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Listen to the Mountain | Ed Viesturs

World-class climber Ed Viesturs shares his extraordinary stories of climbing the tallest mountains without supplementary oxygen.

Full talk transcript

"There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men." I vividly remember reading that sentence and it was almost 40 years ago. It was the last sentence of this book I'd just finished titled Annapurna. At the time, I was in high school, growing up in the great mountaineering state of Illinois, and I read adventure books because they took me on journeys, places I could visualize by reading and also by looking at the photos. I analyzed the cover of Annapurna, and there you see the leader on the climb, Maurice Herzog, on the summit raising his ice axe, flying the flag from France. And that's kind of that perfect symbol of achievement; a man standing on the top of a mountain.

If you look at that picture, you'll notice he's at 26,500 feet and he's taken his gloves off to do the little things he needed to do on the summit, and rather than tucking them away somewhere safe, he lay them on the snow, and then, aghast, he watched as they slid into the abyss. He didn't have a spare pair of gloves, and so, befuddled by lack of oxygen, he didn't remember that in his rucksack he had an extra pair of socks. He could have used those as a pair of mittens. So the descent was rather harrowing, as you can imagine, over the next several days. It was only because of his teammates that he survived the descent. But on the way down, he froze his fingers and on the way to the summit he had already frozen his toes, so he had to lose all his digits due to amputation. It was a huge price to pay for the victory of summiting Annapurna. But for him, he said it was worth it, it changed his life.

It was a huge price to pay for the victory of summiting Annapurna. But for him, he said it was worth it, it changed his life.

When I read that book, it changed my life, because it flipped the switch. It pushed me into a new direction and it started me to dream — you know what, that's something I want to do someday. I didn't want to lose fingers or toes, but I thought maybe someday I could go to climb Annapurna, or maybe I could go climb Everest. I knew that wouldn't happen overnight; there was a lot of things to learn, experience to gain, a lot of steps that I had to take before I could even think of doing that, and the first big step I needed to take, I understood, was I had to leave Illinois.

So I came here to Seattle in 1977, and I started studying at the University of Washington. But I came here primarily, as well, to start climbing, because less than two hours away we have iconic peaks that we can train on — Mount Rainier, for instance, and it's the perfect Himalayan training ground: 14,000 feet high, steep, glaciated; the weather sucks. Whatever you can learn by climbing on Rainier, you can take that with you. So I climb voraciously, whenever I had a free moment I was out climbing, particularly on Mount Rainier, and after five years of training and learning, I applied for and got a job as a guide on Mount Rainier. I thought, this would be the perfect place for me to be; I would be surrounded by a lot of highly experienced senior guides, guides that I could learn from.

We learned about the essence of teamwork — you know, safety is meaning that we're connected together with a rope. I learned how to make safe, conservative decisions. So Rainier was my classroom, and the senior guides were my teachers, and I also learned what I'll always remember: We have to listen to the mountain. We have to temper our ambition. Even though we're motivated, and we've got the best new Gore-Tex jacket, and we've got a shiny new ice axe, it doesn't mean we always get to go to the top of the mountain. We have to make decisions based on the risk, and if the risk is too great, we have to walk away, we have to turn around. The mountain decides.

As I was climbing on Rainier, I started to think maybe someday Mount Everest would be a possibility. The highest point on earth, 29,000 feet high, on the summit of which there's only a third the amount of oxygen that there is at sea level. It was in 1953 that the British first reached the summit of Everest, and out of that massive expedition, which took over three months, they put two people on the summit. There's that altruistic definition of the word teamwork.

Another essential ingredient other than teamwork was bottled oxygen. When you're climbing to 29,000 feet, bottled oxygen is probably quite essential, as you need oxygen to live. Even today, when people climb Everest, all of the hundreds of people who have reached the summit, they as well have used bottled oxygen for the sake of success to get to the top of Mount Everest. When I started to think about that, I thought, that's kind of a contrived way to climb these mountains. In essence, your're bringing the relative altitude of that mountain down to a lower level, and I said, "Well, why bother going to a high mountain? Why not just go to a lower mountain?" So, for me, I thought I wanted to challenge myself, and rather than reduce the mountain to my level, I wanted to climb it at its level. The rule for me was not to use oxygen; simpler yet harder. Just me and the mountain.

So I had my first opportunity to go to Everest, and this was in 1987. I'd been climbing for ten years, and I was invited by a mentor of mine, Eric Simonson, to be a part of the team to climb the North Face of this mountain. So for two and a half months, the eight of us work together day in and day out, and the whole process takes so long because you've got to carry loads of equipment to various altitudes to build four camps. You're going up and down, up and down, back and forth, carrying large weight on your back. Going to those new altitudes back and forth also stimulates your body — it shocks you in to acclimatizing. Your're going to build more red blood cells, which is a necessity, but you're also losing weight. All that motivation that you had early on is slowly starting to evaporate. But eventually, we manage to set up our fourth camp, at 27,000 feet. Three of us then were selected to climb through those camps, and then hopefully on the morning of the fifth day, exit that little envelope of nylon and climb the final 12 hours to the top.

