Two Understated American Giants

Ed Viesturs and David Roberts (taken and shared with permission by Jana Kunicova)

Yes, I am crazy. I must be. I voluntarily sold my ticket — my only ticket — to see Ed Viesturs and David Roberts at National Geographic Live last night. The next two weeks ahead were getting busy at work in the evenings and that was taking away from my family time. So I went to my Peaklessburg support group — DC Mountain Madness — and offered it up.

Viesturs was a hero of mine when I started climbing in the mid-1990s. I bought my red Mountain Hardwear fleece jacket for the reasons baseball fans buy jerseys with their favorite players’ numbers on them. He doesn’t play the same role for me now he did when he was pursuing all 14 eight-thousanders, but he is still a role an hero for his approach to a wild pursuit that he balanced with a commitment to his life at home. His reputation for turning around many times when his gut said “this is bad,” and still being very successful at his goals is inspiring. That makes him appealing to many climbers, particularly amateurs. He is an example of stick-to-it-ive-ness.

Roberts is my favorite climbing writer. He also lead or was part of some legendary expeditions in Alaska, including the Harvard Route up the Denali’s north face and the Angel in the Revelation Mountains, a subrange of the Alaska Range, just to name two. I enjoy his books because they include rich history, great research and he tells all of it in such an insightful way. He makes his readers feel compelled to go on.

Viesturs and Roberts are two very different people and climbers. They came to Washington to speak on their latest book The Will to Climb, however they also talked about their other work together on No Shortcuts to the Top (2006) and K2 (2010), I was told. But while they are both articulate, well-educated men, they are very different climbers.

Since following Viesturs Endeavor 8,000 quest, I have learned more about climbing and learned that the kinds of climbs that make it into history books or the American Alpine Journal are special climbs. They are first ascents and original routes. Those were not the kind of climbs Viesturs pursued. At one time that was disappointing to me, but then I realized that I probably would not seek out the steepest, longest routes necessary to make a climb that is deemed significant today. Roberts, on the other hand, had pursued new steep routes in Alaska in the 1960s. As nerdy as Roberts is — and he is — he’s got street cred.

Viesturs sought out a whole other field of climbing. Rather than seeking challenging new routes, he pursued a tick list of the world’s biggest mountains. The route wasn’t critical. Reaching the top — legitimately reaching the top — was essential for quality of the accomplishment.  While American climbers celebrate him for being the first of their own to stand atop all 14 eight-thousanders without supplemental oxygen, it was ultimately a pursuit all his own.

Viesturs and Roberts are two American giants. I don’t feel the need to qualify that statement by adding “…in climbing.” They are accomplished climbers, accomplished writers, and I am glad they came to Washington to share their adventures and their experiences.

Oddly, though I have been a fan of these two men for about 20 years and I have never seen or met them in person, I don’t feel overly regretful that I wasn’t able to attend. I know much about them from their books and their articles elsewhere. Perhaps I also feel that I will get another opportunity. Perhaps its also because I have met so many interesting climbers over the past several years — thanks largely to social media and this blog. I suppose that even as they have moved on from climbing to other ventures, so have I.

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Training for Climbing: Square One

If you haven’t climbed in a while because of life, career or family has taken you to Peaklessburg, training to climb by just climbing is almost impossible, and yet that’s what the experts tell you to do. In fact, I reached out to a climbing guide in the Adirondacks recently about climbing some routes on Gothics (everyone needs a goal). Since I haven’t climbed seriously in years, I also asked for his advice about training, as in how I should prepare for this climb. He responded with the answer I’ve found unhelpful for years: “To prepare to climb any route you need to climb, simple as that…”

Despite this, I remained hopeful that there was a way to maintain general climber fitness, even if my skills deteriorate from lack of practice, without climbing. However, it’s difficult to get at climbing training information while avoiding what I would call extreme training regimens of super alpinists. I admire the climbers that maintain that level of fitness but it’s impractical for me, and maybe you too. But I have taken serious looks at them to see what truths might be applied to acheive goals on the more modest end of the spectrum.

I’ve been impressed by Rob Shaul’s programs at Mountain Athlete in Jackson, Wyoming and Mark Twight’s Gym Jones. Twight is better known and created the popular 300 Workout used by a lot of ambitious people. Shaul’s program, on the other hand, is more specific to mountaineering, though it appeals to military personnel too.

At Mountain Athlete, Shaul applies the fundamentals strength training to achieve of power, stamina and durability. This is especially important for professional mountain guides because they are “industrial athletes,” as he refers to them, that rely on their daily, physical work to earn their livelihood. However, Shaul’s standard for personal fitness is beyond my goal, such as lifting twice your body weight. I would like to do that, but to do so I would have to rearrange my life priorities too much, which is beyond my interest.

