There’s a select number of places on earth where you really, really don’t want to make a mistake. High on the list, in every sense, are the planet’s tallest mountains: the 14 peaks in the world that are more than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet).
Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest mountaineers, Ed Viesturs is one of fewer than 20 people and the only American to have climbed all of those peaks — and one of only five to have climbed them without supplemental oxygen. Nonclimbers probably know him best as the star of the 1996 IMAX movie about Mount Everest, which he has climbed seven times.
I sought Viesturs out because I was curious about the kind of attitude you develop toward error when a single mistake can easily cost you your life. I also wanted to test a hypothesis that I call “the paradox of error”: If your goal is to avoid making mistakes, then you must constantly assume that you are about to make one. That’s why fields like aviation and medicine have, at their best, a productive obsession with error. It turns out the same goes for mountaineering — or, at least, mountaineering as practiced by Viesturs. He’s totally comfortable with being wrong, he says; the important thing is that, “if you goof up, it’s in the right direction.”
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.
What kept you from acting on your knowledge that it was a mistake?
You know, I was so torn. Part of me was thinking, “Is this really as bad as I think it is?” Here you’ve spent two and a half months of your life trying to achieve a goal, and you’re within 1,000 feet of getting to the top, and it’s one of the worst times to have to make these choices. You think, “Arrrrghhhhh, you know, if I turn around right now, we’ll have to go home, we’ve spent all this time and energy, and we won’t have made it to the summit.” So that’s pulling me in one way, and then the other way is going, “Jeez, Ed, it’s going to be terrible, just turn around, just go down.”
But you didn’t.
No. I kept saying, “Well, let me go on for another 15 minutes and then I’ll decide.” And then after 15 minutes I’d say, “Let me go on another 15 minutes and then I’ll decide.” And I just couldn’t make a decision, and I put it off so long that I got to the top.
Economists call that sunk costs — when you’ve poured so much money or effort into something that it’s hard to extricate yourself, even when you should.
Right! I can see that. In fact, I’ve seen it many times. And I’d always thought, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there, how much money you’ve spent, how much energy you’ve expended. If the situation isn’t good, go down. The mountain’s always going to be there. You can always go back.
It takes a long time to climb down a mountain. I’m guessing it feels even longer when you think you’ve just made the worst — maybe the last — mistake of your life.
Yeah, my God. I mean, from the summit it took us probably four hours to get to the high camp again, and we were going down some really steep slopes that were fully loaded with snow, and visibility was zero. We were in the midst of a snowstorm, we could barely find our way down, we’re wading through snow that’s almost crotch deep, and with every step I was just like — arrrrrrrhhh! I’m thinking, “Ed, you’re gonna die.” When we got to camp, I was just so angry with myself. We got to the top, but the price was way too high.
That feeling of being angry with ourselves over a mistake we made — that can be really tough to let go of.
Yeah, but that can be a good thing. Afterward, every time I got into another situation in the mountains where I had similar feelings, I would just say, “Hey, don’t do that, don’t screw up like you did on K2.” I would say, “You know what, I’m going down,” and I would just be totally content with that decision.
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.
Let’s talk about guiding. When you’re leading a climb, instead of just acting as a member of a team, the stakes of making a mistake must feel exponentially higher.
Well, they are. The consequences are bigger and the responsibility is huge. But you should take that same level of responsibility when you’re on your own. Even when I don’t have clients, I don’t want to die.
I assume mistakes actually occur a lot more often when you’re guiding, because not everyone — in fact, not anyone — is as experienced as you.
You can’t make a mistake if you aren’t the one making the decision. When I meet a group of clients before a climb, I say, “Here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve paid to climb this mountain. I will make all the decisions. I’ll let you know how I’m making them and why I’m making them, but in the end, you are hiring me to make the decisions, because I have the experience to do so.” If there’s any indication that things may not go well, we turn around in a heartbeat, and people understand that. They might complain in the moment, but if it all works out and they see that you made the right choice, they thank you later.
Are there certain predictable mistakes that less experienced climbers tend to make?
There’s what I call groupthink, what some people call summit fever. You know, there’s five or six people and they’re climbing along and the weather starts to get funky and the majority of the group wants to go on, and the person with the least experience is like, “Weeellll, they’re going on, it’s probably OK.” It’s almost a lemming-type effect. People get swept up in it, it’s that psychological feeling of safety.
Funny that it makes people feel safe, when really it’s putting them in danger.
Yeah, I know. But I think we see that a lot in everyday life, too, where there’s a group of people doing something and you go, “Well, they’re doing it, it’s probably OK.”
When you’re climbing not as a guide but as part of team, do you tend to distribute decisions and responsibilities, or do you check everything for yourself?
You’ve got to trust your partner. I mean, think about it: You’re connected to that guy with a rope. So there has to be an implicit trust in each other’s skills. But still, when my partner puts his harness on and ties in, I check his harness, I check his knots, and he does the same to me. It’s not that we think, “Hey my partner doesn’t have it figured out.” We’re just double-checking each other. That should never be taken in the wrong way: you could have the most experience in the world and accidentally forget to back your buckle on your harness. [ That is, double the strap back through the buckle. If you fail to do so, the strap will simply through the buckle during a fall, instead of tightening and catching you. ]
How do you choose your climbing partners?
