The people of the death zone are a small bunch, their game unique in the thin air above 8000+ meters. Image of Ed Viesturs on Annapurna summit (click to enlarge).
To survive the death zone over and over again is only for the strongest and the boldest - and the lucky ones. If you want to play here, you need to know the odds: Only twelve men have stood on the summit of the tallest mountains in the world - the 14, 8000ers. The quest takes a lifetime, if not life altogether. Statistics speak a silent message: Out of the 23 aspiring climbers (currently on the 10-13 summits list), 6 have died - 2 only in the past spring. Image of Ed Viesturs on one of his 800..
"We did not use any of the Italians supplies. Veikka and I had all of our own supplies at the high camp. We each carried our own supplies with us in 20kg packs during a 2 day push. We set up our tent below theirs which were already in place from their previous journeys." Image of Veikka in a high camp. All images courtesy of Edviesturs.com.
"Teaming up with the Italians was the most pleasant gift of all and I cannot thank them enough for their friendship and efforts - they really helped to pave the way," says Ed. Image of Silvio 'Gnaro' Mondinelli, enjoying sun and success shortly after his defeat on Anna. Nanga Parbat became Gnaro's 10th 8000er. Image courtesy of El Correo Digital.
ExWeb interview with Ed Viesturs: "Gnaro lifted me off the ground with a gigantic bear hug"
Posted: Dec 01, 2005 02:00 pm EST
(MountEverest.net) "Climbing all 14, 8000ers is nothing," some climbers argue. An argument almost always made by those with few, if any, actual 8000+ summits under their belt.
The people of the death zone are a small bunch, their game unique in the thin air above 8000+ meters. Techniques, new routes and solos are all great challenges, but when it comes to the death zone - forget elegant climbing stunts: This game is about survival and you'll be alone in a crowd of men if worse comes to worst.
The effect of altitude is noticable already from 3000 meters, but gets really serious only from 7500 meters and up - where the body no longer can adapt. <cutoff>
While it's relatively easy to walk around at 6500 meters (with proper acclimatization), at 7500 you begin to feel really weak. At 8000, you can hardly move without supplementary oxygen. Above that, every step becomes hell. Supplementary oxygen will help - but only to a certain degree. Without it, you'll have to outrun your own body to survive.
<b>The tale of the death zone</b>
Hypothermia will shut your organs down one by one, the thin air depriving your brain of reason. Still, you'll have to act swiftly and stay sharp, as the mountain throws all it has at you. And then, when all odds are stacked up against you: A steep, impossible ice-slope struck by invisible rocks catapulting with eerie shrieks through the whiteout; thunder of an avalanche releasing somewhere above; hypothermia paralyzing your brain in the deepest of depressions; and your legs refusing to take another step - that's when you'll have to find your ultimate strength - to overcome the overwhelming desire to just sit down, and slip into the arms of the infamous <i>Sweet Death.</i>
You can get away with it once, or twice - if weather and conditions are great. But to survive the death zone over and over again is only for the strongest and the boldest - and the lucky ones. If you want to play here, you need to know the odds: Only twelve men have stood on the summits of the tallest mountains in the world - the 14, 8000ers. The quest takes a lifetime, if not life altogether. Statistics speak a silent message: Out of the 23 aspiring climbers (currently on the 10-13 summits list), 6 have died - 2 only in the past Spring.
Out of the twelve lucky ones, only five did them all without supplemental oxygen. They should have been six, but one of them - Carlos Carsolio - required emergency oxygen on his descent from Makalu.
The first from the United States to enter the prestigious list of all 14, 8000ers, is American, Ed Viesturs. His 16 year long battle ended only this past May on Annapurna 1. Moreover, Ed became number five of those who did it without O2. ExWeb caught up with the climber a few weeks back, to check his thoughts after his ultimate summit. Today part 1: The climb.
<b>Interview with Ed Viesturs</b>
<b>ExWeb:</b> You have joined the worlds most exclusive club of mountaineer's: The few men to have stood atop all 14 8000+ peaks on Earth. In addition, your are one of the even fewer climbers to have done it without oxygen - only 5 ever. Your quest has lasted 16 years, occupying most of your adult life, which you put at risk every single year since the challenge began. And now it's over. How does it feel?
<b>Ed:</b> "Now that it is over I feel very satisfied and content. It was a long project and took a lot of planning, focus, training and determination. With Annapurna at the end I often doubted I could complete the goal. Annapurna was the key. Also now that it is over there is a bit of a void - this quest consumed and occupied me daily for 16 years. Now that's gone and I need to think of a new beginning."
<b>ExWeb:</b> Even Olympic Gold winners come in larger numbers than the world's top mountaineers, and although they too train for the more part of their lives for their competition - they don't have to put their lives at stake for it. Do you feel that America understand your accomplishment?
