"It's kind of the thorn in my side," Ed Viesturs says of 26,545-foot Annapurna, the last box to be checked in his quest to join a select handful of humans who have stood atop all 14 of the world's highest mountains.
It is in those little Zen moments when the mountain comes calling, once again, to Ed Viesturs.
Sometimes while out on a run, when his mind drifts to unresolved business.
Viesturs, who leaves his sweat droplets these days on back roads of Bainbridge Island for an hour every day, is riding a 45-year-old body that has taken him places few other humans have ever gone. And his unresolved business isn’t an income-tax preparation appointment, home remodel or transmission repair.
It’s five vertical miles of deadly rock and cascading ice.
“It’s kind of the thorn in my side,” Viesturs says of 26,545-foot Annapurna, the last box to be checked in his quest to join a select handful of humans who have stood atop all 14 of the world’s highest mountains.
Occupation: Mountain climber
Home: Bainbridge Island
Current itinerary: Cho Oyu in April; Annapurna in May
Notable achievements: A former Rainier Mountaineering guide, Viesturs has climbed Mount Rainier nearly 200 times. In 1997, he became the first non-Sherpa to climb Mount Everest five times and live to tell about it. He climbed Everest again last year for a movie project after swearing off the mountain and its commercialized, high-traffic slopes for many years.
Training regimen: Viesturs trains year-round, running seven to eight hilly miles, four days on, one day off. He does upper-body strength work on a home Bowflex machine. He mixes in biking, skiing, kayaking and other outdoor sports.
Online expedition dispatches: See www.edviesturs.com for links to Viesturs’ daily satellite-phone reports from Cho Oyu and Annapurna, beginning early next month.
An unrivaled ability to kick his body into an extra gear is pushing Viesturs once again, back to the deadly mountain that has claimed scores of victims — and already thwarted him twice.
He departs today for Katmandu, where he will rejoin longtime climbing partner Veikka Gustafsson of Finland for another Himalayan dual-summit attempt.
They will caravan by truck to 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, which they will attempt to climb in April along with noted Wyoming expedition photographer Jimmy Chin, who climbed Everest alongside Viesturs on a film project last spring.
Viesturs already claimed this summit, on the border between Tibet and Nepal, in 1994 — his fifth peak of 8,000 meters (about 26,250 feet) or more. He climbed it again in 1996, subbing as a lead guide for friend and business partner Rob Hall, the New Zealander who died earlier that spring along with Seattle’s Scott Fischer and six others in the now-infamous “Into Thin Air” snowstorm on Mount Everest, as Viesturs watched helplessly from base camp.
But Gustafsson has never stood atop Cho Oyu, which, for Viesturs, is a “straightforward” mountain that serves a purely training purpose: Using a technique he has employed for the past decade, he plans to acclimatize while climbing that peak, rush down and ride back to Katmandu for pizzas and a shower, then helicopter directly to the base camp of Annapurna.
There, a small support team will be waiting, with one goal in mind: Get Viesturs, Gustafsson and perhaps Chin to the top of the peak.
“It’s just the nature of the mountain,” Viesturs explains when asked about its killer reputation. “I’ve always known it was kind of a different, or quirky, peak. Not many people have climbed it because of that. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it’s the last one on my list.
“Frankly, I’d rather have K2 left than Annapurna.”
That’s a serious statement. K2, at 28,250 feet the world’s second-highest mountain, is widely considered the most difficult Himalayan peak to conquer. It also is the mountain that came closest to killing Viesturs, who has a well-earned reputation for placing safety above hubris.
Viesturs and Fischer partnered to climb K2 in 1992 and reached the summit, but only after surviving a harrowing fall that easily could have killed them both.
“Then again, maybe it’s appropriate” that only Annapurna remains, adds Viesturs, who was first lured to climbing as a youth after reading Maurice Herzog’s epic account of the successful French assault on the mountain in 1950.
“It will take everything I know and have learned as a climber to do it safely,” he said. “Early on in my career, I don’t think I’d have had all the skills it might take to climb it.”
Annapurna is one of the most enormous massifs in the Himalayas, with five separate summits and dauntingly steep sides. Simply put: There is no easy way up this beast.
On Viesturs’ first run at it, in 2000, he stood day after day and stared at the mountain’s north face, the traditional climbing route, and watched ice cliffs hurl house-sized chunks in his direction, daring anyone to approach.
To avoid that route, Viesturs and Gustafsson tried an innovative solution in 2002 — a risky, extended traverse along the mountain’s long, knife-edged East Ridge. They might have made it: Their companions, Jean Christophe Lafaille and Alberto Iriarte, climbing ahead, pulled it off, reaching the summit in a daring ascent. Viesturs ultimately decided it was too risky to follow.
He packed his bags and saved it for another day. That day might be just around the corner.
This year, arriving at base camp somewhere around May 1, Viesturs will return to the north face, watch the weather, the ice and snow, and wait. He and Gustafsson will fix ropes along part of the route. If the right moment presents itself, they’ll launch a quick, lightweight, alpine-style ascent on the summit: Up and back in as little as three days, if the mountain cooperates.
“The idea,” he says, “is not to dillydally.”
He is considering the original 1950 French route up the face, which was successfully climbed last season.
“Maybe things have changed there since I was there four years ago,” he says.
But once again, even as time, other obligations and age begin to argue more and more against future jaunts to the Himalayas, Viesturs vows he won’t succumb to summit fever.
“I’ll go about this the same way I’ve done all my other climbs,” says Viesturs, who has stood atop Everest six times. “Just because it’s the last climb doesn’t mean I’ll change how I’ve done what I’ve done. There’s no extra pressure. If it doesn’t look good, I’ll come home and think about it: Do I try again? Do I let it go? I can’t make those decisions yet.”
He insists this pursuit will not turn into one of those man-against-mountain obsessions — one in which he either claims the peak, or dies trying.
“Maybe at some point I’ll just say it’s too dangerous, and I can’t climb it,” he says.
Part of his misfortune on Annapurna has simply been bad luck: In 2002, as he risked prolonged exposure in the “Death Zone” on the East Ridge, word arrived by radio that 12 people had made it to the top — on the north side.
He admits that makes him want it all the more.
“I’ve stared at it, I’ve read about it, I’ve looked at photos,” Viesturs says. “It’s definitely there; it’s in my head. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”
By the end of May, he should return to Seattle, perhaps possessing, at long last, the prize that cements his place among the greatest climbers of all time, or being left with a cruel decision: Does he push his luck by trying again?
Viesturs would be the first American to capture all 14 peaks of 8,000 meters or more, and one of only a handful of people ever to do it without using bottled oxygen.
How would that feel?
“It’d be awesome. I tell people I’m quite happy with 13. I really am. If that’s what the mountain says, 13 is good. There’s no Oscar. There’s no medal. There’s no hall of fame. There’s more to life than climbing.”
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at email@example.com.