I want to be with people that have what I call the same level of acceptable risk. If anything I want to be with climbers who are more conservative than me, because when you get into these dicey situations, you don’t want to feel like you’re trying to convince the other guy, “Hey, I think this is a mistake.”
So what exactly is your acceptable level of risk?
It’s hard to define exactly. For me it’s more of a feeling—like, Hey, I just think this situation could get bad, and I think we should at least have a discussion about it .
I’ve been on climbs where other people have higher levels of acceptable risk and they’re willing to push harder and further in certain situations. And if they go on and I go down, I always say, nobody was right, nobody was wrong. We have to live with our decisions and what we’re willing to accept, so it’s not really black or white. I can’t say, “Jeez, they’re making a dumb mistake and I was the smart one.”
But on a mountain, sometimes it is black and white, right? I mean, you can be as rah-rah relativism as you want, but sometimes the world makes it very clear that you’ve made a mistake. All else being equal, if you survive and the other guy doesn’t, your decision was right and his was wrong.
Yeah. But I make a point of not judging people. You can’t go up to them and say, “Nyah, nyah, I was right and you were wrong.”
Also, I’ve had these weird scary feelings sometimes and in the end the weather was great and the sun came out and it’s like, well, maybe I made the more conservative decision, but at the end of the day, how wrong was it? Did I really lose anything except some time or energy? No. I mean, the biggest price you can pay up there is your life, so I’m willing to err on the side of being conservative. Hopefully you make the right decision, sure. But also hopefully if you goof up, it’s in the right direction.
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.
I didn’t realize this happened on your first Everest attempt. I’m amazed to hear you describe it as only “slightly frustrating.” What was going on up there that made it so clear that you had to turn back?
The weather was deteriorating, we’d used all of the rope we’d brought with us, the conditions were getting worse and worse by the minute. That umbilical cord of safety was stretched and maybe almost broken, and we figured we might be able to get to the top, but no way were we going to get down. And climbing a mountain has to be a round trip. So many people get to the summit but never make it back down.
A lot of times we learn from close calls. What’s the worst mistake you’ve almost made?
I can tell you about an incident that happened to a partner on Everest. If you go to Camp III on Everest, it’s on this steep, steep face and when you’re up there, you’ve got to make sure you have on your boots, your crampons, your ice axe, because if you climb out of your tent and slip, you’re gone.
I got up there one year with my partner, and I noticed that he took his crampons off, probably thinking, “Ah, we’re in camp, we’re in fine.” It had snowed, and we had to dig the tents out, so I’m shoveling near the front door and he’s shoveling near the back, and all of a sudden I look up and he’s not there. He’s vanished. I thought, “Oh my God, he slipped and fell down the face.” Then I hear a voice 20 feet below me yelling my name. He had slipped and thankfully fell into a crevasse; if it wasn’t for the crevasse, he would’ve gone down 3,000 feet.
It was a simple, little mistake, where just for a minute you let down your guard, but that’s how quickly the bad stuff can happen up there.
Yeah, 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.
So how do you ward off that tendency?
You’ve just got to keep reminding yourself: I need to be careful every day, every second of the day, and just be humble about what you’re doing. My wife always reminds me: Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you don’t. That goes through my head all the time.
OK, but I’ve heard that you’ve climbed Mount Rainier more than 200 times. Must be hard not to get complacent around, I don’t know, No. 148.
[Laughs.] Well, it’s still a mountain. And it’s a big mountain, and just because I’ve climbed it 200 times doesn’t mean that one of these days something might not happen. Lou Whittaker, one of the head guys at Rainier Mountaineering, used to say: Just because you love the mountains doesn’t mean they love you.
You’re not doing a very good job of bolstering the stereotype of the macho reckless risk-craving adventure type.
I hope not. I’m not like that stereotype. People have the misconception that climbers are reckless and suicidal—like, “Why would you want to do a sport where you could die?” There are risks in climbing, but there are also ways to manage the risks. If you eliminate the mistakes and the errors in judgment, you can make it relatively safe.
For me, the challenge and maybe the art of mountaineering was to try to do it safely and successfully, to show people that you don’t have to be on death’s doorstep when you get to the summit. You can come home with all your fingers and toes. If you go on an expedition with eight partners, you can come home with eight partners. I didn’t want to have those daredevilish close calls. There’s a safer, more conservative way to do it that’s just as exciting, just as rewarding.
If you could hear someone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?
I think it would be airline or fighter pilots, because they have to make very rapid decisions about what to do and what not to do, decisions that have huge consequences. I think surgeons do the same, they get into these situations where there’s a ton of pressure, “Do we do this, do we not do this,” there’s a life hanging by the line. Those are the two that come to mind.
This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .