The Will to Climb: Obsession and Commitment and the Quest to Climb Annapurna— the World’s Deadliest Peak. Ed Viesturs and David Roberts. Crown: 2011. 304 pages. Hardcover. $26.00.
The Will to Climb sat in my book pile for a long time. The title turned me off, the cover announced that Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the National Football League, wrote the Foreword, and I didn’t understand why Ed Viesturs needed tried-and-true climbing writer David Roberts to help with the book. But I reminded myself of the old adage “You can’t judge a book by the cover” and cracked open the pages.
The authors set the story up quickly. In April of 2000 Viesturs is hiking in to climb Annapurna, the tenth highest mountain in the world. He has climbed 10 of the 14 8,000ers without supplemental oxygen. No American has accomplished this feat. Viesturs’ wife is pregnant with their second child.
Viesturs does not climb Annapurna on this first attempt. The mountain is in horrible condition, the team retreats, and the book shifts to the history of Annapurna climbing. The story cooks through here; my palms sweat as I read about Maurice Herzog and his partner Louis Lachenal becoming the first to climb Annapurna but losing fingers and toes during their “successful” ascent. Herzog is elated, while Lachenal feels no fulfillment; instead he feels robbed of his legendary skill and grace. Here Roberts and Viesturs question the lasting rewards of mountaineering, indeed of any passionate enterprise. They repeat Maurice Herzog’s famous line, “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”
Viesturs was 16 when he first read Herzog’s Annapurna. He still considers this account his most important influence as a mountaineer. When he was 17, Viesturs read Chris Bonington’s Annapurna South Face. That book further boosts his ambition to climb. The authors use Bonington’s book to repeat the story of the massive English South Face Expedition, and again I breezed through the pages.
Then comes another book, Annapurna: A Woman's Place. In 1978 American Arlene Blum assembled 10 women to attempt the north face. The team put two women on top, while two others died trying. Viesturs and Roberts aren’t inspired by Blum’s tale, telling us that Blum herself didn’t climb above 22,000 feet, the team used male Sherpas (who broke trail), and the summiters used supplemental oxygen for nearly the entire ascent. Viesturs tells us that he prefers to keep his thoughts about the expedition to himself.
Viesturs and Roberts also examine a host of other books by Annapurna climbers, including those by Erhard Loretan, Reinhold Messner, Jerzy Kukuczka, and Anatoli Boukreev—all books that influenced Viesturs.
Though the authors tell us up front that The Will to Climb is structured around obsession and commitment—and fulfillment and emptiness, triumph and failure—as revealed in the deeds of Annapurna’s bravest antagonists, by the time I finished I felt I knew little about Viesturs himself except that he has some thoughts he’d rather keep private. I wondered where he got the money for all these climbs and, despite his claims to the contrary, I wasn’t convinced that he wasn’t in a race to become the first American to climb all the 8,000ers. When Ed Viesturs finally stands on the summit of Annapurna, his final 8,000-meter peak and exclaims, “Oh my God! It’s not just my fourteenth, it’s Annapurna,” I’m not there. I wondered why Viesturs didn’t write his own book.