Mountain Man

John Marshall talks to Ed Viesturs, the first American to reach the summit of all 14 of the world’s highest peaks, about how he nearly died on K2 and his advice to other climbers.

Ed Viesturs will never forget climbing K2, the fearsome 28,251-foot peak in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range. He would go on to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, the first American to join climbing’s most elite club, still just 16 alpinists. But K2 seared itself into Viesturs’ memory not because of triumph, but because of near-tragedy.

Viesturs had always prided himself on his disciplined approach to climbing, his insistence on listening to his gut and turning back in threatening conditions, even when the summit was in sight. But he acted differently in 1992 on K2 with Scott Fischer and Charley Mace, as they headed for the summit and the weather started to turn.

Climbing Mount Everest, in contrast, has become commonplace in this era of for-pay guided expeditions there. Those who have stood atop Everest include a blind man, a double amputee, a 71-year-old man, and a 15-year-old boy.

“Up until that point, I’d always been conservative, believing that no mountain was worth dying for,” Viesturs said. “When it started snowing hard on K2, I kept asking myself, ‘Is it really that bad?’ Scott and Charley were going up the mountain, but I was real hesitant to make that call—to tell them, ‘You guys go on, I’m turning back.’ Not making that decision and carrying on was my worst decision ever. Coming down the mountain the danger of avalanches was so great from that snow that I was convinced that we were all going to die, although that also produced a sense of calm since there was nothing left to lose. My instinct had always been so important that I told myself then: Don’t ever question that again!... It was a big fuckup!”

Viesturs illuminates K2’s challenges, triumphs, tragedies, and follies in a riveting new book, K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain. Viesturs collaborates again with noted writer David Roberts, as he did on his best-selling memoir of the 14 summits ( No Shortcuts to the Top), and produces another book for both climbers and non-climbers. Viesturs recounts six dramatic climbing seasons on K2 (1938, 1939, 1953, 1954, 1986, 2008). He analyzes what went right and what went terribly wrong, including in August 2008, when 11 climbers were killed on K2 in just 36 hours, a headline-producing disaster that was much different from the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest that killed eight and was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

Viesturs sits in a crowded Starbucks near the University of Washington, his alma mater, and still comes across like a mountain climber from Central Casting, with his handsome looks, his megawatt smile, his matter-of-fact manner, and his resolute earnestness. Criticizing fellow climbers does not come naturally to the longtime resident of Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle. The trend in climbing accounts has veered toward tattle-all tales, the more personal the better, after decades of gentlemanly restraint about dirty linen. Viesturs straddles the untrendy middle ground between those two extremes, although he sharpened his eye in K2, including the surprising reflection that he was too restrained in his earlier memoir’s chapter on climbing K2, a conclusion he reached after finally rereading his expedition diary.

“I’ve never been extremely critical,” Viesturs says. “But with this new book, I wanted to examine why it is that people want to risk everything to climb K2 and why I have long called it ‘the holy grail of mountaineering.’ I wanted to give the general public a view of the nitty-gritty of expeditions. I also wanted to voice opinions beyond the obvious ones...I definitely wanted to show: Oh my God, how did that happen? And I am honestly critical about my own decisions on K2; I made mistakes there as well.” (Those mistakes include getting caught in an earlier K2 avalanche with Fischer that sent the roped-together climbers tumbling a couple hundred feet down the mountain until Viesturs was finally able to use his ax to arrest their plummet—within inches of going over the edge into the abyss. It was Viesturs’ “closest brush with death” in his 16 years of mountaineering up to that point; Fischer died on Everest in 1996.)

K2 has many harrowing moments on the world’s second tallest mountain, a picture-perfect peak that requires much more technical climbing skill than Mount Everest. Viesturs recounts exhausted K2 climbers succumbing to accidents returning from the summit, underscoring the climbing adage that “more climbers die on the descent of a great mountain than on the ascent.” Viesturs argues for use of safety techniques he has always employed, from turning back from a summit attempt no later than 2 p.m. to using willow climbing wands to mark one’s route in case a storm develops later and visibility deteriorates or disappears, as often happens. “I want to show people that climbing does not have to be an appalling, suicidal endeavor,” Viesturs said. “There are risks to climbing, like there are risks to driving a car, but managing those risks—that’s the key to it.”

K2 is also filled with outsize characters drawn by that mountain’s allure, both heroes and villains, plus those in between. There are native Sherpas who go far beyond expedition grunt work to rescue climbers and sometimes perish as a result, their heroism seldom even a footnote in most sagas by foreigners. There is the martinet “leader” of a mammoth Italian expedition on K2 in 1954 who issues written daily orders to climbers high on the mountain above him; that this same expedition produced the first successful summit of K2 seems almost an outrage, given its misdeeds and the bitter feud between two of its heralded teammates that lingered for decades.

K2 remains a climbing grail, its challenges still “gnarly,” its successful ascents still rare; while about 300 have successfully reached the summit since 1952, nearly 80 have died. Climbing Mount Everest, by contrast, has become commonplace in this era of for-pay guided expeditions. Those who have stood atop Everest include a blind man, a double amputee, a 71-year-old man, and a 15-year-old boy. Viesturs stood atop Everest this May, his seventh time there and what he says is likely his last, his smiling summit moment captured (but not identified) on the back cover of K2.

But Viesturs at 50 has no interest in climbing K2 again. It represents the “worst mistake” of his climbing life, as well as a “huge turning point,” but he will not return. “It was such an amazing experience, but once is enough,” he said. “You put your heart and soul into K2, all your energy and desire to get up there. But since nobody ‘owns’ K2, you have to give it a lot of respect. So when you make it to the summit, your reaction is: I’m good. You don’t want to tempt fate further.”

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John Douglas Marshall is a critic for The Daily Beast. He was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.