How Mountaineer Ed Viesturs First Summited Everest Without Oxygen

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The story behind the 1990 Peace Climb up the world's tallest peak

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Ed Viesturs

On May 12, 2005, high-altitude mountaineer Ed Viesturs reached the summit of Annapurna, a peak in the Nepali Himalaya that is, in terms of summit-to-kill ratio, the deadliest mountain in the world. In doing so, he became the first American and the sixth person ever to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter-plus peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen. Known for his conservative approach to climbing—"Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory," he writes in his memoir, No Shortcuts to the Top—Viesturs once turned around a mere 300 feet from the summit of Everest. Since then, he's stood atop the world's highest mountain seven times. In 1996, as a member of the expedition filming the IMAX documentary Everest, he crested the mountain in the wake of the worst disaster in modern mountaineering history, the May 10 storm that left eight climbers dead, a story recounted in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.

He made his first successful ascent of the mountain in 1990 as part of Jim Whittaker's Everest International Peace Climb, which brought a team of American, Russian, and Chinese climbers to the summit. Here Viesturs shares sketches he drew of their ascent along the mountain's North Col route, and recounts his arduous trek—much of it solo—from Camp VI to the summit.


WE LEFT QUITE EARLY. You might leave camp at two in the morning, wearing a head lamp. It could take 12 hours to get to the top. That means at two in the afternoon you're going to be on the summit. For me that's a cut-off time. I need four hours to get from there back to my camp before it gets dark. A lot of people will climb beyond two p.m., and will have to find their way down in the dark. It's much easier to climb up in the dark, to a point, rather than coming down in the dark, where everything is spreading out below you. If you're on the summit, and you start one or two degrees to the left or the right, you're going to wind up in the wrong place.

A lot of people use all of their energy and resources—whether it's daylight or oxygen—to get to the summit. They stagger to the summit as the sun's going down, on the last bit of oxygen that they have in their tanks. How are they going to get down? There are going to be problems. There are a lot of times that people get away with it. But you never hear about the close calls.

The idea [of the Peace Climb] was to show the world that, in the midst of the Cold War, Americans, Chinese, and Russians could come together as a team and reach the top hand-in-hand, step by step, and fly the flags together from the summit. It was very symbolic. Jim's vision was that the first summit team had to be two Americans, two Russians, and two Chinese, on the top together. And that's what happened.

I told him, "Jim, I'm not using oxygen." It brings the mountain down to your level.

Jim wanted me to be part of that first summit team of six climbers. We'd have to go to the top with oxygen, to ensure we summited together, because if one or two didn't make it, his country would lose face. And I told him, "Jim, I'm not using supplemental oxygen." It brings the mountain down to your level. I don't want that. If I have to train harder or suffer more, then so be it. And if I can't get to the top without oxygen, then I'll never get to the top. I got taken off the first summit team. And I said that's fine.

The first team, which used oxygen, established Camp VII. They were going to be sleeping there. It was very high—28,000 feet. Climbing without oxygen and sleeping without oxygen, I didn't think I could spend the night at 28,000 feet. The "Death Zone" simply means that above a certain altitude, you can't live forever. You could lie in your tent, flat on your back, eat a bunch of food, drink water, and your body would still slowly wither away, because there's not enough oxygen to build tissue. So my plan was not to use that camp, to climb all the way from Camp VI to the top. We stopped there for a while, we climbed into the tent and sat there for a little bit, but we didn't spend the night.

Quite commonly, especially in the early days, people would fix ropes on the rocky parts of these climbs and you use them as hand lines. You can clip into them, you can hold on to them. The lines get weathered, tattered, so you don't really want to trust them, but you can see, oh, here's an old fixed rope. You know you're on the right route.

It's dark, and you're just seeing this cone of rock ahead of you. The first obstacle is the first step. It's an open book, and you climb up the central corner of that book. You're climbing steep terrain, and we had a fixed rope attached there, probably by the first summit team. You attach a mechanical ascender to it, and that's attached to your harness. It can slide up but it won't slide down, so if you were to fall, you've protected yourself.

Then there's the second step, where the ladder is. When Mallory and Irvine attempted Everest, they disappeared high on the mountain. The big mystery is, did they reach the summit, and then die on the way down? Did they have the ability to climb this second step? In the '70s the Chinese carried a ladder up there and attached it to a rock and it's been up there ever since. Technically, the second step is very difficult, and without that ladder it's literally impossible.

YOU'RE OVER 28,000 FEET, and to be climbing up there, without supplemental oxygen is arduous. You're taking steps in the snow, and literally between every step you breathe 18 times. You're gasping for air. I had to count those breaths. And at 15 I had to will myself to take that next step. You have to get a rhythm going and a pace. If you take 20 or 30 breaths you're going way too slow. And if you go too fast, you become hypoxic and pass out. You're just taking step after step after step. You say, I have to get from here to that rock over there.

I remember climbing through these rocks near the top. The easiest ways to climb through rock is to find snow gullies. I just found these snow gullies that were weaving their way up through these rock sections. Climbing on snow is much easier, especially when you're coming down.

I had started earlier that day with two Soviets, but they took off on their own, so for most of the day I was all by myself. When I got to the summit, it felt appropriate to be alone. I'd put all this time and energy into being there, and I didn't want to share the moment. But there was no one there to take my picture. I stuck my ice axe in the snow as a mono-pod and balanced my camera on top of it. Then I set the auto timer to take the shot. I took several since this was still the age of film and I had no idea how the photo would turn out. It's slightly overexposed, but what can you do?

I knew I wanted to climb other 8,000-meter peaks, and I said nothing could be as hard as climbing 29,000 feet. I knew it wouldn't be easy. It's like running multiple marathons: You have to train just as hard every time to do well. But I knew that physiologically I was capable of doing those others, because I was standing at 29,000 feet, and the next highest was K2, which was 28,250 feet. Technically, that was going to be another challenge. The risk management, that was going to be another challenge. There were other unknowns. But I knew that physically I was capable.

–Ed Viesturs, as told to Alex Hoyt

Read past First Drafts from Wilco, Will Shortz, Stephen King, Christo, and others.

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Alex Hoyt is a freelance writer and digital illustrator whose work has appeared in The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Architect.

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