Ed Viesturs has just accomplished something that no other American has ever done. He has completed a 16-year quest to reach the summit of all 14 of the Earth's highest mountains.
"One of the happiest days of my life, one of the hardest days in my life," Viesturs said Thursday from the summit of Annapurna, at an altitude of nearly 27,000 feet in the Himalayas.
When he arrived back at base camp today, 13,000 feet below, he said: "I always tell people when you're on the summit you're only half done. I'm finally done and it's an amazingly joyful feeling."
Viesturs, 44, can now say he has accomplished one of the most challenging human endeavors there is. Each of the 14 peaks he climbed is more than 26,000 feet high.
Communing With Annapurna
Annapurna is the 10th-highest peak in the world. Viesturs had tried to summit two years ago. He began climbing, but decided to turn back before he got there.
"Climbing is physical and it's mental as well," he said. "You have to use all of your senses, all of your abilities to see if the mountain will let you climb it."
Climbers know that most living things don't live long high up on the mountains. "You've got to listen to what the mountain is telling you and know when it's the right time to go up and when it's time to go down," Viesturs said.
Most climbers use supplemental oxygen when they go up these high mountains. But Viesturs doesn't.
"I always felt that if I'm coming to climb a mountain that's 26,000 feet or 29,000 feet, I want to climb it under its own terms and for me that rule meant that I would not use supplemental oxygen simply to go to the summit," he said. "For me it was more important how I got to the summit."
Viesturs has submitted Mount Everest six times and he has come face to face with tragedy. He was on Everest in May 1996, when eight people died in the deadliest single incident in the mountain's climbing history.
"There's no room for error. Every minute you're up there, you're moving closer toward death," he said.
Viesturs was able to make it to safety, but his old climbing partner Rob Hall was stranded on the mountain. Viesturs made radio contact with Hall desperate to get him to safety.
"I was speaking to Rob throughout the morning, trying to coerce him or motivate him or stimulate him or somehow get him moving," he recalled. Hall never made it down.
"I was choked up half the time, trying -- knowing that he was just sitting there, and at some time -- points, we were trying to be angry with him, to say, "Rob, get your butt up and move," Viesturs said.
Viesturs grew up in the flatlands of Rockford, Ill., where he says the highest objects on the horizon were water towers. When he was a teenager he read a book about Annapurna. The book changed his life.
He moved out West and although he became a licensed veterinarian, he says he was really there for the mountains.
He became a guide at 14,000-foot Mount Rainier and submitted 187 times.
When he's not climbing, Viesturs lives on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. When he went up on Annapurna, his family waited anxiously for word he was safe.
When asked about his future plans, Viesturs said: "I'm going to hug my wife and my kids and kind of kick back and enjoy the summer. I don't think anything's gonna bother me for the next six or eight months, I'm very very happy."