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Originally published May 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 13, 2005 at 3:31 PM

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Bainbridge Island climber on top of the world

From the summit, Ed Viesturs offered up a single word to describe 26,545-foot Annapurna, the last of the world's tallest peaks on his 16-year-old...

Seattle Times staff reporter

From the summit, Ed Viesturs offered up a single word to describe 26,545-foot Annapurna, the last of the world's tallest peaks on his 16-year-old to-do list:

"Relentless."

It is, friends and colleagues say, an equally apt description of the man who climbed it.

Just as he had long predicted, climbing Nepal's Annapurna — the Bainbridge Islander's final step on a quest to become the first American to climb the world's 14 highest mountains — required all the skill and strength he had acquired on a career now certain to go down in the record books.

"It's one of the happiest days of my life, one of the hardest days of my life," Viesturs, 45, said at the end of a radio call yesterday to the team's base camp. The call was later posted on an MSN Web site.

Viesturs and longtime climbing partner Veikka Gustafsson of Finland arrived safe and sound back at Annapurna's base camp at about 6 p.m., Nepal time, today, after a long descent all the way from their upper camp, according to MSN.

"It's a great and exciting day for me," Viesturs said in a satellite-phone dispatch posted online. "This mountain is very difficult to climb. There's no easy way, there's no relatively safe way. I'm very happy to say I'm now done with my quest."

Their summit climb, made alongside four Italian climbers, took 19 hours, a perilously long time at high altitude and about twice as long as expected. It began at 3 a.m. yesterday Nepal time (2:15 p.m. Wednesday PDT) at the group's 22,500-foot-high camp, where the climbers had been trapped in tents since Monday by winds reaching 80 mph. It ended around 10 p.m. in the same place.

The wind, which had pounded Himalayan peaks all week, relented somewhat, but remained strong through much of the climb. Dangerous crevasses also slowed the climbers' progress to the summit, finally reached after an 11-hour ascent, Viesturs' wife, Paula, said yesterday from their home on Bainbridge Island.

On top of it all: brutally steep terrain and bitter cold, so daunting that one of the Italians, noted alpinist and group leader Silvio Mondinelli, turned back several hours into the climb because of concerns about frostbitten toes.

Viesturs, who had been turned away from avalanche-riddled Annapurna twice before, in 2000 and 2002, simply did what he has made a career of doing: reached for that fabled Viesturs overdrive gear, and charged on.

"It's been cold, pretty steep the whole way," he said in yesterday's radio dispatch, between long, deep breaths. "Kind of relentless. Not many places to sit down. Kind of a long, hard day."

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But he still had the presence of mind to describe the view from the top: "pretty phenomenal."

Viesturs credited the Italian climbers, who have been on Annapurna for six weeks awaiting clear weather, with making the summit possible by fixing ropes along much of the route. And he praised Gustafsson for breaking trail in the snow for the second half of the summit climb.

"It was a very, very long day of continuous climbing," Viesturs said in today's phone call from base camp dispatch. "For me, the climb was not completely over or successful until we arrived here at basecamp. There's no way I could be totally excited or totally happy until we stepped foot here in base camp and took our boots off."

The descent from the summit of Annapurna can be as hairy as the climb.

Avalanches are a constant threat, and are probably even more prevalent on the mountain's middle and lower slopes than its top, notes Himalayan guide Eric Simonson, a longtime colleague of Viesturs who saw three team members killed on the mountain in 1979. Their bodies were never recovered.

A band of ice cliffs at around 23,000 feet frequently spits off automobile-sized chunks, and the pattern is random, with little regard to weather or snowfall, Simonson notes. Climbers ascending or descending Annapurna must pass below them.

"You hate to admit it, but there is an element of luck in these trips," he said.

Viesturs credits a bit of that luck, along with careful planning and knowing when to quit, as keys to success in his quest to climb the world's 14 highest peaks. The feat places him in the pantheon of mountaineering's all-time legends.