I have also looked to well-known, successful climbers like Ed Viesturs and Steve House. Like their approaches to climbing as well as their public persona, their advice differs. The advice based on Viesturs’ workouts talks about the exercises mainly. House gives his own advice on his blog and he doesn’t fret about giving technical advice. For instance, he explains the absolute need for training phases and varying the routine and taking rest days in order to build strength, finesse and speed.

Having explored those avenues, I turned to the American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall, Jr. Library and borrowed Training for Climbing: The Definitive Guide to Imrpove Your Performance by Eric J. Hörst. After reading House’s blog, which is informative but just introductory, Hörst’s book is in depth and reminded me of the text book in my college health class (I took it one of two required science classes.) It goes through what you should know to create your own training program. It does presume a baseline climber fitness level, but it also explains what that level is.

Hörst seems to answer all of my questions. I’ve learned that he role of running is to help increase my VO2 max alone and that training doughnuts are not ideal for training for several reasons except in special cases like injury rehab or obtaining a baseline grip strength. What he emphasizes you focus on is 1) grip strength, 2) lock-off strength, 3) lunging power, and 4) core strength. He goes into each in great detail.

He also clears up the key issue of whether climbing alone is the only means of preparing to climb. He acknowledges that climbing skills cannot be learned through strength training: “Skill practice is paramount, since climbing skills and tactics are distinctly unique from those of other sports. Only going climbing will make you a more skilled climber.”

But the rest of his book — all 11 chapters and 247 pages — address making you a better climber by enhancing your strength needed for climbing. He provides the principles to apply, the reasoning behind them, and what they do to make you a stronger, fitter athlete for climbing.

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Sources: 1) Hörst, Eric J., Training for Climbing: The Definitive Guide to Improving Your Performance, 2nd ed., Falcon Guides, 2008; 2) Shaul, Rob, “Mountain Athlete: Weight Training for Climbing,”, June 4, 2008; and 3) House, Steve, “The First Entry,” Training Blog.

No Shortcuts to the Top: A Review

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.

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Fritz Wiessner and Dudley Wolfe on K2


K2 on Fire. (All rights reserved)

I just finished reading The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 by Jennifer Jordan (2010).  Jordan will be at National Geographic tonight presenting on this book.  I was planning on going to see her, ask some questions and report to you tomorrow, but unfortunately, I have a conflict that is unavoidable.  In any case, here is my review of her take…

Jordan tells the story of Dudley Wolfe, the wealthy American on the 1939 K2 expedition lead by Fritz Wiessner.  However, the story of Wolfe on K2 is the story of that tragic expedition and its leader.

Wiessner was a German-immigrant and was the finest mountaineer in America at the time.  Until later in life, he always struggled with debt and having sufficient income.  He deferred the leadership of the 1938 K2 expedition to rival Charlie Houston because of his business obligations at the time.  The team in 1938 was experienced stars, but for a variety of reasons, personal and economic, Fritz could only put together a second-rate team – most of whom, except Wolfe, never went higher than Camp IV.

I have read a couple of different takes on the 1939 attempt and Jordan’s book follows the pattern of most others, but brings the available research together more thoroughly.  The questions Jordan tries to answer, or at least provide the best information about, was whether Dudley Wolfe belonged on the expedition, was he qualified to reach the high camps and remain there for an extended period of time even though his outlook on summiting was dim, and lastly, was he stranded out of negligence or the occupational hazard innate in mountaineering?

Wolfe reached Camp VIII only with Wiessner’s assistance.  Eventually, Wiessner had to descend for supplies – or possibly help to get Wolfe to the top.  There is a lot of speculation here on why this really happened.  Wolfe managed to descend to Camp VII and he never climbed any lower.  He would spend nearly two months in those high camps withering away and likely suffering from cerebral edema.

Wolfe was the first casualty of climbing K2, and for a variety of reasons (both justified and muddy) he was left stranded and helpless in Camp VII.  Jordan discovered his body at the base of the peak while visiting the K2 base camp in 2002 while writing her first book Savage Summit.

This book paints Dudley Wolfe in a more favorable portrait.  Ed Viesturs and David Roberts in K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain make Wolfe seem more incompetent – but to say he was unqualified (which Viesturs and Roberts do not) to be high on the mountain is wrong too.  It is worth the read to see the relationship between Fritz and Dudley.  Wiessner wanted to the summit desperately for glory and notoriety.  Wolfe was an adventure junkie and needed Wiessner to get him as close to the top, if not the top itself, as reasonable.  This arrangement, and the affects of altitude, which were not fully understood, was their collective undoing.

As a mountain junkie, I don’t recommend this book unless you are either interested in the mysteries of the 1939 expedition or want to know everything about K2 specifically.  There are other more informative K2 books, like Viesturs’ and Roberts’ story, and better climbing stories in general.  On the other hand, Jordan’s story might also appeal to readers that enjoy the age of romance in mountain exploration as it tugs at that string.

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