Jim Whittaker Reflects on Ed Viesturs
On May 1, 1963 Jim Whittaker became the first American to stand atop Mt. Everest, the planet's highest peak. He later led expeditions to K2 resulting in the first American summit of the world's second-highest mountain--and often considered its most dangerous. In 1990, he returned to Mt. Everest with International Peace Climb, leading a group of mountaineers from the United States, China, and the Soviet Union to the summit--a team that included an up-and-coming climber named Ed Viesturs. For the publication of The Mountain: My Time on Everest, Whittaker looks back at his time with Viesturs, as well as his nearly unparalleled high-altitude abilities.
Ed and I first began jumping crevasses--and pulling people out of them--on the glaciers of Mt. Rainier in Washington State.
At 14,410 feet above sea level, Mt. Rainier is less than half as high as 29,035-foot Mt. Everest, but it has all the snow, ice, rock, storms and altitude necessary to make it a wonderful educator for those who would climb high mountains.
Although a generation apart, Ed and I both worked as guides, taking clients who had never climbed before to the summit. As guides, we learned to watch our rope mates closely, because--tied to us--they could kill us. You didn't want to climb with someone who was NOT afraid of heights. Eventually, separated by almost three decades, we each reached the top of the world.
On May 1, 1963, along with Sherpa Nawang Gombu, I was lucky enough to become the first American to summit Mt. Everest. On May 7, 1990, as a member of the Mt. Everest International Peace Climb, of which I was the leader, Ed reached the highest point on earth, without the use of bottled oxygen. Our team included climbers from the then Soviet Union, China, Tibet and America, joining together for a "summit on the summit," demonstrating what could be achieved through diplomacy and friendship. It was on this climb that I saw Ed exercise his leadership and guiding skills, along with his incredible ability to climb up and down, up and down, and up and up and up.
There are just 14 mountains on earth that stick up into the "Death Zone"--above 8,000 meters--and Mt. Everest, Qomolangma, Goddess Mother of the World is the highest. My friend, Ed Viesturs, has climbed them all without bottled oxygen, the first and only American to do so. Mt. Everest he's done more than once. Much more.
Now, imagine this: While breathing bottled oxygen, I was taking three to four breaths with every step on the upper slopes of Everest, literally panting for hours and hours to the top. Ed has climbed the 14 highest peaks on earth, taking three to four, six to eight, 10 to 12 to 15 breaths to a step as he ascended. He says, "When I get to 15 breaths a step I begin to wonder if I should turn around." Is there any wonder his climbing friends honor him by referring to Ed as "an ANIMAL?"
Yet Ed has retained his humility and is warm and friendly. He has a good sense of humor and he is just a nice person. He is unique. Read his new book (and his several others) and see if you can figure this guy out.
--Jim Whittaker, October 2013
Learn more about Jim Whittaker and the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest in A Life on the Edge, including a new forward by Ed Viesturs.
About the Author
David Roberts is the author of twenty-four books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
So Close, and Yet . . .
The first time I tried to climb Mount Everest was in the spring of 1987. It was a very different mountain then from the swarmed-over scene it’s become today. By that spring, there had been only 209 successful ascents of the mountain by 191 different climbers. A single person, the Sherpa Sungdare, had reached the summit as many as four times.
It’s become almost impossible nowadays to keep track of Everest statistics, but by the end of May 2012, the number of successful ascents was in the vicinity of 6,000, performed by about 3,500 climbers. Two indefatigable veterans, Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa, have now reached the top of the world twenty-one times each.
In the spring of 2012 there were more than thirty different expeditions simultaneously trying to climb Everest via the South Col route, the line by which it was first ascended by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. I saw photos on the Internet of as many as 150 climbers on the Lhotse Face, lined up like Depression jobseekers in a free-lunch queue, as they jumared their way up the fixed ropes. In contrast, on the north side of Everest in the spring of 1987, there were only three teams. Ours hoped to climb the Great Couloir from the head of the Central Rongbuk Glacier. A Swedish team had chosen the traditional route from the North Col up the northeast ridge. And a Canadian, Roger Marshall, was attempting a bold solo ascent via the Japanese and Hornbein couloirs—a route nicknamed the Super Direct.
In 1987, I myself was a different person from the mountaineer who, eighteen years later, would become the first American to get to the top of all fourteen peaks in the world higher than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet). I was twenty-seven years old, and though I’d climbed Denali in Alaska twice and had served for five years as a guide on Mount Rainier, this was my first expedition to an 8,000er. No matter how much I’d read about Everest, I was awed by the scale and majesty of the mountain, and not at all sure I was up to the challenge of scaling its north face by the Great Couloir.
The expedition was put together by Eric Simonson, a seasoned veteran who was also my fellow guide for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI). Although Eric was only four years older than I, he had been guiding since 1973, and I looked up to him as a mentor. He’d already been to Everest in 1982, with a team led by our RMI boss, Lou Whittaker, that reached 27,500 feet on the same route—still 1,500 feet short of the summit. Eric had been hampered by a bad knee after a falling rock struck him high on this daunting face, and in 1987 he was determined to give it another shot.