Only 11 other climbers have climbed all 14. On each mountain, Viesturs refused bottled oxygen, which he characterizes as "a bit of a crutch."

Only five humans are thought to have climbed all 14 peaks without strapping on oxygen bottles. The first was famed Tyrolean climber Reinhold Messner, who did it in 1986, sparking a climbing revolution in quick, light, "alpine-style" ascents of big peaks.

But not even Messner can claim one of Viesturs' accomplishments: Because he has climbed some of the peaks more than once, the Annapurna climb was Viesturs' 22nd summit of an 8,000-meter (26,240 feet) peak, a mark believed to be unequaled by any other climber, living or dead.

"It's incredible," said Jim Whittaker, the first American to the summit of 29,035-foot Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, in 1963.

"Nobody deserves it more than he does. He's a great guy, and a good example for American mountaineering."

He's also something of a freak. Lab tests have revealed Viesturs' lung capacity to be 20 percent greater than in other humans of similar size. This advantage, jokingly referred to by Viesturs as supercharged Latvian blood, has given him the ability to think clearly at high altitude, and to keep moving when other climbers drop.

"He's a real animal," Whittaker said. "He was always strong. And smart, too. That's one of the reasons it's taken him a while to get this last one. He's turned back from it [before]. As he says, the summit is optional, but to get down is mandatory. He's smart enough to know that — and still be climbing because of it."

Soft-spoken and quick to smile, Viesturs is a native of Rockport, Ill., who finished veterinary school at Washington State University while guiding on Mount Rainier in the 1980s.

Viesturs claimed his first Himalayan peak, 28,169-foot Kangchenjunga, in 1989. The following year, he was handpicked by Whittaker, one of his heroes, for the 1990 Everest International Peace Climb.

Viesturs turned down a chance to be on the first summit team on Everest's North Face that year, because Whittaker wanted all first-team members to use oxygen bottles to ensure success.

"Sure enough, he climbed the mountain without it" in the second group, recalls Whittaker, 76. "Then he just went out and knocked off all the others."

The Everest climb convinced Viesturs he could tackle the rest of the world's 8,000-meter peaks the same way, a concept unthinkable to climbers of Whittaker's era.

His closest brush with death came two years later, climbing K2, perhaps the world's most dangerous mountain, with fellow West Seattleite Scott Fischer. The two climbers, roped together in a whiteout on their descent, were swept from the mountain in an avalanche and nearly tumbled into oblivion.

Viesturs managed to anchor himself and halt the plunge. The harrowing experience shaped his approach to climbing thereafter.

Viesturs, who has followed Messner's strategy of minimizing exposure to avalanches and weather by traveling light and fast, seems guided by a climber's sixth sense. He turned back less than 20 vertical feet below two major Himalayan summits because snow conditions seemed wrong — then returned to climb each years later, when conditions seemed right.

"No summit is worth dying for," he often says. "I do this for fun."

That takes a degree of restraint few Himalayan climbers, often addled by thin air and driven by their own hubris, have been able to muster. Some of Viesturs' peers are now dead, including friends Fischer and New Zealand climber Rob Hall, both of whom froze to death high on Mount Everest in the infamous "Into Thin Air" snowstorm that killed eight climbers nine years ago this month.

Viesturs, on Everest at the time with an expedition shooting an IMAX movie, helped evacuate victims after the storm and was the first climber to reach the bodies of Fischer and Hall after deciding to return to the summit himself a week later.

He later said he made that climb, his fifth ascent of Everest, to make a personal statement that big peaks are not, inherently, killers — climbers' mistakes on them are.

He has said he planned to enter semi-retirement if he bagged Annapurna, traveling to other, smaller mountains to climb for fun, recreation and adventure, perhaps with his son Gil, 7.

"There are a lot of other mountains I want to climb," he said before departing for this expedition. "And they're not all 8,000 meters."

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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