtle warning signals that only the best climbers notice—and yet sometimes still don't heed. You could call it heroic caution. Not that Viesturs is bragging or anything. Discussing the book before leaving his Bainbridge Island home for yet another corporate speaking engagement, he's loath to tub-thump or settle scores. No dissing his old guiding clients or climbing partners: "It's not good karma," he says. During his 18-year quest to bag all the 8,000-ers, "I always kept journals. I also did a daily synopsis of my emotions. I've got this big box of journals—not that I'd ever publish them, but they were very useful" as a resource for his memoirs. Since No Shortcuts' co-author, Dave Roberts (an accomplished climber and writer both), delved into that box, Viesturs explains, "He would say, 'Here you said such and such; you said he's an asshole!' But I didn't want that in print. I'm not that open, even in my own journals." MODESTY IS AN excellent quality on the mountain, where it helps you survive, yet less exciting in a book. Yes, there's a great story about Viesturs rescuing a female French alpinist on K2 in 1992; in gratitude, she later creeps into his tent and makes him a member of the several-mile-high club. But there are no sleeping-sack details, and he only allows himself to name her because she later died on another climb. It's the same situation when, following another expedition, he hooks up with a Swedish model in Kathmandu. No Shortcuts also touches upon the Krakauer-documented Everest storm of '96 (Viesturs was already off the summit), but adds no new revelations. It's not just the sex and drama that are wanting; the book could use a few of those high-altitude assholes and prima donnas that Viesturs undoubtedly met over the years. Viesturs seems more energized when describing his prodigious workouts and lust for sheer physical labor. Anyone who's climbed Rainier will be staggered by his circuit, made while guiding in the '80s, of biking from Ashford (outside the park entrance) up to Paradise, climbing to the summit in one push, then pedaling home: 12,000 feet up, and down, in 11 hours. For this reason, his work ethic—"Keep your mouth shut and work hard"—seems connected to that of his German-Lithuanian immigrant parents. As a perennially broke UW veterinary student, he lived in a basement "dungeon" subsisting on Top Ramen and biking everywhere, since he was also too poor to afford a car. (A German climber calls him "an American who has nothing American about him.") Even at sea level, he seems to have "the stoic mind-numbing patience that's an integral part of the Himalayan game." For this reason, I suggest to Viesturs as we talk, he really ought to write a fitness book for middle-aged guys (he's 47). Or perhaps another coffee-table album from his vast archive of photos. But his next big project, after spending the past summer at home with his wife and three kids for the first time in years, is a 2007 return to Everest in a guiding partnership with Rainier Mountaineering Inc.: "I haven't been to the north side in 14 years. So I get to visit it again. I love Everest. It's still very challenging. I still have to train. It's kind of the art of guiding—teaching people to take care of themselves. If you gotta go to work, being in the mountains is not a bad place to work." bmiller@seattleweekly.com

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