Saturday, August 23, 2008

No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Broadway, 2007
Price: $14.00
ISBN-10: 0767924711
ISBN-13: 978-0767924719

I was handed this book by a colleague, saying, "Hey, you're Latvian, too, aren't you?" Indeed, I am, and if perhaps my first spark of interest in this book came from that - Ed Viesturs' father, Elmars Viesturs, came to the U.S. very much by the same route as my own parents, refugees from the Soviet occupation of Latvia - then it soon enough veered far more to his achievements in mountainclimbing. I'd heard of Viesturs before. I'd seen a few film clips of his remarkable feat in summiting the world's 14 highest mountains over a span of 18 years. If his Latvian name caught my attention (my own father's name is Viestarts, a variation of the same, and the name is, in fact, rooted fittingly in folklore based on a Latvian warrior), it was his life and how he lived it that sustained my attention.

Yes, his life and how he lived it, because the story of Ed Viesturs is not just about climbing mountains. It is very much about HOW he climbs those mountains, and not only how he climbs them, but also how he descends. Viesturs continually reminds his readers that his secret to his mountainclimbing success - "Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory." - is to never allow ego to get in the way of reaching the summit, to keep passion for one's pursuit aligned equally with sound sense, and that even the most desired outcome for a personal dream must sometimes be put on hold, perhaps numerous times, when the wisdom of experience-honed instinct dictates: this is not your time.

Viesturs tells his story (with the help of writer, David Roberts) from its logical beginning. The boy reads a book. It is a book about a mountainclimber who is doing battle with one of the most difficult, if not quite the highest, mountains: Annapurna. Although his childhood unfolds in the flattest parts of the Midwest, his imagination soars with his reading. (Do books still so inspire our youth? one has to wonder ... ) To climb all of the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in the world (8,000 meters above sea level) becomes his life's pursuit.

Dreams are often not practical. Viesturs realizes he must pursue also some more practical career, and so he earns a degree in veterinary science. Alongside the practical, however, he never stops pushing the dream. He eventually ends up abandoning the "sensible" career, subsists on a meager salary as a climbing guide, takes on odd jobs to allow for the needed time off to travel across the world and climb. We can already see the needed fiber and hardy character of the man in these early climbing days, in how he approaches his goal with just the right mix of sensible and dream-crazy. He has the discipline to train, he has the persistance to continue when others fall away, he has the character to not give in to numerous rejections or obstacles that would close the door on so many others. He has what it takes to be a winner in whatever arena.

This is a gripping adventure story. It even has its element of mature romance, as Viesturs eventually meets his wife, Paula, who is his source of support and encouragment, his best friend, his companion dreamer. There is also history alongside his accomplishments to give the reader perspective. Many die. Very many. What Viesturs accomplishes only five others can claim to have done. And while Mount Everest is the mountain most know, it is not at all the most dangerous. Viesturs' story nears grand conclusion as he ends where he begins, with his last climb, the same mountain that inspired him as a boy: Annapurna. As the circle closes, the reader, too, feels a deep satisfaction.

If we ever wonder, as Viesturs does at one point, if living such a life makes sense, he ties it up nicely as he talks about how he was able to become a professional mountainclimber, financed by sponsors. He has a debate with a reporter about the statistics he faces, life or death. While the reporter uses the metaphor of Russian roullette, Viesturs argues that his odds actually improve with each summit, even as his experience accumulates. What he does, he says in his speaking tours, can be an approach well transposed to any pursuit in life. Know when and how to chase your dream; know when to turn back; know what should be sacrificed along the way and what should never be left behind; know when to trust your instincts; know how to celebrate an accomplishment without letting it get overmuch to your head; know how not to give up on what truly matters; know how to go home again and appreciate the source of your strength.

Indeed, there are no shortcuts to the top. And that, perhaps, in this time of instant gratification, of superficial and short-lived pleasures, of quick and easy fixes that somehow never last, of climbing on the backs of others to reach a higher level, is the best part of this grand adventure story. Viesturs never forgets his values. He never loses a solid sense of personal integrity. He never loses sight of his motivation. He does what he does because he wishes to know what his personal best can be. And yet, when he summits, he never quite forgets he is not alone. Family at home, fellow climbers, the ghosts of climbers that didn't make it ... the reader realizes by end of this story that mountain peaks were not his only, or even his greatest accomplishments. This is much more about the journey than the destination, and it is a journey taken with a rare kind of wisdom and integrity.

To learn more about Ed Viesturs and his summits and current journeys to explore the effects of global warming at the earth's poles, I encourage a long visit to his stunning Web site at

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