U.S. Climber Now Only One Peak Away From Record

Johnna Rizzo
for National Geographic News
June 25, 2003

Editor's note: Yesterday climber Ed Viesturs summited Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth highest mountain. The feat makes Viesturs the first American to climb 13 of the 14 world's tallest peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen. Viesturs will next set his sights on Annapurna, the final summit in his quest to climb all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter (26,000-foot) peaks.

At five feet ten inches (178 centimeters), Ed Viesturs' frame fits snugly into his six-foot-ten-inch (208-centimeter) tent, with just enough wiggle room so that his feet and head don't touch the sides. An ill-fitting tent means cold feet from pressing against tent walls and leaks created by sudden kicks in the night. It's just high enough so that he can sit up to cook. Six inches (15 centimeters) from his face sleeps J.C. LaFaille, his partner for his assault on Nanga Parbat, at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet) the world's ninth highest peak.

It's a big mountain to have summitted, and a big year to summit it—the 50th anniversary of its first successful ascent, achieved on July 3, 1953, by Hermann Buhl, just a month after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Everest. In the 1930s, the Germans were desperately trying to climb it and, due in large part to a significant German death toll in the early years of summit attempts, the mountain has a bad track record and a poor ratio of successes to deaths, roughly three to one. (By 2001, there were 186 summits and 61 deaths; 31 of these occurred before the first successful summit.)

And Buhl's success story is a classic among harrowing ascents. From high camp he went alone. He climbed for 18 hours, then had to stop on descent due to nightfall. He spent the night standing on a ledge above 8,000 meters—in the Death Zone. All told, he was gone from camp for just over 40 hours.

A "Classic Mountain"

Viesturs calls Nanga Parbat "a classic mountain, big and beefy." Also known as the "Naked Mountain"—because it stands on its own, not near other mountains—it creates its own weather. Because of its verticality, a climber goes up in altitude very quickly. And on a sunny day, Viesturs is quick to point out, the snow can be shed frequently. If that happens, he advises, "hunker down, get off the mountain, wait for the snow to shed, then go up."

He makes it look easy. Humbly, Viesturs acknowledges that for him it is physiologically easier. VO2 max is an equation that represents the lung's oxygen capacity. In an average person, this would be about 50 liters per kilogram. For Ed Viesturs, this number is 70.

Though not necessary for climbing without oxygen (Reinhold Messner did it with very regular levels of lung volume; Viesturs adds, "he had the will"), this translates directly to his body being able to work better at high altitudes. Where most people would go anaerobic at 50 percent of their VO2 max, Viesturs holds out until 88 percent.

Since Everest has, for example, about one-third of the oxygen of normal elevations, his physiology is perfectly suited to make the most efficient use of the oxygen he has in his lungs. Combined with training and focus, that makes for a more lucid, thoughtful climber, even without the use of supplemental oxygen.

"With every step you take, you've got to feel good about taking that next step. Some people have tunnel vision when they're climbing; they're looking straight to the top. But everything else matters—snow conditions, time of day—you're constantly digesting information. I thankfully have never had to turn around because of my own physical condition, but it may just feel bad. You have to go with your instinct. Don't question it. Ultimately, it's the mountain that tells you when to go up."

Negotiating Risks

When asked how the recent war and international terrorism affected his climbing plans, Viesturs shrugs thoughtfully. "People realize that it's the governments warring. I just want to go climbing." He acknowledges that Pakistan has always been a little more difficult to travel in, but emphasizes there are no difficult climbing restrictions—the government wants to sell permits in order to raise money.

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