037: Ed Viesturs: American Climber Of 14 8000 Meter Peaks On Reaching Impossible Goals
Climbing mountains is an incredible feat that takes incredible people with incredible goals. Ed Viesturs is one of these people who has climbed fourteen 8,000 meter peaks. It took him 18 years to get to all those summits and 21 attempts. From all these climbs he learned a lot of things from guys who were above him, and these guys learned from guys above them. One of these life lesson essential to reaching impossible goals is tempering ambition. It’s an 8,000 meter climb, but when you get to the 5,000 mark you need to think where motivation has taken you so far. At this point you should ask if it’s okay to turn around and try again when it’s safer. Ed shares his wisdom and experiences as a Mount Rainier guide who breaks down goals to keep moving and get to the top.
For this show, I interviewed Ed Viesturs. Ed is a guy who I’ve climbed with years ago but he’s the only American to have climbed all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. Those are peaks that are over 26,000 feet. He did so without any oxygen. Everybody that climbs the Everest has tanks on their bank. They’ve got the big face mask. That’s certainly what I will have when I climb up that mountain. He’s done it. It’s his own will, power and strength that gets him up and down these mountains. Obviously, he’s got a very strong lung capacity. I had such a blast talking with Ed. We go back, we talk about his earlier days cutting his teeth with great mentors like Lou Whittaker on Mount Rainier, teaching him the ropes on how to climb safely.
Then we get into when he was filming the IMAX piece which, unfortunately, coincided with the same time that the whole Into Thin Air, the Everest tragedy happened in 1996. It actually turned into a rescue mission for him. He tried to go up and get Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, two of his buddies who ultimately did not make it. It was a very emotional moment of talking about when that happened. They did decide to press on a couple of weeks later to finish the IMAX piece and those guys are still sitting up there. To pass your buddies and have that moment, it’s pretty emotional. We talked about his choices about no shortcuts to the top, about why he’s still standing and where he’s at today. Ed is a phenomenal guy and full of inspiration. He has life in the right frame mindset of how to go about it and he shares that with many corporations throughout America.
As always, please go out there and rate and review on iTunes. It does help. If anybody out there has any questions, comments, please reach out to me. Send me an email. I will always answer. If you have any recommendations on people who’d make phenomenal guests, I’d love to hear. On that note, let’s talk to Ed.
Listen to the podcast here:
Ed Viesturs, American Climber Of 14 8000 Meter Peaks On Reaching Impossible Goals
I’m so stoked to have a guy that I’ve admired for a long time. His name is Ed Viesturs. Ed, how are you doing?
I’m doing great.
I want to start off with the story about you and I, Jim Mora and Tod Leiweke, who at the time was the CEO and President of the Seattle Seahawks. This might have been about eight years ago. There was a charity climb that you were doing, but prior to that charity climb, we were going to go to Mount Rainier and climb up to Camp Muir, which is about a 5,000-foot gain from Paradise at the Muir. We just had a fantastic time. We picked you up about twenty miles outside of the actual parking lot in Paradise called Longmire. It was interesting because you wanted to hear about NFL stories and all we wanted to hear about was your story. We’re grilling you at the time and it was a lot of fun. Jim and I, we’ve climbed a lot together, and so we were excited that we were in your presence. I want to give you a lot of credit for where I’m at today, in a story that you don’t know, which is we all set off together at 5,000 feet and we were more or less all hanging until about 8,000. Then at that point, we’re in the pretty steep snowfields and you and I just took off. I kept up with you and you’ve always been known for this amazing lung capacity. I felt like I was keeping more or less stride to stride, we were chitchatting, I wasn’t breathing hard. It was at one of the points where I started to have this idea about climbing these crazy mountains all over the world. Not that I can hang and do the type of things that you do, but it just gave me a sense of confidence that this might be something that I could do, so thank you.
You’re welcome. I’m glad I was part of that inspiration.
We all take inspiration from different people. A guy who I interviewed last time was Steve Largent, and you probably know Steve, the All-Pro, Hall of Fame. As we were going through it, I was a freshman in high school when he was a rookie on the Seattle Seahawks team. I literally grew up with him as my role model. That’s all part of the success strategies in so many people, is finding others that have come before them. I’m sure you’ve had guys like that in your path.
One of the big things I learned when I started guiding on Rainier was I knew there were guides there that had ten, fifteen more years’ experience than me. I had two or three of them that I chose as my mentors, the people that I looked up to. The people that I wanted to emulate because of their attitude and the way they thought about climbing and how they treated their clients. I didn’t say, “You’re my mentor,” but I silently followed them, watched them and listened to them. I thank them now for my success and the reasons that I’m still alive. Being in the mountains, there’s a lot of risk, and it’s all about how you make decisions. I learned a lot from those mentors of mine how to be in the mountains and do it safely.
