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The man who listens to the mountains

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Four inducted into Hall of Excellence at climbing museum in Golden

By Vicky Gits

One of mountaineering’s rock stars, who is famous for summiting the world’s 14 highest peaks without supplemental oxygen, recently shared the secret of surviving 32 years of exploring some of the most dangerous terrain on Earth.

“You have to be cautious, train right and listen to the mountains,” Ed Viesturs told a sold-out audience of 150 at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden on April 10. Viesturs is the kind of mountain climber who takes pride in “managing the risk” and being willing to wait, rather than be buried in an avalanche or lost in a storm.

As famous as he is for his superhuman endurance, he is known for turning back two times at the brink of summiting Annapurna in the Himalayas, before finally making it on a third attempt.

After seeing his two friends, Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, die on the flank of Everest in 1996 in the horrific storm that killed eight people, Viesturs came up with an alternative mountaineering philosophy. “The key is to balance ambition and caution, and if it might take years, so be it.”

Viesturs was the featured speaker at the first Hall of Mountaineering Excellence Awards, which honored significant individuals in mountaineering history. The Mountaineering Center shares space with the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum.

“It’s about listening to the mountain. I was willing to walk away knowing I could always come back someday,” Viesturs said of his first trip to Everest, which he abandoned only 300 feet from the summit.

Among his many achievements, Viesturs was with the IMAX crew that two weeks after the deaths of Hall and Fischer filmed an Everest expedition, one of the most successful IMAX films of all time. It was his eighth time on Everest, and hoisting the 200-pound camera uphill was the main motivation.

“The highlight was seeing that camera on the summit, but by then we kind of wanted to shove it over the edge,” Viesturs said.

He described his final trip to Annapurna and being fueled by the wonderful supply of prosciutto and cheeses that an Italian team had brought along. He remembered being stuck in the tents at 26,000 feet for three days and still being able to smell the smoke from the cigarettes the Italians were smoking a hundred feet away.

The thing about K2, the second highest peak and one of the most inhospitable mountains in the world, is its relentlessness, Viesturs said. “It’s harder to get down than go up.” A huge, overhanging cornice called “the Motivator” guards the final approach.

 He remembers sitting in a very small tent for three days, with a “very big” climber, Scott Fischer, in 1992. Even at his level, K2 seemed like “a lot more than you thought you signed up for. It was all about mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” Viesturs said. It is not a mountain anyone, including Viesturs, ever wants to go back to, he said.

But K2 somehow inspired him to emulate stars like Reinhold Messner and Herman Buhl, who exemplified the modern mountaineering style. “I wanted to experience what it felt like climbing light and fast.”

It occurred to him that carrying overnight survival gear was somewhat self-defeating.

“If you have to carry the gear you need to bivouac, then you are going too slow.” Later he would say, “The faster you are, the safer.”

Viesturs was inspired to climb as a boy in Illinois by reading the book “Annapurna” by Maurice Herzog. He moved to Seattle in the 1970s because of famous Washington climbers like Jim Whittaker, Jim Wickwire and Willi Unsoeld. He studied veterinary science and managed to get a degree in between mountain climbing trips, including guiding 250 summits of Mount Rainier.

Early on, Viesturs decided on climbing unassisted. “I made a rule for my own satisfaction that climbing without oxygen would be more of a test,” he said. That philosophy later decreed he would climb Everest and then Lohtse seven days later, a feat he calls bagging “two for the price of one.”

Viesturs has written two books with David Roberts, “No Shortcuts to the Top” and the recent “K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain” (October 2009).