<b>Ed:</b> "Most Americans don't really understand this 8000 meter thing. It is not as mainstream as baseball, basketball, football is - these sports they see everyday on TV - they create the sports heroes in the US. They also see mountaineering as risk taking and perhaps somewhat crazy. Not many understand the preparation, training and planning that it takes to complete a climb, let alone many over several years."
<b>ExWeb:</b> Annapurna is often the last obstacle for many climbers on the 14, 8000+ quest. Difficult and dangerous, many tend to climb every other mountain before heading for the fatal Anna. You made it on your third attempt. Did she give you nightmares?
<b>Ed:</b> "Annapurna was always in my mind and was worrisome. I knew I would have to confront her at some point. After two attempts I knew her moods and was more worried, but I felt I needed to go again and see if she would allow me to climb. I had told myself that if conditions were not safe, that I would perhaps never climb Annapurna I.
<b>ExWeb:</b> To minimize your exposure on the mountain, you planned for a swift and light ascent. You pre-acclimatized on Cho Oyu and then went straight up on Anna. You climbed on the Italians rope, and used their high camp for several days before the summit push (according to a website). You are a spokesman for purity, and refuse to use oxygen, yet wasn't the climb a bit of sponging the resources of others? How much of their supplies did you use - what happened, really?
<b>Ed:</b> While we acclimatized on Cho Oyu we had no idea that anyone else was on Annapurna. We were fully prepared to find a route and fix necessary ropes on Annapurna once we arrived there. Slowly we heard that the Italians were on Annapurna and once we arrived at base camp they approached us. They were quite acclimatized, as we were at that point. They were now just waiting for good conditions to make a summit attempt and they invited us to join them. They told us that ropes were fixed in necessary places and that we were welcome to use them (what should we have done? Climbed just a few feet to the side of their route?) We welcomed their friendship and hospitality and we agreed to join them when conditions were good.
We did not use any of the Italians supplies. Veikka and I had all of our own supplies at the high camp. We each carried our own supplies with us in 20kg packs during a 2 day push. The Italians had already established their high camp many days earlier and therefore they were able to climb very light as we climbed with them to the site of high camp. We set up our tent below theirs which were already in place from their previous journeys.
<b>ExWeb:</b> Gnaro, went down on summit day, stating he didn't eat in the last 2 days (due to the altitude). Christian Gobbi, Gnaro's climbing partner, had left the high camp already the day before. He said he couldn't take the mental pressure as they were running out of resources up there. Gnaro did all the work fixing the ropes, but failed at his own summit, whilst you made it. How did that make you guys feel?
<b>Ed:</b> "Staying for three days at almost 23,000' is quite difficult - mentally and physically - especially knowing that you will also make a summit attempt. Veikka and I had both endured such long waits on previous expeditions and were able to deal with it this time as well. Eating is very difficult and it is understandable that Gnaro was not able to eat much - we did not eat much either. This was Christian's first 8000 meter peak attempt and after waiting 2 days at this altitude he no longer felt that he could, so he went down. As supplies dwindled the Italians stated to us that they had plenty if we needed anything. Had we needed to stay an extra day we probably would have borrowed one fuel canister - as it was, this was not necessary."
"During the summit day, which was quite cold and windy, everyone had difficulties in keeping their feet warm. I wore thick overboots over my climbing boots which I always do, and therefore I did not suffer as much perhaps. Gnaro could not get his feet to stay warm and so he made the wise decision to go down - he said he would make another attempt in several days. It was very sad to see him go down as we all felt he deserved the summit more than anyone that day. Veikka, myself and 3 Italians made the summit that day."
<b>ExWeb:</b> What was the climb like? Easier or more difficult than you had imagined?
<b>Ed:</b> The north face is quite complex and also quite dangerous. We only wanted to climb up the face once and then down once. We felt that in this way we could minimize the risks. Thanks to the ropes that the Italians had fixed this became a reality. Had they not done this previously we would have had to spend much more time in the dangerous face, fixing our own ropes.Once we finally climbed the face and arrived at high camp, we were willing to stay there as long as possible for the opportunity to go for the summit which then was only one days climb away. We felt that the most dangerous part was now below us and it would be safer to stay and wait rather than go down and have to come back up again."
"After the 3 days waiting at 22,500' the winds finally died enough to allow us to go for the summit. It was still quite cold and rather windy on the summit day, but manageable. The summit ascent took 11 hours - it was about 1200 meters that we still needed to climb. I had to stay focused the whole day to push higher and higher. Finally seeing the summit closing in, the surge of adrenalin gave me additional strength. Once on the summit it was a relief that we could finally stop going up! Veikka did a tremendous job during the last part of the day staying out in front - we could barely keep up to him. We were both elated to finally sit on the summit of Annapurna after three attempts together."