[Tweet “Being in the mountains, there’s a lot of risk, and it’s all about how you make decisions.”]
There’s a guy that may have been one of those mentors. He was one of my original podcast guys that came on, Lou Whittaker.
In my world on Mount Rainier, Lou was like the top dog. On Mount Rainier with the guides, it’s very much an apprenticeship. You learn from the guy that’s above you, that’s learned from the guy that’s above him. It’s this trickle-down effect of leadership, teaching and experience. If you show that you’re a good team player and that you can perform, and this is what happened to me, I started to get invited by my teachers and my mentors to go on expeditions with them, Lou Whittaker being one of those. He took me along to Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, and that became my first 8,000-meter summit. If it wasn’t for people like that that saw the ability that I had and they said, “We’re going to bring you along. We want you to be part of this team.” By doing that, I gained experience as well, under their leadership.
For people who don’t know, Ed Viesturs is the only American to have climbed all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. It took you 21 times to do those 14, is that right?
Yeah. They’re called the 8,000-meter peaks, and that’s any mountain that’s over 26,000 feet. It took me all total of eighteen years to do that. To climb fourteen successfully, I made 21 attempts. You have to learn that in the mountains, you don’t always achieve your goal. There are a lot of things that prevent you from success: weather, avalanches. We have a saying that the mountain decides. You have to listen to the mountain, and that’s what keeps you alive. If you’re stubborn and arrogant and have this attitude of, “I need to summit at all costs,” a lot of times you won’t come home. It has to be a roundtrip. There are a lot of times when you have to temper your ambition. You’re motivated, you’ve trained, you’ve been working your way up the mountain for sometimes three months, and if conditions aren’t good, you’ve got to learn to just turn around and walk away. I’ve turned around 300 feet from the summit of Everest.
The name of this podcast is called Finding Your Summit. What you’re talking about, and I talk about this in my own speeches to people, is about adversity. I was on Denali and it was minus 60 at the top at that 14,000-foot camp. We hung out there for a week, and it’s minus 25 just there. We knew that we weren’t on top and there’s this lenticular cloud just sitting like the Wicked Witch of the West up there. We knew that if we went up, you’re talking about risking life, fingers and toes, and we weren’t willing to do that. In a sense, there was an adversity around that because every guy is carrying 126 pounds just to get in that position before you go up that steep wall until you get to the top. We couldn’t do that. For you, this has happened many times where you’ve had to make that hard decision. Was this something that was taught to you from Lou Whittaker and the guys at RMI, or is this something from your childhood, just about safety first and you want to take risks but measured risks?
For me it was a personal thought and it was also taught to me as a guide. When we’re guiding, the number one rule is we have to keep our customers alive. That helps you to make decisions in the mountains. I learned that way. I always felt as well, if I’m out there climbing on my own, I’m doing it for myself. I don’t care what people think about what I’m doing or where I’m going. It has to be a personal goal, but I don’t want to kill myself doing it. I always say, “I like climbing mountains, but I like being alive a little bit more,” and so that was always my attitude. I’m going to go out there, I’m going to do my very best. If conditions allow, and I’m prepared and I’ve done my homework, then I get to succeed. If conditions don’t allow me to do something safely, I wasn’t willing to lose a finger or toe to frostbite, let alone die. I just couldn’t get my head around that idea. That’s a huge price to pay. It’s not worth it. I’d always been willing to temper my ambition. When I came home, let’s say turning 300 feet from the summit of Everest because of bad conditions, I would come home and say, “I didn’t fail.” Failure is when you don’t plan, when you don’t prepare, when you don’t try. If you’ve done your very best and you’re prevented from success, it’s not your fault. I just call it a non- success. I turn it into something more positive and then I just say, “I get to go back to Everest. I get to try again. I don’t have to. I get to.” If an NFL team doesn’t win the Super Bowl this year, they don’t quit. They come back next year and they go, “We’re going to regroup and we’re going to try again. We get to try again.” It’s the same idea.
Certainly that happened to us in the NFL to the teams I’ve played on, but also the mountain. I’ve got to admit, I had to rearrange my head a little bit because I was so frustrated. I knew we couldn’t get up there and I wasn’t willing to go that extra distance to have something catastrophic occur within the team but at the same time, I was like, “Now I’ve got to come back and do it all over again.” Now I’m all jacked up because I’m training hard, got my eye on the ball again and the whole momentum is starting to kick in again.
You’re just as excited if not more, because you’ve tasted it, you know what it’s going to take, and you’re like, “Bring it. I get to go try again.” It took me three expeditions to climb Everest. I went once, came back. Went again, came back. On the third trip, everything fell into place and then I was ready for it. It’s the same idea. If you enjoy the process of getting ready, which it sounds like you do, and then you enjoy the actual journey of the climb itself, if you get to the summit, that’s great, but if you can’t, then it’s the experience that matters.
