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Kings of the Hill: Q & A with Ed Viesturs, The Whittakers, Seth Waterfall, Dave Hahn, & Melissa Arnot

Three generations of American mountaineering royalty discuss their sport, their fears, and their new mission: design great gear.

Any bells and whistles that you couldn’t wait to strip off?
Jim Whittaker: Underarm zippers!

Lou Whittaker: Extra weight on packs. We’re always cutting off straps.

Peter Whittaker: You know what joy it brings me to cut off a feature that doesn’t provide a function? You’re up there suffering and thinking about the things you’re carrying that you never use. It really is about simplicity and questioning everything that has ended up on a piece of gear in the last 40 years. Dave, Ed, and I sat down and asked, "Have you ever used that?" And we realized that Dave might have carried something up Everest 10 times and never used it.

Hahn: But it’s not just taking things away or adding the magic doodad. We’ve watched people struggle with zippers or Velcro when they’re cold and tired and just want to get in a pocket for something to eat. So one of our guiding principles was to think about how a zipper will work when a guy can’t use his hands.

There’s been a huge increase in activity on 8,000-meter peaks–and plenty of accidents. Should there be a test for climbers before they can go above a certain altitude?
Jim Whittaker: The less restrictions there are, the better. Mountains are the greatest playground in the world, and people should be able to be up there and test themselves.

But your own guides are occasionally put in danger because of other people’s inadequate skills. Dave, you were recently involved in a rescue on Everest. You’re not going to pass up a semiconscious climber at 27,000 feet–and that compromises your safety.

Hahn: I made a choice by going to 27,000 feet. On Everest, there are going to be less experienced climbers, and some of them may need help from time to time. I put myself there and understand [that bargain]. And who would regulate this? There aren’t too many governments that I would trust to do a good job of evaluating people’s climbing skills.

Peter Whittaker: Agreed. That is a job for mountain guides–but we have to be very careful and realistic in assessing the ability of our clients.

Okay, lightning round. Longest time trapped in a tent during a storm?
Lou Whittaker:
Eight days on K2.

Peter Whittaker: A week on McKinley.

Hahn: Four months in Antarctica.

Ed, scared of anything?
Viesturs: Avalanches. They’re hard to evaluate and unpredictable. You get caught high in a storm and wonder: "Did I put my camp in the right spot?"

Melissa, worst thing about guiding?
Lou Whittaker: Men!

Peter, Pop-Tart or ProBar?
Peter Whittaker: Oh, sugar always, Pop-Tart.

Seth, one person you’d love to guide?
Waterfall: Obama.

Finally, for any of you: A guide told me a few years ago on Orizaba that she sometimes dozes off while leading clients up long snow slopes in the dark. Any other secrets you want to share?
Hahn: I’ve fallen asleep on my feet, too, but usually with good reason. On some multiday struggles, we’ve all had to wake up and focus again. It’s kind of like falling asleep on the highway–only there are crevasses around.

Waterfall: Here’s one. I often find myself waking up at 11 p.m. to climb Rainier and wonder, "Why do I do this? I spent a lot of money on college." But then the sun comes up on the upper mountain, and the glacier gets lit with the morning light–and I go, "Okay, that’s why."

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