Serial summit disorder

Ed Viesturs is down $1,000, and he has only himself to blame. In 1997 Viesturs — arguably North America's premier high-altitude mountaineer — found himself slogging across climbing's largest stage for the ninth time. Joining him on the big E were four of the world's most experienced climbers, who by that point had tagged the roof of the world a total of 14 times. This time, however, the thrill was gone.

"It was a hot day, and we were bored and decided that we'd had enough of this mountain," recalls Viesturs, 45, over drinks at the Hotel Yak & Yeti in Kathmandu, Nepal. "We vowed that day never to come back." And just like that Everest Anonymous, climbing's own 12-step program, was born.

The pact they made carried stiff penalties. Should any of them set so much as a crampon into the Khumbu Icefall, the glaciated gateway to Everest, a payout of $1,000 would be required to each member who remained on the wagon.

But temptation would overcome solidarity. This spring Viesturs and three other Everest Anonymous members had returned to the peak and had to shell out a grand to the remaining holdout, New Zealander Guy Cotter.

Viesturs and his associates are among thousands of sea-level averse souls afflicted by a compulsion for high-altitude adventure. And not just Everest (though that works for a quick fix). The bug is so hard to resist that a growing number of climbers are determined to top the highest peak on each continent — dubbed the Seven Summits. Beyond that, some seek a higher thrill still — the ultimate in alpine summitry — scaling the 14 highest mountains, those taller than 8,000 meters, or 26,250 feet.

Call it serial summit disorder, a habit bordering on obsessive hand-washing. And it is driving a wedge between purists, out for the challenge, and those who are looking for a little more gain — say, bragging rights, fame and marketing dollars.

Adventurers now compete for the title of the youngest, oldest or the first of their nationality to climb the Seven Summits, which comprise Everest, Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), El'brus (Europe), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Kosciuszko (Australia) and Vinson Massif (Antarctica).

Some veteran climbers say that the growing mania for records and serial peaks has elevated quantity over quality, with the climbing lost in a stampede for payoffs beyond the summit. They deride the increasing number of woefully inexperienced wannabes as trophy hunters.

"It's kind of degrading the process of mountaineering," says Viesturs, who lives in Bainbridge Island, Wash. "If I'm taking somebody [to Everest], I want somebody who loves to go climbing, not just wants to say they climbed Everest."

Yet more and more prize hunters are happy to boast their way to lucrative book deals, launch television programs, land corporate sponsorship deals and even secure a much-coveted spot on the motivational speaking circuit, for fees that can run to $10,000 a lecture.

Changing priorities

Climbers a century ago had a globeful of far-flung, virgin summits for the pickings. The contest wasn't about bagging peaks but about facing an unknown, frozen monolith of ice and stone in gear little removed from streetwear.

But as summits were discovered and claimed, a new gauge of climbing prowess emerged. The emphasis was on numbers and results, not on the process. It began with Texas millionaire Dick Bass. The owner of Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort in Utah, Bass kicked off the serial peak phenomenon when he became the first person to climb the Seven Summits (partner Frank Wells completed six). He was guided up the routes by David Breashears, credited with opening the floodgates to Everest after guiding Bass to its top in 1985 — and a founding member of Everest Anonymous.

Bass, who declined to comment for this article, told Forbes columnist Jim Clash, author of "To the Limits," that he "got into the Seven Summits because it was a challenge. I've been successful in business. If that's all I was chasing, it would be an empty bauble of accomplishment. I know a lot of executives who wake up and say, 'My God, there's got to be more.' That's why they want to climb mountains at an older age. They want to win the self-respect that comes from doing something that really lays it on the line."

Bass' summit binge seems to have married the entrepreneurial impulse, in which fierce achievement and quantifiable results meet, with the traditional sensation-seeking side of climbing, leading to marketing-related climbers such as Annabelle Bond, a sassy British amateur climber currently trying to parlay her Seven Summit success into an adventure TV show.

Career paths aside, chief among climbers' motivators is a craving for sensation, says psychologist Christopher Cronin, author of the study "Sensation Seeking Among Mountain Climbers." Some people crave higher doses of stimulation than others, and as they indulge thrill-seeking behavior, they can be conditioned to want more, he says. These folks can't help it. They're just doing what their biochemistry tells them.

High sensation-seekers such as climbers lust after the thrills and achievement that come from risk-taking, but, most particularly, for their biochemical payoff: dopamine, a chemical that stimulates pleasure centers in the brain. Besides the chemical charge, the "flow" experience identified by social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also kicks in, and the climber enters a zone of such concentrated engagement that all other concerns and distractions are screened out.

But the fire that fuels compulsive summiteers can be so insistent that it can burn climbers and those around them. Maria Coffey lost her boyfriend, British climber Joe Tasker, who disappeared without a trace on Everest.

"When the news came through that he had disappeared, my life was shot to pieces," says Coffey, author of "Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow." "There were high costs even when he was alive. Each time he left on an expedition I was paralyzed with fear."

Back in 1985, when Bass racked up his feat, the professional climbing establishment was more than a little ticked. "They resented some 55-year-old yahoo from Texas climbing these mountains they'd spent their lives dreaming about," explained Bass to Outside magazine a few years ago. "When I see guides now, they hug me, because the Seven Summits made the mountain-guiding profession. It made them!"