I can tell you from my own experience, but just the whole preparation going to different countries, experiencing these different cultures has been an absolute joy in my life to go do. They call it adventure travel maybe. Rather than go sit at the Grand Wailea in Hawaii for a week, it’s so much more thrilling for me to reach goals that you didn’t think were possible.
It is expanding yourself. You meet people, you push your limits and you discover something about yourself every time you go. How hard can you push? How uncomfortable are you willing to be for success? You go, “I never thought I could do that,” and then you do it. Sometimes, we look at these goals, they seem impossible or overwhelming. I’ve always said, “Don’t look too far ahead. Have that goal, but break it down. I’m going to do what I need to do today, and today I might have to break that into steps.” In the mountains, you break it down into breaths. That’s how you achieve these little goals every single day and the next thing you know, you’re on the top.
Have you come back from one of these expeditions and kicked yourself? I’m sure it hasn’t happened much. You kicked yourself because you didn’t do what you always said you were going to do in terms of, “You should have turned back.” Maybe ultimately you did, but you took it maybe one step further than you shouldn’t have?
I did. That was on the mountain we call K2. It’s the mountain in Pakistan. We think it’s the hardest 8,000-meter peak to climb. It’s not quite as high as Everest, it’s only 700 feet lower, but the technical terrain is way bigger than Everest. It has unpredictable weather and it’s such this alluring mountain, that people are often willing to risk more for K2 even than Everest. It’s not for people with the experience level of Everest. You’ve got to have a whole another level of experience to climb K2. It’s just steeper, technical, there’s no relatively easy way. You have to have a lot of experience, willpower, and patience. When I went there in ‘92, nobody had climbed it for seven years, although 35 teams have tried. That’s how relentlessly challenging this mountain is. We went and we did battle with K2, and two and a half months later I’m at high camp with my buddy Scott Fischer. A storm came in. We were thinking of going to the summit the next day. We were trapped or stuck. We stayed in that tent for three days, waiting, thinking if there’s a break in the weather, we need to be here to take advantage of it. Finally, we got a break in the weather and we started going toward the summit. The weather started to deteriorate. It started to snow. I thought, “We still have six, seven, eight hours to go to the summit. With all this new snow accumulating on the descent, the conditions are going to be horrendously dangerous. I should turn around now before it’s too late.” I always have this idea of “I need to think ahead, plan ahead, rather than just think in the moment.”Whereas I was with Scott and another climber, and they were more in the moment and weren’t as worried about what was going to happen later. I convinced myself that I was making a big mistake. I should’ve just un-roped from them and gone down, and that’s the point where people have their own level of acceptable risk. If you’re with two or three other people and they want to keep going and you don’t, it’s okay to let them go their way and you go your way. I knew I was making that mistake and I said, “I should just go down,” and I never quite made the decision to un-rope and go down.
[Tweet “Live by your own rules.”]
Was that the first time you’d been on the summit?
Yeah, the first and only time. K2 is one of those mountains where if you climb it and walk away, you don’t want to ever go back. We made it down but I think by the skin of our teeth, through avalanche conditions. When I got back to high camp, I was angry with what I had done that day. For me, that was not the way I had lived my life as a mountaineer, and I broke all my rules. It wasn’t that I was ignorant or arrogant. I just wasn’t willing to make the right decision. I told myself, “Never again do that. Never again.” If I ever felt something was wrong, instinctively, listen to it and walk away. If 40 people are going one way and you don’t want to, you go the other way. Live by your own rules.
Did you feel like you were being sucked in by Scott and the other guys on the team of like, “Come on, we got it?”
No, I didn’t feel that pressure. It was my own lack of willingness to stop myself. They weren’t pressuring me, I wasn’t feeling bad about it, I just didn’t make the decision on my own. Then obviously I thought, “Am I over thinking this? Am I being too conservative?” That’s okay. That was a big lesson for me not to do that again. I never did it again.
I have no desire to go to K2. That’s one that I will live through you on that. A lot of it too is like you don’t go from Little League to the NFL. You’ve got to have your ducks in a row, you have to know what you’re doing or you can get hurt in a very bad way, not to mention you’re just completely in over your head. I’m learning as I go, but I’m not there and I don’t have the skills that would safely get me up and down a mountain like K2.
You’re smart enough to know when you’re ready to go to the next level. A lot of people want to shortcut it and they go, “I’ve climbed Mount Rainier, now I want to go to Mount Everest.” That’s way too fast. They think with the right people around them and the right guides and the right support staff, they can be nurtured to the summit. In some cases, you can, but I’d rather have the experience to know when I’m making a mistake and how to take care of myself. I was very careful about taking my time slowly climbing higher mountains, slowly gaining more experience, and then I knew when I was ready to go to the next level. By the time I went to K2, I’d gone on three or four Everest expeditions, I’d climbed Kangchenjunga, I felt ready to try K2. That’s why I told people, “I’m going to go try K2. I’m not going to climb it, but I will do my best to try to climb it.” With that attitude, you open yourself up to more possibilities. If it doesn’t work out, you’re okay with it, you go back and try again, but you’ve learned from what you just did.