So three of us arrive at that camp, and this is a two-man tent. Do the math: Three people, two-man tent — comfortable doesn't come into mind. But we have to learn in the mountains to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter, and that's the whole idea behind what we do.

With every step that I took, I gained a new altitude record, and I found out something more about myself. How high I could go, how hard I could push myself.

So the next morning, at two o'clock in the morning, only two of us made the final 12-hour push to the top, our third partner deciding it wasn't worth the risk. I was with the leader, Eric Simonson, and he was climbing with oxygen. It was all I could do to keep up with him, because I was climbing without. But with every step that I took, I gained a new altitude record, and I found out something more about myself. How high I could go, how hard I could push myself. After ten hours of climbing, Eric and I finally arrived at the summit pyramid — we're now at 28,700 feet, 300 feet of climbing left to go, and the weather started to change and it started to deteriorate. We made a quick evaluation and we thought, you know what, we can get to the top, but we won't be able to get down. I've always felt that climbing has to be a round trip, getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory. We both made the very rational decision, and that was to stop and go down.

But, imagine what a lot of other people do in that situation — they push on to the summit. We listened to the mountain, and I was pretty proud of that and it wasn't a failure. We were simply not allowed to succeed, and that's part of the game that you play in the mountains. And I knew after that I discovered that I could climb to 28,700 feet — what I didn't know was whether I could climb that last three hundred feet, that was still to me a mystery. And I thought about that every single day than for the next three years, until I was finally once again high on Everest pushing toward the summit. This was now my third expedition to Mt. Everest. Once again, I spent the night at tw27,000 feet; once again, I got up at two o'clock in the morning to begin the ascent. But on this particular day, I would be climbing alone. So I had to be very self-motivated for the next 12 hours, and deciding that this was the price I wanted to pay, this currency of toil that we invest in going to the top.

And you're going very, very slowly at these altitudes — I mean, it's like watching grass grow. That's why there's no movies about high altitude climbing — it would take hours. For every step that I took, I breathed 15 times and I had to force myself to take that next step and breathe 15 times. And you have to be very motivated at this point, because when you get to the top, there's nothing there. There’s no pot of gold. Jean Enersen of KING 5 isn't up there waiting to interview you. You just have to want to do it. And after 12 hours of climbing, I got to the top, and I took in this amazing view. And there I was all by myself, which was very cool, just me and the mountain. Which was great, but the not-so-great part was I thought, who's going to take my picture? So I grab my ice axe and I stuck it in the snow and I balanced my camera on top of it and I set the timer. Then I got in position and, boom, I got my own high-altitude selfie.

So, people ask: “What’s the first thing you think about when you get to the top?” And I go, the first thing I say is, “Wow, now I don't have to go up anymore.” And the second thing that immediately comes to mind is: "Now I have to go down." You know getting to the summit is the first part, getting down is the second and critical part. So you spend about 30 minutes on the summit and then very carefully you make the descent back to high camp. It took me several hours to get back to that little haven of shelter. And I'd been away now for 18 hours from that safety, and I finally climb back into the camp and I took off my boots and I looked at my feet and I looked at my fingers and I said, “Wow, no frostbite, cool!” You know exactly what I wanted, and I got away with it; I didn't get any frostbite, and I was elated for what had happened that day.

And I lay there and I slept the sleep like no other. You know, all that anxiety and anticipation that had been building up year after year after year slowly evaporated, and I walked away from Everest elated, happy, content, knowing that I had a goal in mind and I pursued that goal and I fulfilled a dream. I had climbed to the highest point on Earth under its terms, just me and the mountain by fair means. And I knew at that point as well that all the other peaks on Earth were lower, I figured, why not go climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks?

I climbed one — there’s only 13 left. So I spent the next 18 years on a project I called “Endeavor 8000,” and I managed to slowly climb all those peaks and somehow, appropriately, the final peak on that list was Annapurna. And as I sat on the summit in spring 2005, I remembered back to that 55 years earlier when my hero, Maurice Herzog, had stood at that same exact, the man who changed my life. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.

I think passion is the key: If you do what you love, you love what you do.

People often ask, “Why do we climb mountains?” And it's a very hard thing to answer. And my very rapid answer is: “If you have to ask, you'll never know.” But for me, climbing mountains opened up all the doors, these opportunities, I was able to discover so much about myself, how uncomfortable I was willing to be for the sake of success, to have a goal that you were inspired to do. And I think passion is the key: If you do what you love, you love what you do.

But, in synopsis, I’m going to read for you now a passage from the book called Mt. Analog, which I think succinctly says what I'm trying to say: “You cannot stay on the summit forever. You have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climb one sees, one descends one sees no longer, but one has seen. There's an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” Thank you.

Ed Viesturs

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Speaker Bio

Ed Viesturs is a professional mountaineer who successfully reached the summits of all of the world’s 14 8000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen, an 18-year project he christened Endeavor 8000. His goal was completed with his ascent of Annapurna, one of the world’s most treacherous peaks. He is one of only a handful of climbers in history (and the only American) to accomplish this. Viesturs was awarded National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. Viesturs has also made seven successful ascents of Mt. Everest and more than two hundred ascents of Mount Rainier. Read more

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