I’ve got a confession. I was introduced to climbing by the fifth Star Trek movie when Captain Kirk attempted to free soloed El Cap before nearly falling to his death. But growing up in snowy Upstate New York and hiking and climbing the winter wonderland of the Adirondacks gave me a flavor for alpine ascents, not big walls. Being introduced to the American climbing icon Ed Viesturs nudged me further along. I can’t remember when I first learned of Viesturs, but it was before the Imax movie Everest, where he played a leading role, was released.
Viesturs became well known among American climbers for his Endeavor 8,000 project where he became the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen in over an eleven year quest that concluded in 2005. In 2006, Viesturs and David Roberts, author of climbing classic Mountain of My Fear, combined efforts to tell Viesturs life story and his journey to the top of the Himalayas in No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks.
Overall this autobiography tells the reader more about the things that compel Viesturs fans to follow him. He is known for his phrase, “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory,” which is odd to come from a well known climbing celebrity. Often climbers are thought of as risk takers. Instead, Viesturs book shows how he has actually been risk adverse and still been successful in the mountains.
The book was exactly what a fan of “Steady Eddy” like me wanted. It explained how Viesturs climbed at the level he did and addressed the challenge of the mountains from Mount Rainier, to the highest peaks of the Himalayas. First, Viesturs’ physiology is above average and explains the science behind his ability to grab more oxygen from thin air. Viesturs also shares his firm belief in being self reliant in the mountains, including listening to one’s gut: If something doesn’t feel right, listen to it and turn around. It was this second part that both kept him out of danger and delayed success in Endeavor 8,000 by several years.
People are also interested in his family. Despite the risks he takes and the expeditions he goes on for months at a time, he maintains what appears to be a strong family unit. He also talks about that, including intimate details about how he and his wife Paula met and having children.
In his belief of self-sufficient climbing, Viesturs and his partners – for the most part – have embraced the alpine style of climbing. He talks about sharing gear to pack lighter and also what he puts on his rack for various ascents.
Comparing Viesturs to progressive alpinists like Steve House is like comparing an Ice Road Trucker to the Stig from Top Gear. It’s just unfair. Viesturs approach, goals and tolerance for risk is different. But it is that contrast that makes him appealing, especially to the casual or even average mountaineer.
The book Viesturs produced with Roberts is worth the purchase and read. In fact, I have two copies. One for myself with some penciled notes and another to lend out to friends.