How many people have actually climbed K2? It’s a short list, right?
Yeah. To date, there are I think 5,000 people that have climbed Everest, and maybe 200. When we climbed K2, I think we were 60th or 70th or something like that. It’s a smaller group of people that go to K2, and an even smaller group that succeed on K2.
Were you wearing oxygen?
No. I did all of my ascents by my own personal rule, without oxygen.
I’ve looked at you and I’m trying to figure out somewhere because I’ve got a fairly high lung capacity. I don’t know where I fall in the measuring stick. All that for me has to do with being a wide receiver, with all the conditioning and I would just go and go and go. When other people had fallen down, I still managed through breathing and things like that to just not be fatigued. I don’t mean this comparison in the wrong way because I have respect for this other individual despite what he did to get there, but it was all relative to his sport, which is Lance Armstrong. Lance also has very high lung capacity to push himself to levels that most people can’t go without tremendous fatigue. For you to climb all these different mountains with no oxygen is insane, incredible and amazing. What do you think it is with your chemistry that allows you to do that?
There are a few ingredients. The first was that I made the commitment to saying, “I will only attempt to climb these mountains without supplemental oxygen.” If you leave yourself open to say, “I’m going to try and if it gets too hard, then maybe I’ll use oxygen.”That’s an easy out. I said there’s no way, “If I can’t climb Everest, if I can’t climb K2 without oxygen, I will never climb these mountains.” I set myself up for that mentally. Physically, I knew I had to train myself very hard, endurance and strength and running and lifting and biking so that my body was capable of doing that. The third part is the lucky part, which is the genetics, which I didn’t know I had. I was tested. A few years into my career, they said, “Let’s see how you are able to do this.” I do have a high lung volume. I have a high VO2 max. I have a high anaerobic threshold, meaning that I can keep plowing along. When other people are already going anaerobic, I’m still aerobic. That was just by luck. I picked the right sport. One out of a million people pick the right sport and they’re a little bit better than the rest. It’s not just one thing. It’s several things. You know this as well. You’ve trained physically, but you also had the physiological gift that let you perform longer and better than others, and that just happens.
I was reading somewhere about you that you did some mental stress test on Everest to test, at altitude, how you perform and function. What kind of tests these things were.
They were basically mental acuity tests. We’d have to read something, memorize it, then repeat it. It was more of trying to see how you do mentally at each different elevation gain on Everest. To me, you could predict that you’re going to do worse and worse and worse the higher you go, simply because of the lack of oxygen. We had people on the climb that were using oxygen as well. The big part for me with test taking is even at sea level, if you’re well rested and you take a test versus being exhausted and you take the test, you’re going to do worse when you’re exhausted. Even people that climb Everest with oxygen that have all those benefits of stronger, faster, warmer by using oxygen, if you’re exhausted on the summit, you’re going to do worse not taking a test than somebody that’s highly trained that just climbed without oxygen. It was just a contrived, in my view, scientific thing that we were just showing. “We know what’s going to happen and here’s the proof.” It was interesting and it was fun. We did it for NOVA, and it was a cool trip to go to Everest again with Breashears, who I’d been with the year before. It was a fun, scientific documentary we made.
You did one of the highest grossing films of all time, the IMAX film of Everest. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is where the whole Into Thin Air tragedy took place. At the time, obviously, nobody knew what was going on, but your buddies, Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, they were leading different expeditions at the mountain and you had your own thing going on, carrying these gigantic cameras going to the top. How did you become involved in that whole rescue? How did that all play out?
When you go to Everest, especially at base camp, it becomes this community, this village of climbers. I believe in ‘96 there might have been fifteen teams there, two of the larger teams were the commercial expeditions run by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, who were friends of mine. We could see each other operating. You’re going down, they’re going up, and you share information. Toward the end of the expedition, when everybody’s trying to pick their summit dates, Rob and Scott and the Taiwanese expedition decided to go to the summit together on May 10th, which you feel “safety in numbers.” I’d rather go with a bunch of people, but high on Everest, I’d rather be with a smaller team. You’re faster, you can control more. We heard about this and we as a team decided, “Why don’t we go a day before? Let’s go on May 9th.” We were a day ahead of these guys. As they were going up, we were going up. On the morning of May 8th, David and I, we looked out the tent door and we thought the weather wasn’t yet perfect enough. That window of climbing weather for the summit, we felt had not yet arrived.
Did you have the technology at that time to forecast bad weather coming in?
