Book Review: “The Mountain: My Time on Everest” by Ed Viesturs

by Kraig Becker

Ed Viesturs is arguably the most accomplished American mountaineer of all time. In 2005 he became is the first – and, to date, only – American to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8000-meter peaks, accomplishing that feat without the use of supplemental oxygen. His career has spanned the better part of three decades and has taken him to some of the most remote and challenging mountains on the planet. His resume includes more than 200 summits of Mt. Rainier, as well as successful climbs on both Denali in Alaska and Vinson in Antarctica amongst numerous others. He is a veteran of more than 30 climbs in the Himalaya alone, including 11 to Mt. Everest, a mountain that he has successfully summited on seven separate occasions. All of that experience on the world’s highest peak makes Viesturs an expert on Everest, which just so happens to be the subject of his latest book which arrives in bookstores today. 

The Mountain: My Time on Everest (Touchstone Publishing -$27) which Viesturs co-wrote with long time collaborator David Roberts, is Ed’s personal account of his numerous expeditions to the most iconic and well known mountain on the planet. His Everest adventures began back in 1987 when he was part of a group of mountain guides attempting to assist a commercial team in reaching the summit. It was his first trip to the Himalaya and even then he knew he wanted to summit in as pure a fashion as possible, which meant scaling the mountain without the use of oxygen. On that expedition Viesturs came within 200 feet of the summit before turning back, which at the time was a very tough decision to make. But that trip taught him a couple of important lessons that would stick with him over the for the course of his career. The first was that it was important to always trust his instincts and the other was that the mountain would still be there waiting for him to come back to try again at another time.

And come back to Everest he did. As mentioned, this was just the first of 11 expeditions to the mountain and in the years that followed Viesturs managed to reach the highest point on the planet on seven different occasions. His first successful summit didn’t come until 1990 on when he was on his third attempt. Upon reaching his goal, Ed thought he’d never be back there again, but over the years he found himself scaling the peak from both the North and South sides six more times en route to an incredibly storied career.

The bulk of the stories that make up The Mountain are from Ed’s various visits to Everest – a peak that he speaks of in reverent terms despite the fact that there are others that he has found much more difficult to climb. Some of his feelings about the mountain are no doubt the result of him being there back in 1996 when eight people lost their lives attempting to climb its perilous slopes. Amongst them were Scott Fisher and Rob Hall, two mountain guides who were close friends. The events of that season were famously chronicled by Jon Krakauer in his seminal work of mountaineering literature Into Thin Air and to a lesser extent in Ed’s first book No Shortcuts to the Top. He doesn’t spend a lot of time rehashing the subject here, but it is clear that the 1996 season – the deadliest on record up until that point – still casts a rather large shadow over the mountain nearly 20 years later.

The book isn’t just about Ed’s Everest exploits however. He and Roberts do an excellent job of giving readers plenty of background information on the mountain as well. The peak’s history has always been filled with larger than life characters such as George Mallory, Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner. Mallory, who perished on the mountain with his climbing partner Sandy Irvine back in 1924, was instrumental in finding the first routes for alpinists to use on their way to the summit. His work helped pave the way for Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to complete the first successful climb  of the mountain in 1953 – 29 years after Mallory’s death. A couple of decades after that, Messner would come along and set the entire mountaineering world on its ear once again by climbing without oxygen and making a solo summit of the massive peak. While The Mountain wasn’t written to be a definitive work on the history of Everest, it does provide just enough information to give readers all the knowledge they need without overwhelming them in the process.

Viesturs and Roberts have a very approachable style to their writing which makes this an easy book to read even for those who don’t have a vast background in high-altitude mountaineering. On occasion there are references made that may not be immediately understood by readers new to the mountaineering world, but for the most part everything blends well within the context of the story that is being told. The book is filled with tales of Ed’s experiences on the mountain which ranged from at times incredibly harrowing to hilariously funny. Everest is a mountain that has had an undeniable impact on Viesturs’ life and each chapter reveals yet another layer of the relationship that he has had with Everest over the years.

Beyond all of that, this book is Ed’s love letter and farewell to Everest, the one Himalayan peak he has spent more time on than any other. He notes in the latter part of the book that as he has gotten older, met and married his wife and started a family, it became increasingly more difficult to leave them behind as he went off in pursuit of another 8000-meter summit. In 2009 he made his last visit to the world’s tallest mountain and it is clear that he doesn’t have any intentions of returning soon, if ever. Over the course of the years that he has been climbing there, Ed has seen the mountain evolve from a quiet place reserved for only the best mountaineers to an incredibly busy destination with hundreds of climbers going up its slopes each spring. As a result, the atmosphere in base camp is very different now then it was back in 1987 when he first visited. Not better or worse, just very different.

If you’re an Everest junkie who simply can’t get enough news and information on that mountain, you’re sure to love Ed’s book. It will retread some old ground for those who are already familiar with Everest’s history, but it also focuses tightly on Ed’s own experiences there, providing personal and insightful information from his expeditions. If you’ve never read a mountaineering book before but are looking for something to pull you into the genre, then The Mountain will be a great starting point. It is written in an engaging, approachable manner that will have you turning the pages just to find out what happens next. It is a fast read that you’re likely to blitz through quickly but it is also a very satisfying one as well.

Whether you routinely visit the Himalaya on your own adventures or find yourself out of wind simply going up a flight of stairs, whole heartedly recommend this book. Pick it up in stores today, you wont’ be disappointed.