If you can get past the dying part, climbing the world's highest mountains is a great way to live. Ed Viesturs has spent two decades in...

Share story

If you can get past the dying part, climbing the world’s highest mountains is a great way to live.

Ed Viesturs has spent two decades in the Himalayas learning this hard lesson about life in the Death Zone, where the line between living and dying is about as thin as the air.

But never has it hit home more profoundly than this week.

Only a week after fulfilling a lifelong quest and standing atop the world’s 10th highest peak, Viesturs’ celebration party was crashed yesterday by sobering news: An Italian climber, on the very same quest, had been killed by falling ice, literally in Viesturs’ footsteps.

It’s enough to make you wonder how you lived, and why. And to appreciate it that much more. And, fittingly, it reminded a victorious Viesturs to never forget about the ever-lurking dark side of what he does.

Just 24 hours before, Viesturs, who turns 46 next month, had been sitting outside his Bainbridge Island home, his 7-month old daughter, Anabel, cooing nearby. He was laughing, drinking in life, and sounding as close to giddy as he ever gets.

“It’s just this great feeling of finally being home,” he said Wednesday, his voice still ragged from prolonged exposure to thin air on the upper flanks of 26,545-foot Annapurna, which he had finally bested only a week before.

“I’m outside. It’s green. It’s flat. It’s safe. My family’s here.”

For a big-peak climber, it gets no better than this. Viesturs’ summit day on Annapurna, a mountain that consumes climbers like some beer drinkers toss back pretzels, put him in the record books: He became the first American to climb all 14 of the world’s highest peaks, and one of only five humans to do so without using bottled oxygen.

That’s a big deal. This is the bigger one: For Viesturs, it finally laid to rest an ongoing internal struggle: Should he keep pushing for that one, final peak, and a shot at mountain-climbing immortality, or call it a career and ensure his three kids grow up with a father?

Over the past few years, you could hear him weighing the two sides, thinking out loud. Big mountains are not, he likes to say, inherently killing machines — assuming climbers place as much value on coming down as they do going up. There was no reason to suspect he would take a risk that would kill him.

Viesturs perfected the art of tackling deadly peaks like Everest, K2, Annapurna, Shishapangma and Nanga Parbat by sticking religiously to a five-word strategy: Travel light and move fast. Stay out of the way of the worst a mountain can throw at you, and you might live to climb again.

The other side of the coin? It’s the one nobody likes to talk about: Bagging the world’s biggest peaks, no matter who you are and how fast you move, is a game of mortality dodgeball. The more time you spend in places like the North Face of Annapurna, the greater the odds you’ll come home in a box.

This is why people close to Viesturs, like his wife, Paula, lie awake at night on summit days, simultaneously hoping for, and fearing, that call from base camp. It is why she has had to imagine, more than once, the chilling prospect of telling the three kids Dad won’t be coming home this time.

Nobody understood this more profoundly than Viesturs, a man who has seen close friends, including climbing partners Rob Hall of New Zealand and fellow Seattleite Scott Fischer, die in the high alpine, their bodies left frozen on the peaks they loved.

All of this made Viesturs’ climb into history last week that much more memorable — and that much more of a cause for celebration for people who know and respect him.

“It was a fitting finale,” Viesturs said Wednesday. “Annapurna, she worked us. She wasn’t going to let down her guard.”

Viesturs and climbing partner Veikka Gustafsson of Finland had been turned back by Annapurna twice before — at least once with their tails firmly between their legs as the mountain launched a relentless volley of Volkswagen-sized ice chunks across their intended path on the North Face.

This time around, all the pieces seemed finally in place. Avalanches were relatively few. Friendly Italians had fixed rope on much of the route up Annapurna, which has allowed fewer than 140 climbers to its summit, and seen another 56 die trying to get there.

“We thought: It’s never going to be better than this year,” Viesturs said. “If we don’t make it this year, we’ll never get a better chance.”

The mountain nearly beat them back again. But they survived it all — days of hurricane-force winds, an exhausting, 19-hour summit climb, a perilous climb through thick clouds and snow on the way back down.

Not until they were all the way out, in base camp, in the first green grass they had seen in a week, did they unleash their boots, let down their guards, and let the tears flow.

“It was that moment we’d been dreaming about for years,” Viesturs says.

A mere six days later, Viesturs was back on Puget Sound, feeling a high you can only feel after doing something a little crazy and coming home not only alive, but with good pictures. He was sighing with relief at finally beating his old nemesis, Annapurna, which perhaps wasn’t the cold killing machine he’d made it out to be.

And then yesterday morning, the phone rang. It was Gustafsson, still in Nepal, with news: A second wave of Italian climbers, following the same route up Annapurna’s North Face, had been caught in an icefall. One of them, Christian Kuntner, 42, was crushed by blocks of ice 10 feet across. He died in the arms of his companions.

Like Viesturs, Kuntner was back on Annapurna for one more try, after several previous failures, hoping to round out a glorious climbing career with the last of the fabled 14 peaks of 8,000 meters or more. Climbing with him was longtime climbing companion Abele Blanc — also back for another try on Annapurna, also looking for his final, 14th, triumph.

The parallels were uncanny. And to Viesturs, unsettling. He could close his eyes and picture the exact spot, a debris chute below ice cliffs on the route between camps two and three.

He had stood in it only a week before — and the ice stayed put.

“We were just having dinner with these guys a couple weeks ago,” he said yesterday, his voice solemn. “This was going to be his last peak, as well. I don’t know. It could be a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time kind of thing.”

He paused.

“I’ve got to find a gentle way to tell Paula that where we were just a week ago is where this guy got killed. I told her: from camp two to camp three was the risky part.

Another pause.

“But, here I am. Somehow, I got a little bit luckier.”

The jumble of emotions is powerful.

Ed Viesturs becomes one of those rare people with a lifetime of accomplishment behind him and half a life still ahead. He is one of the few to stare, repeatedly, across that hazy, high-altitude line between life and death and still manage to land, upright and alive, on the side of here and now.

He is a changed man, a fortunate man, a skilled man, and most of all, a family man — one who finally knows one thing for sure.

There is no going back.

If there was the slightest inch doubt in his decision to retire from the world’s cruelest mountains, it vaporized this week when Christian Kuntner’s body was pulled literally out of Viesturs’ footprints and, for the final time, off Annapurna.

“It just reconfirms it,” he said. “Totally. I don’t need to go back to these big peaks anymore. I felt it when I was up there: It was my last peak, and I was done. Enough is enough.”

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at rjudd@seattletimes.com.