Be careful what you let your children read. That may be one of the unintended lessons in Ed Viesturs’ thoroughly absorbing memoir about his 17-year campaign to climb the world’s 14 highest mountains, No Shortcuts to the Top.
Growing up outside Chicago in the early 1970s, Viesturs happened to read Maurice Herzog’s story of his 1950 ascent of Annapurna, the first 8,000-meter mountain ever climbed. After that, "I just felt that Illinois was not quite right for me," Viesturs says during a call to Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he lives with his wife, Paula, and their three young children.
In fact, nothing but the Himalaya would ultimately satisfy the questing urge inspired by that and other accounts of adventure Viesturs read as a youth. "For whatever reason, I like things that are difficult," he says, " things that are not only athletically challenging but that also make me really think about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. Plus it’s just so beautiful up there, and the higher you go, the more spectacular it gets. You realize you are only one of a few people to be in these amazing places."
Viesturs is one of just 12 humans ever to have climbed all the world’s peaks over 8,000 meters high – all of them in the Himalaya – and one of only six people to do so without supplemental oxygen. As a guide, Viesturs also climbed many of these mountains using extra oxygen, which afforded him the stamina to assist client climbers. He has summited Everest six times and, as he vividly describes in the book, was on that mountain in 1996 as logistical organizer, lead climber and on-camera talent for the IMAX movie expedition when disaster struck.
Two of Viesturs’ friends and longtime climbing companions – Rob Hall and Scott Fischer (who was the photographer at Ed and Paula’s wedding) – were among those who died in the fierce storm on the mountain that year, despite the heroic efforts of Viesturs, the IMAX team and others to save them. In No Shortcuts to the Top and in conversation, Viesturs is characteristically modest about his selflessness in giving up scarce resources and even scarcer time to rescue other climbers. "I’ve always felt that if other people need your help, that is the priority," Viesturs says. "If I knew that I got to the summit but another climber didn’t make it because I didn’t stop and help, that would bother me to the end of my days." Viesturs writes movingly about sitting with the frozen bodies of his friends after the storm had passed.
In a conversational tone that is remarkably similar to his relaxed, candid speaking style, Viesturs, with co-author David Roberts, writes about both the physical and financial challenges of being a mountaineer (he was fanatical about training, but in the early years struggled without sponsorship to finance his climbing expeditions while working first as a veterinarian and then – because it offered a more flexible schedule – as a carpenter); about the stress his career put on his family ("Hopefully it comes out that I’m sensitive to other people’s feelings, and Paula’s in particular"); about the details of daily life during a climb (which included long periods of waiting for good conditions, so that Viesturs would "read 20 books on an expedition . . . everything from the latest Tom Clancy to the classics to books by other mountaineers"); and about the personalities of the mountains he has climbed and the companions he has climbed with.
Fittingly, Annapurna was the final and most dangerous mountain Viesturs climbed in his quest. One of the most disciplined and safety-conscious climbers of all time, he had twice turned back from Annapurna’s summit before finally reaching the top on May 12, 2005. "I’ve always felt if I didn’t fail because of my lack of desire or training, I was fine with turning back. It was the mountain that was calling the shots," Viesturs says. "You can’t conquer a mountain. By having the right attitude, by being humble and respectful, I was allowed to go up. And I was allowed to go down. You have to follow your instincts and budget your resources and just keep plowing through it. And you have to remember that getting to the top doesn’t prove anything. It’s getting back that shows you have strength and intelligence. Otherwise it doesn’t mean a thing."
Alden Mudge has trekked to Everest base camp at 18,500 feet.