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July 30, 2010

The Wrong Stuff: Mountaineer Ed Viesturs on Making Mistakes

Kathryn Schulz's new book, "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error," was published last month.

Excerpts from Viesturs' interview with Schulz which appeared in Slate on June 14, 2010 follow.


You've written that the worst mistake of your climbing career occurred on K2which 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 likedaaaaaaahhh! 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."

July 30, 2010 at 05:01 PM | Permalink


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"but there are no old, bold mountain climbers"

Willi Unsoeld.

"In 1976 Unsoeld and his daughter Nanda Devi were on an expedition to climb her namesake mountain Nanda Devi, the second highest peak in India. His daughter died during the climb, which was plagued by accidents and eventual tragedy. Asked at his home (where a picture of Devi was over the fireplace) how he could continue climbing after losing his daughter, Willi responded: "What -- you want me to die of a heart attack, drinking beer, eating potato chips, and watching a golf tournament on TV???"[4]
Unsoeld died in an avalanche during a winter climb of Mt. Rainier in March 1979 at the age of 52. He was leading an Evergreen student climb at the time and died descending from their high camp in Cadaver Gap along with one student, Janie Diepenbrock.[5]
Jolene Unsoeld and their two sons, Krag and Regon, reside in Olympia, Washington, where Evergreen is located." http://bit.ly/aqZDXQ

Krag has been a friend since '74.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Aug 1, 2010 1:25:00 AM

Ed is a bulldozer of a man. I've never seen anybody with his abilities at altitude. I've climbed to 18,700 on two occasions and been involved in the rescue of a stranded climber on my first ascent. That said, I've never climbed anything higher and 18700 is a serious challenge.

K2 has killed so many fine climbers that it is just a combination of good judgment, good conditions, good conditioning and luck to survive that peak. Hell, I'd undertake the North Face of the Eiger in bad weather, ten times, before I'd give even a passing thought to K2.

Oh, Joe - did you know that Ed is a DVM?

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jul 30, 2010 6:44:58 PM

I've always been fascinated by that extreme mountain climbing stuff, and I have no idea why - I've never scaled anything higher than Stone Mountain (large lump of granite in metro Atlanta area with Confederate soldiers carved into one side, at least partially done by Gutzon Borglum [spelling?] - the guy who did Rushmore) in my whole life, and I'm terrified of heights, too. Way back, I read Tenzing Norgay's book, "Tiger of the Snows" (Tenzing was the Sherpa who reached the summit of Everest with Hilary in the 50's), I think it was called, and I learned all about things like moraines and cravasses and cornices & whatnot. Great read.

Posted by: Flautist | Jul 30, 2010 6:16:16 PM

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