Bass' chutzpah helped spawn an industry, as amateurs began to see that they too could scale continental heights on guided expeditions. These days prospective summiteers can turn to for all things related to the quest. There are Seven Summit trip packages, e-cards, posters, route maps and forums. Expedition companies such as Seattle-based Mountain Madness will design a program and guide you to the top of all seven peaks. Cost: $100,000 to $150,000. Rates for individual mountains range from $3,600 to climb Kilimanjaro to $59,000 for Everest.

Matt Schonwald, North American program director for Mountain Madness, says those who pooh-pooh Seven Summit questers are armchair critics. "The whole concept that they shouldn't do it or that it's poor style is really a useless debate. If someone wants a chance to push themself, they should be able to. These people enjoy being in the mountains and do this experience to accomplish a goal."

Clearly Viesturs belongs in this class. Viesturs has stood on the summit of an 8,000-meter peak 19 times — more times than any man. Conquering 26,503-foot Annapurna, which he plans to do next spring with his longtime climbing partner, Veikka Gustaffson, would make him the first American and one of only a dozen men to stand atop the highest 14 mountains in the world and cap a 15-year quest.

Viesturs' feats have won him endorsement deals, speaking engagements and even some film roles, in "Vertical Limit" and the Imax film "Everest." But, as filmmaker and longtime climbing partner Breashears puts it, "Ed could exploit his persona of being Ed Viesturs a lot more than he does, and I think we all admire that about him."

But Viesturs says he still climbs for the same reasons that drove him in the first place — because it's fun, challenging and rewarding. That includes his quest to climb the 14 highest peaks, a mission he's been working on for more than a decade. It has been no overnight ride to fame and fortune, though he does have a marketing tag for the project, "Endeavor 8000."

"This was a dream of mine long ago," says Viesturs. "I like long-term difficult projects and this fits the bill. I personally don't care who is watching or writing about what I do — that is not my motivation. I climbed for many years without any attention, and it did not matter then and it does not matter now."

So it stands to reason that Viesturs doesn't begrudge anyone who attempts the same. "It's quite admirable to see people going for a goal such as this, which takes time, energy and focus," he says.

Admiration aside, the prospect of achieving this feat first in any number of categories has been a magnet for climbers. The title of youngest to top all seven peaks is currently held by 22-year-old Britton Keeshan, an American college student and grandson of TV's Captain Kangaroo. The fastest duo to complete the quest — in a mere 214 days — were Rob Hall and Gary Ball, well-known climbing guides who have since lost their lives, Hall in the Everest tragedy of '96, and Ball three years earlier on the seventh-highest peak, Dhaulagiri, in Nepal. The oldest summiteer is Ramón Blanco, a Spanish climber who finished off his seventh summit at age 70. Next year Peggy Foster is set to become the first Canadian to take the top peak on each continent.

The formidable 14

TIME, energy and focus is often its own reward. Accomplishment done to rack up notches on the belt, simply for outside approval, can be self-defeating because focus on the external squelches internal motivation. A person climbing summits because it's their passion will get more out of it than someone who does it to "gain value and worth in the world but isn't that passionate about it," says Steve Sultanoff, a psychologist in Irvine. Climbing for its own sake builds core self-worth. But doing it for acclaim is fleeting, fading with the applause.

Approval, however, isn't quite enough to drive the grueling — and supremely dangerous — gambit of climbing the world's 14 highest peaks. Raw obsession is more like it. That's a trait often ascribed to legendary Italian slope-scrambling legend Reinhold Messner, who in 1986 became the first person to climb all the 8,000-meter peaks. This rarefied circuit remains firmly within the realm of true mountaineers and separates them from the marketers.

Messner, as is his wont, has been vocal about the commercialism that has gripped his sport, particularly the swarm pursuing Everest. "This Everest is no longer my Everest. Nor is it the same mountain the pioneers knew," he wrote in Climbing magazine five years ago. "Yet it remains the most prestigious peak in the world, apex of all vanities. At the same time it has become a substitute, a kind of badge of courage the peak bagger would love to flaunt on his lapel back home, without having to assume the necessary responsibility in the field."

Strong words from a man who made his own name there.

"I think we're kind of in a dark age as far as climbing is concerned," laments Himalayan veteran Pete Athans, 47. "By adopting the standard of impossibility of a previous age, what we do becomes farcical rather than going out and being creative and finding something new to do, something original."

Breashears disagrees. He believes the quest for originality is also part of the problem. "People run a marathon. They are not the first to run a marathon. They might be the ten-millionth person to run a marathon," he says. "It's wrong to think that to have value to the person it has to be original."

With the spiraling tally of vertical achievement, even 14 may not be enough 8,000-meter pedestals. It turns out there are really 21 summits within those 14 (or by some count, 22), since several have multiple toppings — a challenge some may not be able to resist much longer.

In the end, the lure of the highest mountains may be, as Breashears says, less about originality and more about something else.

"People call me a collector," Viesturs says. "So what? I like climbing high-altitude peaks. You have to do what you want to do for yourself and not for what other people think."