It wasn’t as good. It was even more archaic. A lot of times in the mountains you use that as an information tool, but you basically just got to stick your nose out the door and look, and look at your barometer and what’s the wind doing, and make a guess. We just felt that that traditional calm, perfect weather had not yet arrived. It was still funky and it was more, if anything, instinctive as well. David and I said, “Let’s go down. Let’s wait for something better. It doesn’t have to happen today.” We weren’t giving up. We were pulling back and waiting. As we went down, we passed our friends. They were going on their way up. They looked at us and we looked at them and they’re like, “Why are you guys going down?” We couldn’t really explain why, and we obviously couldn’t tell them not to go up. We were like, “Are we making the right decision? These guys are going up. Three teams are still going up and we’re going down.”
Then you start to doubt yourself, but once you make your team decision, you’ve got to stick with it. Don’t get pulled along. Little did we know what was going to happen. They started at the right time on May 10th. They started early enough, but a few things happened. It wasn’t one major decision that day, it was a whole bunch of little things. They climbed too slowly, they had bottlenecks, and they missed their turnaround time. The turnaround time on Everest, especially when you use oxygen, means you’ve gone beyond the amount of oxygen that you have to climb up. If you climb longer than that, you’re going to start using the oxygen supply that you need for the way down. It’s not just going to show up somewhere. You have a limited supply. They climbed beyond that. People were getting more and more exhausted. On a good day, they probably could’ve gotten away with it, but they got caught high in the mountain. The storm blew in and you’re already over that edge a little bit, and then that storm pushed them way over the edge.
Five people died on that side of the mountain, trapped high in the mountain. Two of them were my friends, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. We saw all this, heard all this developing. We were down below. We were on the radio, and then we just said, “We need to go up and help people down.” We quit filming. Our expedition didn’t matter at that point. You’ve got to save people’s lives. The sad reality is at that high of an altitude, you physically have to climb to people to bring them down. You can’t fly a helicopter that high. There’s no other means of rescue. If you can’t reach people fast enough, they die of exposure and hypoxia.
How many people did you actually help down?
We had supplies of oxygen at Camp IV, which we gave away. We said, “Go into our tent, use what you need.” I don’t know how many people that helped, but David and I physically helped Beck Weathers down off the mountain. By the time we got to him, he was snow blind, his hands were frozen, and we then helped him down the Lhotse face. I remember there was a fixed rope, and I had one arm wrapped around the fixed rope, the other hand I was holding onto Beck’s harness from behind because he couldn’t hold the rope. Then David in front would help Beck place his feet into the slope because Beck couldn’t see where his feet were. Over the next two days, we then helped Beck down off the mountain.
How steep is that?
It’s up to 45 degrees. It’s steep and it’s icy. Even being able to see and hold onto the rope, it’s a challenge, let alone being blind.
A guy, he was not on that rope team, but we talked to him, Dick Bass. He came and sat down at our table and he was talking to us. Tears were coming down his face, talking about that tragedy. He’d obviously been up and down. He was the first guy to pave this whole seven summit thing. I read the book and it’s a combination of a lot of things. Some probably could have been avoided, and some that couldn’t. One of the things that I’ve always wondered, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer were your friends. Do you think there was any way that they could have made it down? I can’t remember which one, but were sitting up top talking to his wife they’d pass through and she was trying to get him to go down.
I spoke to Rob at length on the radio as well. After he and his client, Doug Hansen, finally they couldn’t move anymore, it was way too late at night, the storm was raging, and Doug simply couldn’t move anymore. We didn’t know through the night what was happening. We were all on the radio and then the next morning, it was very early, 4:30 or 5:00, Rob crackles on to the radio and he said, “I’m stuck up here. When is somebody coming up to help me?” We had people trying to work their way up to him, the storm continued, and he was at a place where after you descend from the summit of Everest, you then are in a saddle and you need to go up over what’s called the South Summit. He was at the base of that, meaning that if he was trying to help himself, he would have to climb up and over the South Summit even before it could start going down. We then asked him, “Where’s Doug?” The only thing he said was, “Doug’s gone.” The mystery is, did Doug fall? Is Doug dead? If Doug’s gone, that could mean a lot of different things. I kept trying to tell Rob, I knew him very well, and I said, “Some guys are working their way up to get you or try, but can you please help them by helping yourself? Can you try to get yourself up and over the South Summit?”
I did everything I could to cheerlead him, to yell at him, I told him some jokes, I got him to laugh. Then we’d said, “Rob, just start working your way up and don’t talk. Save your radio batteries.” A few hours later I checked in, I said, “How’s it going, Rob?” He said, “I haven’t moved. I can’t. My hands are frozen; my feet are frozen. I’m fucked,” basically is what he said. At that point, we knew that he could not help himself. Then David and I started climbing up to help others, and at some point during that day, we heard that the Sherpa that were trying to go up to get Rob had to turn around as well because of the storm that had continued. I remember David stopped and looked around and said, “I think it’s time to say goodbye to Rob. Nobody can get to him.” It was that night where we patched him through to his wife. They had a phone call together, and that night he went to sleep and we knew he wouldn’t wake up. I imagine he knew that as well. Imagine sitting there going, “I’m going to close my eyes and I’m not going to survive this.” That’s a huge moment. We were all there watching and listening and living through it. It was huge. It was a big deal.