<b>ExWeb:</b> What were your thoughts on the top, after so many years?
<b>Ed:</b> "Joy, happiness and satisfaction. Also some concern, as we both knew the descent could be dangerous as well. We could not yet relax until we stepped completely off the mountain. It took 16 years for me to complete this quest and I had finally achieved it. There were times that I had my doubts about climbing Annapurna - I was not certain I would accept the risks and dangers just to climb the 14th peak. Conditions had to be perfect for me to make an attempt and this year everything fell into place. Teaming up with the Italians was the most pleasant gift of all and I cannot thank them enough for their friendship and efforts-they really helped to pave the way. Also this year the mountain seemed colder and more stable than what we had seen in 2000. It was a relief to have the mountain in such great conditions while we were climbing."
<b>ExWeb:</b> When did it really hit you that it was over - and you had survived? Did you feel a free man? What did your wife say?
<b>Ed:</b> We both only felt that it was over and we were safe once we stepped off the mountain near base camp the next day. There we were met by our own crew from basecamp many of our other friends including Gnaro and Christian. Gnaro lifted me off the ground with a gigantic bear hug. He seemed very happy for us as did everyone else. They all brought beer and snacks for us as we took off our climbing boots and changed to our comfortable trekking shoes which they had also brought for us. As we then wandered back to basecamp it started to snow and for me it felt like Christmas - I had just received the greatest gift of all - the summit of Annapurna. I was completely content and finally relaxed after so many years effort."
"My wife has always been a tremendous supporter of mine and has always given me inspiration and strength. She was equally happy for me and also relieved for me to be done with Annapurna. She always trusted my judgment and knew I would only make this attempt if it was reasonably safe. This climb was for her and my children as well as for myself."
<b>Find part 2 in the links section (left below images): About Christian Kuntner, Tomaz Humar, Anna vs. Everest, the money and the future.</b>
<i>On the morning of May 12, ExWeb broke the news: At 2:30 p.m., local time, Ed Viesturs and Veikka Gustafsson had reached the summit of Annapurna with Mario Merelli, Mario Panzeri, and Daniele Bernasconi, after an 11 hour push. The news came over satellite phone from Mario Merelli, relayed to ExWeb by his wife. Silvio Mondinelli did not make it to the summit due to cold. A bitter decision for the great climber, who had been instrumental in fixing ropes and paving the way for the summiteers.
Ed had been rejected by Annapurna twice already, and this season didn't start out great either: First, Ed was forced down on Cho Oyu to help Jimmy Chin who was suffering from AMS. Next, he was pinned down in Camp 3 on Annapurna for two nights, as the jet wind howled above. Two weather forecasts predicted the very high wind to continue; but one offered a glimpse of hope - a temporary decrease in winds!
With the summit, Ed Viesturs became the first American to summit all 14 8000ers - and the 12th climber in the world to accomplish that feat. He is one of only five in the world to have done it without oxygen. Ed has now also completed 20 summits in total on the world's 8000ers (Everest 6 times, Cho Oyu twice). Only Spanish climber Juan Oiarzabal has more; his Annapurna climb made him the sixth climber in the world to bag the 14 eight-thousanders on Earth. His recent K2 summit (2004) gave Juanito the world record of summiting 21, 8000+ peaks.
Ed Viesturs 45, lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington with Wife Paula, and three kids. He has summited 14 of the 14 8000ers, all without oxygen. He has six ascents of Everest, 3 times without supplementary oxygen, and Cho Oyu twice. Last year, Ed summited Everest together with Veikka Gustafsson, David Breashears, Robert Schauer, Jimmy Chin, Amy Bullard and seven climbing Sherpa's. Ed was co-expedition leader (with David Breashears) of an Everest film project for Working Title Films and Universal Pictures.
Originally, Ed wanted to be a veterinarian, "but climbing kept getting in the way, so I quit my job as a vet and started to focus entirely on climbing." He worked as a guide and also a carpenter to pay his bills, and lived cheaply in a friend's basement. Ed's long quest began in Himalaya 16 years ago, starting with Ed's first Himalayan summit - Kangchenjunga - considered by many climbers as the most difficult of the 14, 8000ers. Ed summited the mountain on May 18, 1989 climbing a variation of the British/French (Scott, Boardman, Tasker, Bettemborg) route on the West Face and North ridge.
In 1994, Ed finally set the personal goal for himself to climb the 14, 8000m peaks without oxygen. Although the dream had been born much earlier, ignited by the pages of a book: "As a kid, the book Annapurna inspired me to become a climber. Never did I think that book would have pushed me this far and for this long. It seems appropriate that Annapurna is the final 8000 meter peak."
With this ultimate summit, we asked Ed for an ultimate advice to the new generation of climbers. Here goes:
"Climb for the fun of climbing and do it only for yourself." </i>