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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

The BACKPACKER Q&A: Ed Viesturs

by: Trent Knoss

Approaching the South Col  (© Eddie Bauer First Ascent/Jake Norton)
Approaching the South Col (© Eddie Bauer First Ascent/Jake Norton)

Ed Viesturs is widely considered to be Americas most accomplished mountaineer. He has summited all fourteen of the worlds highest peaks without supplemental oxygen and reached the top of Everest seven times, most recently in 2009. His new book, The Mountain: My Time on Everest, is out this month and he chatted with BACKPACKER about gear evolution, risk management, and the next wave of ambitious Himalayan climbs.

BACKPACKER: The book includes several historical accounts of famous (and infamous) Everest expeditions. What surprised you the most in the course of researching these sections?

ED VIESTURS: Even before I started climbing Everest, I was always intrigued by mountaineering history. Id read all the books, but hadnt absorbed them the way I did this time when I was trying to pick out cool nuggets about all the amazing stories. We went pretty deep into the Polish winter climb and I did much more reading on Mallory. I read Into the Silence by Wade Davis its a massive book but you really get to know Mallory better: who he was, what drove him. And so I think I got to know all of those amazing characters in a little better light, see what those guys went through in more detail. Moments like the [1975 Southwest face] climb, on that final summit day when Peter Boardman just barely crawled back into camp that night and broke into tears. It just showed me what those guys were willing to do and how hard they had to push. Any other level of climber probably wouldnt have survived something like that. Just amazing people doing amazing things.

BP: Sounds like it gave you a real window into the psychology of the mountainand what keeps climbers coming back year after year.

EV: Right, its such an allure. Its magnetic. When we were thinking of a title for this book, I said, lets just call it The Mountain because if you ask most people on the planet to name the first mountain they think of, theyre probably going to say Everest. And you really have to push yourself physically and mentally to climb that thing. Even for people who do whats called the normal route, with oxygen, its not a given that youll make it. Everything has to fall into place. Youve got to be strong, youve got to be healthy and motivated and the mountain has to allow you to get to the top.

BP: High-altitude mountaineering gear has evolved quite a bit the past half-century. In your mind, whats been the single biggest improvement?

EV: Id say going from leather boots to the newer plastic double boots. Leather was way heavier, and once it got wet, it would freeze. In the morning, youd have to spend a couple hours in your tent just trying to thaw your boots out. Because of that improvement, frostbite has decreased and youre able to climb a little faster without as much weight. People still get frostbitten feet, but to a lesser extent. Thats one of the bigger ones. But relatively speaking, you do the best with what you have at a certain time. Look back to what they were wearing in the 20s, when they didnt really have specifically made climbing gear. They just went out and bought the thickest wool 2-piece suit that they could find. Underneath, they wore six or seven layers of underwear. And they got very high on the mountain with that! Fifty years from now, I think people are going to look back on what were wearing today and theyll ask, my god, how did they climb Everest in 2009 wearing just that?

BP: Tell us a little about how your time on Everest has shaped your personal perception of risk.

EV: I was always what you might call risk-averse. Starting out, I thought that the key to climbing mountains was to be a risk manager. Youve got to accept a certain amount of risk, of course, some objective dangers that you cant control. But a lot of the things that go wrong are subjective, like making decisions. At the end of the day, what is the ultimate goal? A lot of people just want to get to the top, but for me, my ultimate goal was always to get down. When youre younger, when youre still learning, maybe you dont know that youre making a bad decision. But even when I was single, before I was married and before I had kids, I decided I was going to do my very best to manage the risk. I always felt that I was very conservative and surrounded myself with people that I felt were also conservative. And if they werent, if they were doing things in a riskier way than I wanted to, then I didnt tend to gravitate toward those kinds of climbers. I didnt want to be in situations where wed have a conflict and somebody would have to push somebody into a situation they didnt want to be in.

BP: How does that philosophy tie in to your relationships with fellow Everest climbers?

EV: The first expeditions I went on in the Himalaya, I was invited by fellow guides who were more senior than me. That was great, because guides have always been trained to be very safe. Safety is our priority. I saw how youre always thinking about contingency plans and always going, OK, things are going great right now, but if something were to happen, how do I get out of that situation? They were always thinking about stuff before it would happen and I learned from those guides. Then when I started to climb on my own and put together my own teams, I said that those were the kind of people I want to surround myself with. People with the same level of acceptable risk, people who thought, hey, its not just about the summit, its about the round trip.

BP: Probably extra important in a day and age when Everest has gotten very crowded.

EV: There a lot of people up there these days, its a mixed bag, and thats a factor of commercialization. But I dont want to pooh-pooh the people that are signing up as clients. Theres this perception that clients that go to Everest dont have any right or reason to be there when for the most part, theyve worked their way up the ladder. For them, Everest is the pinnacle of their amateur career and theyre not buying their way to the top. No ones pulling them to the top. You have to put one foot in front of the other just like any trained professional climber. And even highly trained climbers make mistakes on Everest.

BP: In the book, you mention that Fantasy Ridge and the Horseshoe Traverse might be projects for elite Everest climbers in coming years. Whatll it take to complete those extremely difficult routes?

EV: I think were getting close to somebody trying to pull one of those climbs off. Its going to be super long, super hard, and youre going to have to have a team of highly trained physically fit climbers, probably without supplemental oxygen. I dont think theres any way you could carry that amount of equipment. Im not sure if people are going to want to pre-place camps, but maybe thats the first step: spend a month or two just placing camps from a lower angle and then somebody can traverse it. But I think the whole idea with Horseshoe is to do it alpine style. To be acclimatized, find a window of weather, and then just go. There will probably be some people who try it soon, though I dont know if itll be in the next five years or not. I think a comparable route that someone just climbed was the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat. Its not as high, but it was definitely very long and they just camped along the way and went alpine style. I think thats the way itll get done. I dont think itll happen on the first try. People are going to have to experiment and see how long will it take, how technical will it be, and if we can survive up there for however many days it takes.

BP: Whats up next for you personally in 2014?

EV: Im still doing guiding on Mount Rainier and working quite a bit with Big City Mountaineers to help raise money for them. Im leading a fundraiser on Mount Hood in June and then another fundraiser on Mont Blanc in July. And there are a few other ideas I have, opportunities that might pop up, but until they come to fruition, I dont like to talk about them too much. [chuckling] Otherwise, itll be, you know, well, Ed said hed do it!

The Mountain: My Time on Everest is available now from Touchstone Books.

[Editors Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and punctuation.]

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