Around the globe yesterday, climbers were e-mailing, Web-surfing and wondering: Had Ed Viesturs, America's top climber, finally made it...
Around the globe yesterday, climbers were e-mailing, Web-surfing and wondering: Had Ed Viesturs, America’s top climber, finally made it to the top of Annapurna?
At home on Bainbridge Island, Paula Viesturs couldn’t have cared less.
“I honestly didn’t even care about the summit,” she said yesterday, describing a gut-wrenching night of waiting by the phone for a call from Nepal about the fate of her husband.
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“Just knowing that he was still standing would have been a plus in my book.”
It’s a lot different when the local climbing hero on the mountain is your husband, not to mention “Daddy” to children Gil, 7; Ella, 4; and infant Anabel.
Ed Viesturs, 45, is usually religious about phoning home or making radio calls to base camp to report his progress, Paula says. But yesterday on Annapurna, the battery in his satellite phone long since dead, Ed left his upper camp with climbing partner Veikka Gustafsson at 3 a.m. yesterday Nepal time (2:45 p.m. Wednesday PDT) and essentially disappeared into the ether, in high winds, on a killer mountain, for more than 11 hours.
That’s twice as long as it typically takes to make a summit climb from an upper camp, notes Paula, 38, who has monitored a lot of them over the years, either from home or from base camp.
“Of course, I’m sitting here doing the math,” she said. “I figured it would be somewhere between 9 and midnight [Wednesday before word arrived by phone]. But I didn’t hear anything. I’m lying in bed, the phone’s by my ear. Nothing.”
She finally got a call from expedition member Jimmy Chin, from base camp, around midnight Seattle time.
“He said he hadn’t heard anything, either. Then I felt really sick. It’s like every possible scenario running through your mind. It was grim for those two hours.”
In that predicament, it’s hard not to imagine the worst — and even get angry at someone you love, she confesses. Even if that someone is considered one of the world’s smartest and most capable high-altitude climbers.
“I have all these logical thoughts when he leaves,” she said. “Like, ‘I’ll be OK by myself, if that’s what it comes to.’ Then I’m thinking last night, ‘Screw you. How am I going to tell the kids?’
“I hadn’t gotten there before with other climbs. I was ticked, yeah. He’d be sad to hear that, probably. [But] the mind just runs wild.”
To the spouse of a climber, late-night silence is deafening. The more math Paula did, the more anguish she felt: She knew that by early in the morning Seattle time, it was early afternoon on Annapurna.
Ed, she knew, has always made it a practice to turn around and descend by midday. At times, on mountains such as Everest, he has reached the summit and headed for home by 7 a.m.
This was different. Unprecedented. And scary.
Finally, around 2 a.m. Seattle time, Paula’s phone rang again. Chin reported from base camp that the climbers had used wavering battery life on the radio for a quick check-in: They’d made the top and were on their way back to their upper camp — completing what would later be revealed as a harrowing, 19-hour day atop Annapurna, one of the world’s most dangerous peaks.
What did she feel? Sheer relief that he was still alive — mixed with consternation knowing he would be spending another night high on the mountain and descending today.
Assuming he makes it safely back to base camp, the Viesturs family will be able to close a stressful life chapter.
“It’s not like he’s going to come home and say, ‘I’m all finished climbing!’ ” said Paula, who met Ed at a Seattle barbecue organized by mutual friends. “But it’s kind of a huge monkey off your back, if you will. It’s fun to look forward to some other vision. I will be happy to have the 8,000-meter peaks all finished off.
“And hopefully I won’t have to feel like I felt last night, ever again. It was the longest two hours of my life.”
Later on, with word that Ed was tucked back in his tent at Annapurna’s camp three, resting as well as anyone can at 22,500 feet, Paula’s logical side took over once more: She really could take care of herself if she had to, she said, repeating the mantra.
“And I could,” she concluded. “But I’d miss him a whole lot.”
For better or for worse, “I fell in love with who he is. And that’s who he is. I couldn’t ask him to be different.”
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or email@example.com