September 17, 2018
Blast from the past: The Wrong Stuff — Mountaineer Ed Viesturs on making mistakes
You've written that the worst mistake of your climbing career occurred on K2 — which is a bad place for a mistake, given its reputation as the deadliest mountain in the world. Can you describe what happened?
I was with two other climbers trying to make the summit, and we'd had to sit at our high camp for three nights waiting for the weather to clear. Finally we had what we thought was a window of opportunity, so we started climbing. About halfway into the day, the clouds below us slowly engulfed us, and it started to snow pretty heavily. I always contemplate going down even as I'm going up, and I was thinking, "You know what? Six, seven, eight, nine hours from now, when we're going down, there's going to be a tremendous amount of new snow, and the avalanche conditions could be huge."
I talked to my partners, and either I was overreacting or they were underreacting, because they were like, "What do you mean? This is fine." So I was kind of alone in my quandary. I knew I was making a mistake; I knew I should just simply go down, that I should unrope and leave my partners and let them go, but I kept putting off that decision, until eventually we got to the top. When we got down to camp that night, I was not pleased with what I had done. I'd have to say that was the biggest mistake I've ever made in my climbing career.
Really? Given the many fatal mistakes made on mountains every year, this doesn't sound so bad. You made it down safely, after all.
Yeah, but a mistake is a mistake even if you get away with it. Even though we succeeded, I don't ever want to do that again. I felt on the way down that the conditions were pretty desperate. We could've gone down in an avalanche at any minute. We just got really, really lucky. There were moments I was convinced we weren't going to make it down, when I said [to myself], "Ed, you've made the last and most stupid mistake of your life."
I think a lot of people, when they survive a situation like that, they're willing to do it again. They're like, "Well, you know I got away with it one time, I can probably get away with it again." You do that too many times and sooner or later, it's not going to work out.
Did you make more mistakes early on in your climbing career? There's that old saw about how experience is just another name for having made a lot of mistakes.
I don't really look back and say, "Oh my God, that thing I did was really idiotic, how could I have done that?" I think I always wanted to be careful. I didn't want to die in the mountains. I do think, though, that as I climbed more, I became more conservative, just because of all the things I'd learned. When you're less experienced, you don't even know about the mistakes you're making.
Speaking of conservative decisions, I heard you once turned around when you were 300 feet from the summit of Mount Everest. Three hundred feet out of, what, 29,029?
Yeah. That was my first trip to Everest, and I was like — daaaaaaahhh! You know, there's the top, I could see the top, 300 feet away. But it was the obvious decision; all the indications were that we needed to turn around, and I just realized that I was going to have to go home and come back another year. And even though it was slightly frustrating, I wasn't disappointed. If I have to turn around because of conditions beyond my control, as long as I haven't given up physically or mentally, I don't call those failures. I can live with those.
When the stakes are big, the small stuff matters.
Climbing is the small stuff. The higher you climb, the less and less chance you have of being rescued. And that's when minor mistakes have huge, huge consequences. These high-altitude mountains are one of the few places on the planet where there is literally no help. If you screw up and break a leg, it's up to your partner to get you down. If he can't, you're dead. It's one of the few places in the world where your decisions have real consequences. I think a lot of people don't ever experience that — "Man, every decision I make has a consequence right now." That's a very interesting feeling.
The majority of accidents and deaths in the mountains are what I call self-inflicted. You make bad decisions, you choose to climb in bad weather, you make a dumb mistake like not clipping into a rope or not putting on your crampons, and then in a heartbeat, it falls apart. It's those little things that you have to constantly remind yourself about. It doesn't matter if I've been doing this for 30 years; I still have to be just as careful. But I think as you do something more and more, you have the tendency to become complacent.
I'm reminded of an old saw: "There are old mountain climbers, and there are bold mountain climbers, but there are no old, bold mountain climbers."
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