Our expedition was a bit of a boondoggle, for a climber from Arkansas named Jack Allsup had approached Eric, offering to raise all the funds and pay all the expenses for five RMI guides, if we’d serve as glorified Sherpas for him and his buddies. The deal was that we guides would fix ropes, establish camps, and carry loads up the route, but not actually guide the Arkansas gang on their attempt—simply set them up so they could make their own independent push toward the summit. The official name of our team was the Arkansas Everest Expedition. Quite an irony: here I was, a guy who had escaped the flatlands of the Midwest to immerse myself in the rich Pacific Northwest climbing culture, only to be going on my first Everest expedition with a team based in the South!
I was grateful to be invited by Eric, who two years earlier had chosen me to serve as his assistant guide on a traverse of Denali with clients. For Everest, Eric also picked my fellow RMI guides Greg Wilson, George Dunn, and Craig Van Hoy. A free trip to Everest! Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity?
Once our team was assembled, all five us plunged into gear selection and packing, but Eric took on the brunt of the logistical work. A smart, analytical fellow, he’s good at that sort of thing. JanSport jumped aboard as an expedition sponsor, supplying clothing, tents, and packs. They also offered to have our high-altitude suits custom-made by an experienced local seamstress.
I was pretty excited at the thought of getting a high-tech suit for an attempt on the summit. I imagined an extremely lightweight, trim-fitting down suit like the ones I’d seen Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler wearing in photos from their pathbreaking climb of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978.
Only a day or two before we had to leave Seattle, Eric and I drove up to our seamstress’s house to collect the suits. When I hefted mine, my jaw nearly hit the floor. The suits were filled with bulky synthetic insulation, and the outer fabric felt more like canvas than lightweight nylon. Unnecessary doo-dads such as stripes winding around the sleeves added another heavy layer to the already bloated suits. Rather than the sleek Maserati outfits I had fantasized about, we had no choice but to head off to Everest with these cumbersome monstrosities.
I was just finishing my doctorate in veterinary medicine at Washington State University in Pullman, out on the state’s eastern plains. I envisioned a career as a vet, although climbing was my true passion. To leave for Everest in March, I had to rearrange my senior-year schedule so that I could graduate two months early. Fortunately, my classmates and teachers fully supported my “hobby,” going so far as to buy expedition T-shirts. Still, in 1987 I could not have dreamed of making a living as a mountaineer. As it was, earning a modest income guiding on Rainier in the summers, but pouring that money into my tuition bills, I was living as cheaply as I could, renting a room in the Seattle home of my buddy Steve Swaim, who ran his own veterinary clinic. Just before the expedition, a woman I’d been involved with for two years abruptly broke off our relationship. I was hurt and baffled, but in another sense, comfortable with the freedom that gave me. I was fresh out of school, with no full-time job or major obligations, so taking off to Asia for an indeterminate length of time didn’t bother me one bit. As I wrote in my diary at base camp, “I guess my life’s pretty simple & uncomplicated at this point—yahoo!”
My Denali expeditions, the longest I’d been on so far, had each lasted about three weeks. But Everest in 1987 would turn into a three-month-long ordeal by logistics, weather, and high-altitude conditioning—literally eighty-eight days’ round-trip from Kathmandu. Although I’d never been above 20,320 feet, I’d already made up my mind to try Everest without bottled oxygen. The example of great mountaineers such as Messner had instilled in me a purist aesthetic. I didn’t want to “lower” the mountain to my level simply to reach the summit, but rather to take on Everest at its level. And the prospect of having to carry oxygen bottles and wear an oxygen mask on my face, in effect isolating me from the mountain, was unappealing.
Yet having made that decision, I approached the challenge with a lot of trepidation and self-doubt. As early as March 28, I wrote in my diary, “I still wonder what it’s like up there without oxygen—have to see how I do as we go higher. It’d be great to do it without O2—gotta be strong though ’cuz the summit day is gonna be an ass buster, especially coming down wasted. Hope I at least get a chance for the top.”
Today, a truck road leads through Tibet from Nepal, and a spur leads straight to base camp on the north side of Everest. It’s become a milk run—albeit a bureaucratically tangled one—for trekkers and climbers alike. But in 1987, the north side felt so isolated that Eric claimed it was “like going off to the Moon!” The Great Couloir route that we were going to attack is not the easiest or safest way to climb Everest from the north. In 1924, the third British expedition to the mountain reached the North Col at 23,000 feet via the East Rongbuk Glacier, a hidden tributary that the reconnaissance expedition of 1921 had completely overlooked. From the North Col, a shallow spur leads up to the high crest of the northeast ridge. It was on this route that George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine went for the summit on June 8, 1924, and never returned, launching one of the great mysteries in mountaineering history.
Our team, however, made no use of the East Rongbuk approach. Instead, we established an advance base camp (ABC) at only 18,300 feet at the head of the Rongbuk Glacier proper. From there, the face sweeps up in a daunting rise of more than 10,000 feet to the distant summit. The face is also far more threatened by falling rocks and avalanches than the North Col/northeast ridge route pioneered in 1924. Although Greg Wilson, George Dunn, and Eric Simonson had all tried Everest before without success, and all three desperately wanted to get to the top, Eric chose the harder north face route because he wanted to finish the line that he and George had attempted in 1982.
On a three-month expedition, there are bound to be tensions among the climbers. We had a cordial but ambivalent relationship with the Swedish team. Although we shared some meals with them at base camp and benefited greatly from weather forecasts their team received from back home, we had an uneasy truce about the route itself. The Swedes planned to go up the East Rongbuk to the North Col and follow the Mallory-Irvine route along the northeast ridge. It was only late in the expedition that they changed their plans and decided to go diagonally across the north face and go for the top via th...