Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong, interviews Mountaineer Ed Viesturs on Making Mistakes
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.