Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ed Viesturs at Powell's Books

On Friday the 29th, my room-mate and I went to the downtown Powell's to hear mountain-climber Ed Viesturs speak and sign copies of his book, “No Shortcuts to the Top.” Viesturs was the first American to climb all fourteen of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks, and incredibly, he did it without using supplemental oxygen. I enjoyed the book and I was excited to see Viesturs in person.

“No Shortcuts” is a solid piece of mountaineering writing. Written with David Roberts, it details Viestur’s life and career as a climber and family man. In no-nonsense terms, Viesturs talks about his climbing philosophies and successes, offering insights into the world of high-altitude mountaineering and tragedies such as the 1996 Everest disaster. The writing is straight-forward and clear, gripping and suspenseful in many places and funny in others, though suffering slightly from a lack of narrative beauty that should, in my opinion, suffuse a book written about adventures in a region itself suffused with beauty.

In person, Viesturs is honest and funny, with a confident type-A personality. He portrays himself as a risk manager, rather than a risk-taker, and he repeatedly fell back on his mantra that “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” A gorgeous slide show accompanied the tale of his last 8,000 meter bid for the summit of Annapurna, a mountain that claims the lives of 1 of every 2 climbers who attempt its steep slopes. Viesturs and his partner waited for days at base camp for the weather to clear and for the perfect climbing conditions to prevail. “Listen to the mountain,” Viesturs said; the mountain chooses when the time to climb is right. It’s hard to argue with that, even when he speaks directly about the mistakes, often fatal, that his fellow climbers and friends have made over the years.

The book is focused and lean: the summit climbs, the lives and sometimes deaths of other climbers, and the behind-the-scenes planning are just what I want in outdoor literature - detailed and suspenseful, well-plotted and transporting. However, Viesturs didn’t speak or write about several pertinent issues I wanted to know more about, and his personality seemed at times to overcome any interest he had in speaking about them. For example, his summit bids come across as half-way arrogant when little attention is paid to the spiritual and personal growth offered by such a physical test of the mind and body. I’m interested in what Viesturs gained from his experiences, and I wasn’t satisfied with the answer that he set himself a goal and simply pursued it. Other writers, Jon Krakauer especially, personalized their climbing accounts and gave their stories a deeper, more nuanced, and ultimately more human perspective.

That perspective also seemed lacking in Viesturs’ responses to audience questions about the commercialization of Everest, and by extension, of Nepalese culture. He seemed dismissive of such concerns by answering “The mountain [Everest] is commercialized,” and that nothing will change that. Perhaps, but I’d like to hear more about his views on the erosion of traditional ways of life and the heavy environmental impact of commercial climbing.

Yet, these might be my own personal reactions to a man who is goal-driven and highly successful at getting what he wants. There’s nothing wrong in that, and I have to remind myself that Viesturs was on a promotional tour. He controlled the crowd well, allowed many questions, answered them efficiently, and signed quickly. As a bookstore employee who often assists with author events, I can say that I wish more authors were like that. As an avid hiker and backpacker who is very interested in the topic, I wish I could say that Viesturs had been more open and informative at his signing. That’s not to say he wasn’t inspirational or entertaining; my room-mate hadn’t read the book yet and was excited to do so, partly in order to compare the necessarily brief spoken anecdotes to the more developed written stories.

In his presentation, Viesturs said that it wasn’t necessary for every individual on Everest in 1996 to write their account; every eyewitness, of course, tells a different story, and revisiting the tragedy isn’t always necessary or healthy. But it’s that human yearning to know, to listen, and to learn that drives people to write and tell stories, to read books, and to show up to author signings. The goal, so to speak, is optional; getting something from the attempt is mandatory. Viesturs has accomplished an amazing mountaineering feat, and his book, despite some flaws, will become a classic of mountaineering literature.

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