That’s crazy and I’m sure emotional for all of you. They’re your personal friends that all this stuff he was going through. Time passes and you stayed on the mountain. Did you finish the film later? There was nothing you could do at that point. Ultimately, people came down, they were flown off.
[Tweet “I wanted to finish what we set out to do, and if anything, turn it into something more positive.”]
After all that, we helped bring back Weathers down, we evacuated the mountain, and we cleared it. We said, “Everybody, we need to just regroup.” This has been this gigantic event. We had a memorial service at base camp. Everybody at base camp, we gathered, people spoke, we talked about what happened. At that point, most teams were like, “We’re going home. We’re saddened, this is scary, this mountain can kill us.” It was a reality check for a lot of people. I remember David and I and our team, my wife was there, she was our base camp manager, we had a long discussion about what were we going to do. I had already decided what I wanted to do. I wanted to go back up. I wanted to finish what we set out to do, and if anything, turn it into something more positive. Instead of running away scared to death, I said, “We, as a team, haven’t made any bad decisions. We’ve made good choices. We’re still good. We have the strength, we have the time. Let’s regroup. Let’s at least go back up and try to finish this,” because knowingly even David and I said, “If we don’t finish this film this year, we have to come back next year and get that camera all the way back up to where it is,” and so we said, “Let’s try to finish it.” We went back up. Two weeks later, phenomenal weather, perfect conditions. I was again climbing without oxygen. I was so acclimatized. It was like the perfect summit day.
You’ve been up there for months now.
Yeah, we’d been there almost three months.
Now it is the perfect conditions, you summit, but as you’re going up there, you’re passing your buddy. Did you see both of them?
I saw both of them, which was huge. I had never lost a friend before, let alone walk past their bodies. I left high camp alone that morning. Because I was climbing without oxygen, we calculated that I would be climbing slower than the rest of my team, so I needed a head start, but in fact, nobody ever caught up to me that day. I was like, “I’m going to the top come hell or high water.” A few hours into the climb, I was still with my headlamp on, it was 3:00 AM or something, I see a body and it’s Scott lying in the snow. I wanted to spend some time with him, but I said, “I’m going to focus all my energy on going to the summit. On my way down, I’m going to sit with Scott and say goodbye.” Further up toward the summit, I saw Rob. It’s the same thing. I made it to the top safe and sound. The team got to the top, the camera got to the top. Everything we set out to do, we did, in spite of all the difficulties. I felt hugely proud about that, but then it was sad going down and just sitting with my friends. Basically, we had to just leave them there. You can’t bring them down.
Unfortunately, that’s some of the realities of the mountain. I also say to other people who get fearful about mountain climbing, I say for me it’s a very measured risk, number one. Number two is that it falls into the people who tragically die, it’s either through bad luck or they’re completely in over their head. I see more of that happening. If you happen to be in Nepal, once every 100 years, there’s an earthquake, and if you happen to be in the Khumbu Fields and you happen to fall in, that’s just bad luck. On every single climb I’ve been on, we have been with somebody or somebodies who are in way over their head, they didn’t prepare, they don’t understand about the way. They see the movie like you did and they go, “I can do this. I want to be that guy,” and they’re not that guy or that girl. They have to get flown off. Aconcagua is nowhere on the planet close to what Everest and some of these other mountains you’ve done. Out of the twelve, we flew six people off the mountain. I could have told you that from day one climbing up like, “This person is not going to make it.”
That’s part of the hard part about guiding as well. You have a group of people that show up, you may know them from previous climbs or they may have signed up with a resume, which could be true, which could be not true. Then you get to the base of the mountain and you’ve got to create a team out of a group of individuals and each of these individuals has spent a fair amount of money. They have very high expectations. All that pressure is then on the guide, this financial investment and the expectation of success. You start with a group of six or twelve people and you’re like, “I’ve got to do my very best to get all these people to the top,” but things start to happen. Some people aren’t as prepared, some people don’t acclimatize, and some people don’t listen to your teachings. How can you be more efficient? Things start to fall apart very quickly in the mountains. It’s this whole can of worms that you’ve got to deal with as a guide. I see that and I saw that in ‘96 on Everest. The financial investment on the client’s part is huge. They’re each paying $50,000. You multiply that by six, and you look at a guide like Rob or Scott and they go, “Wow.” Does that trickle into how they make their decisions? It probably does. Whereas I’ve always felt, “I’ve got to blind myself from that investment.” Whether I’m guiding somebody on Rainier or Mt. Everest, my rules have to be the same. It doesn’t matter how much somebody has paid me. My job is to make smart decisions and keep them alive. You can see how that trickles into how decisions get to be made.
It’s a marketing thing too. On the website, 80% of our guys make the summit, whatever it is.
I had worked with Rob in’94, we guided together. I worked for him on Everest. We had six customers, we got all six to the summit, 100%success. Rob used that in his marketing. “Come with me.” You get people to sign up with you. We go again in 1995, I’m with Rob again, we had six clients, we turned around 300 feet from the summit. 0% success. Here comes 1996. Rob needed success. He really did. There’s Scott, who is now his first trip to Everest with clients, to elevate his business to the next level. If he had success, wow. He had that pressure. Your mountaineering rules start to get infringed upon by business, and that’s what happens.
You said you were at 300 feet. I know what that is on a football field, but in Everest distance, how long does it take?
It’s a couple of hours. To gain that altitude and then to get back to where you are, that’s three hours. If you’re with a group of clients and some of them are already starting to falter, the weather’s starting to change, you have to think about, “From here to the summit and back is three hours. How much is that going to consume into the energy of my clients, into the oxygen, into the good weather?” All that stuff you have to calculate. You can’t wait until it’s too late. You can’t say, “We can maybe get to the summit and then we’ll figure it out on the way down.” It’s too late. Most accidents occur on Everest on the way down, and you wonder why. Because by then, people have used more of their energy than they have, more of their oxygen than they should have used, more of the daylight, all those things. You’re fried and you’re barely hanging in there. Then you throw a storm into the mix and then the house of cards falls apart. That’s what I call it, this house of cards that you’re slowly building. If it gets too tall and too teetery, it just takes one little thing to push it over and it collapses.
On to the happier things with the movie. It does keep going. It became one of the biggest movies of all time in terms of an IMAX film. Did you go on the world tour circuit and promoted and do all those things?
We did. We were asked afterward to help go to openings. David went to some cities. I went to some cities. Araceli, she was from Spain, so she did the European thing. We were asked to and we got paid to go to the promotional opening. We would open the show, we would talk about our experiences, they would show the film and then we would do Q&A. It was a big thing because Into Thin Air had been published. A big part of why people came to this film is they wanted to see, “Are there more answers to my questions if I go to this movie? Why did all this happen? What happened?”
You and I are both Seattle guys, fellow Huskies too. I saw it down by the Seattle Center, they have an IMAX theatre down there.
The Pacific Science Center. They had built that facility and we did the grand openings for the facility with the film. It was huge. I basically lived there for two weeks. Every night, there was an opening. Every afternoon, there was some function. I was coming and going and coming and going and I did all of those.
Do you still have a role with Eddie Bauer?
I do. In 2006, I was invited to come on board to work at Eddie Bauer with a group of other guides to help design a new product line they were launching called First Ascent. It was a higher level, more technical line of clothing, packs, sleeping bags and tents. They were very innovative in thinking, “We’re going to bring on a group of people that live in this stuff, use this equipment to help the designers make something that’s great and usable.” We spent three years developing the product line, which we called First Ascent. Then in 2009 when we had everything buttoned down and ready to launch, Eddie Bauer and the people there said, “We want to send you, the team, to Everest, to launch the brand so that we can get footage, we can get imagery, we have you using the stuff you tested, the final shakedown.” That’s how I ended up going to Everest for my eleventh time.
That was my seventh ascent and I thought long and hard, “Do I want to go back to Everest again for the eleventh time?” I thought I would never go again, but I justified it. I thought, “I get to help launch this brand of equipment that I helped develop, and I could say goodbye to Everest.” I would know in my heart that that was my last climb of Everest. Never say never, but at least if it doesn’t happen again, I had a final visit, and I could say goodbye to this mountain that I had been to eleven times. It was pretty cool. We got to the summit and all the gear we developed worked. There was proof in the pudding that we knew what we were doing, and we launched this brand. First Ascent now is a solid part of Eddie Bauer.
That must have been cool for you being a mountain guy. I know you had an education as a veterinarian. It was a whole new field for you to go into, but at the same time, you know what works and doesn’t work. Even though you don’t know how to sew and you’re putting feathers in your jacket, you do you know what you need when you get up in those stressful conditions.
I’d had a lot of experience with that. In 1993, I was invited to work with Mountain Hardwear. They were this brand new brand. A friend of mine and his father funded the start of the company. They invited me to be their poster boy. I grew with them and they grew with me and I was with Mountain Hardwear for ten years. I knew and they trusted me as well. They said, “Ed, what do you want? What can we make you? Even though we’re only going to maybe make one for you, we’re going to learn something about how to put something together easier, better, simpler, and more functional.” They take advantage of the knowledge that we have of how to make something very functional and useful.
Are you guiding still?
I am still guiding a little bit. I still do a couple of a Climb with Ed on Rainier every summer because I have enough people that are interested. They want to sign up with me, so it’s more of a celebrity type trip, but that’s the guiding that I do right now.
The other stuff you’re doing is public speaking?
Yeah. I do a lot of corporate events, motivational speaking events. It’s interesting now that the business world is looking at mountains as a great metaphor. We’re all striving for something. We’re all trying to reach a higher goal. We have to do it as a team. We have to have leadership. We have to evaluate risk. The financial industry loves the risk assessment of what we do in the mountains, when to go, when not to go. Financial investors, they’ve got clients that might be pressuring them to make decisions just like we do, so it translates in many different ways. The business world loves to bring somebody from outside the box. Not somebody that went to school to learn how to talk about something, but somebody that’s lived it and then shows amazing, beautiful pictures and tells some stories and people walk away inspired.
[Tweet “The business world loves to bring somebody from outside the box.”]
You’re obviously this way times 1,000 but when people get up to speak, there are two ways you do it. There are great speakers like a Tony Robbins or a Bob Costas or somebody who are very fantastic storytellers on talking about what other people have done. When I talk and when you talk, it’s about personal experience, how that relates into real world stuff. I’ve always preferred to be that guy. I want to be out there getting my hands dirty and figuring it out. It’s rewarding for me. Not taking anything away from anybody else, but I know that you are in that same path too.
I never envisioned myself being a motivational speaker. When I was climbing I thought, “Why would I do that?” It was after the IMAX film and after what I did in the 8,000-meter peaks, I started to get invited by CEOs and presidents that might have heard the story or seen the film or read my books and said, “These are great messages. I want you to come talk to my team about what you experienced because they can learn from you. They can see what’s achievable. They can learn how to work together as a team, and do something day by day and overcome obstacles.” It slowly, organically, turned into what I do now never thinking this is what I would do.
Your home is in Sun Valley, right?
Yeah. I travel in and out from Sun Valley. I’m home five or six days a week, and then I’ll go on the road for two or three days and then I come home and that’s my life. It’s great.
Are you still climbing crazy mountains?
Not the crazy, not the big. I decided after Annapurna, that I can pull it back a few notches, but there’s always that question I get now, especially after Annapurna, people go, “What’s next?” They think you’ve achieved this amazing goal, you’re going to try to outdo yourself. That’s what the athlete goes through. When you retire, people are like, “What do you mean?” It’s a hard thing to do. Not that I retired, but I thought I did the big mountains, I managed the risk, I survived an eighteen-year journey. I don’t need to outdo that. I can be happy with that. I can climb smaller mountains and I got to travel to places I didn’t have time to go to. I went to Antarctica. I did a couple of trips to Baffin Island. I kept adventuring, but in different ways.
That’s something I had to do after my NFL days and I started some different businesses. I fell into this place where I needed to re-invent myself. I didn’t do that for anybody else besides myself and didn’t talk about it for probably four years until I was down in Argentina. I decided to broadcast my journey and this has taken me to doing these podcasts and public speaking and other things I do in my life. There’s not going to be a seven dot. It’s going to be dot, dot, dot. Maybe I’m skiing to the North and South Pole or maybe I’m doing some of these other things that you talked about or you and I can do a Rainier trip together. The journey continues, it’s a matter of what that color looks like.
When I came off of Annapurna, for me it was one of the greatest days of my life, having accomplished what I did, thinking I might never be able to do this, it might not work out, and I did. I was so proud that I kept plugging along and I succeeded. On the other hand, I was like, “It’s done. This thing that has consumed me day in and day out for eighteen years, it’s gone.” There was a big hole and I had to fill it differently and decide I am content with what I did. Don’t be tempted to try to outdo that because it gets dangerous in my sport. If you try to do things for other reasons other than yourself, there’s the expectation of, “What do my sponsors think? The media is no longer following me.” All those things that you get used to, you got to let it go. It’s hard to do.
You’re a smart man and you’ve got a wife and some kids and those are important in your life, I know. There are many different colors to what adventure looks like. Where can people find you?
My website, EdViesturs.com. It’s got my phone number, it’s got my email. People call and I lift up the phone and they think I have a staff of people. They can’t believe I pick up the phone. I have several books out. The most popular is called No Shortcuts to the Top. A lot of people have read it and they love it. It crosses all genres. You don’t have to be a climber to like the stories. I talk about not only what we did, but how. What do we eat? How do we go to the bathroom? What does it mean to walk away 300 feet from the summit of a mountain? I take people on a journey. There are a lot of stories in there as well.
I love it. I’ve listened to the book through audio. I’ve read three of your books. You are certainly a big reason why today I’m in the mountains and I love it. I’ve got great appreciation for you on that note. I look forward to hopefully climbing with you again one day.
Yeah, we should. It would be great. Thanks.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode: