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Originally published May 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 5, 2009 at 1:51 PM

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Ed Viesturs group reaches summit of Mount Everest

Trip is the seventh to the top of Everest for Viesturs. Group also included Peter Whittaker, nephew of Jim Whittaker, first American to climb Everest.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Other climbers, not altitude or weather, were the biggest obstacle faced by an elite Seattle climbing group that made it to the top of Mount Everest Tuesday morning, Nepal time, says climbing legend Ed Viesturs, who stood atop the world's highest peak for the seventh time.

"Conditions were good. The weather was almost perfect. You could see forever," Viesturs, who climbed with Peter Whittaker, Jake Norton, John Griber and Gerry Moffat, said in a satellite telephone call to greatoutdoors.com. "The only drawback, in my opinion ... was the traffic we had to deal with. A lot of bottlenecks, a lot of just standing around, really going nowhere. But that's pretty much what you sign up for these days."

Other Web reports indicated somewhere between 100 and 150 climbers were bottled up in recent days on the South Col, waiting for days for strong winds and whiteout conditions to abate. They did so Monday, and a literal stampede to the 29,035-foot summit commenced. Remarkably, some 60 to 100 climbers were expected to have a shot at the summit in the first 24 hours of this first clear weather window.

The Viesturs/Whittaker group began climbing around 11 p.m. Monday, Nepal time, under clear skies. The first of the group summited around 8 a.m., the others by 8:30 a.m. They spent about an hour in blustery winds on the summit, then made their way back to their high camp at about 25,000 feet on the South Col in a remarkable four hours or less, returning to their tents at about 1 p.m.

The team was resting there today before descending to Everest's Camp Two at 21,000 feet, where they will spend another night before descending to base camp at 17,500 feet.

It was the seventh Everest summit for Viesturs, of Bainbridge Island, who retired from Himalayan climbing in 2006, after becoming the first American to climb the world's 14 tallest peaks without using supplemental oxygen. This time he climbed Everest without bottled oxygen until the summit day.

Nothing else about the climb fit the style of Viesturs, however. He became known in the climbing community for his simple, efficient climbs with one or two partners, climbing "alpine style" and traveling light, carrying only essentials, rather than establishing multiple base camps stocked with extensive gear.

The summit climb from Camp 4 took about nine hours. That's not unusual, but probably seemed slow to Viesturs.

"It could have been a lot quicker if we had not been dealing with traffic problems," he told GreatOutdoors.com. "I tried to do my best to get in and out of traffic and got to the summit about 8:30 in the morning."

Overall, though, the summit climb was "a phenomenal day," he said.

More than 4,000 people have now stood atop Everest, first climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. More than 250 people climbed to the summit via the South Col route last season alone. About 500 summited the year before.

Anticipating crowds as soon as weather broke on the mountain this year, Sherpas reportedly fixed multiple climbing lines in traditional bottleneck spots, such as the rock face high on the mountain known as the Hillary Step. Such bottlenecks have proven disastrous in other years, such as 1996, when a sudden storm left dozens of climbers exposed high on the mountain overnight, largely because logjams on the climbing route put them on the summit too late in the day.

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The summit was the first for Whittaker, who sounded tired but jubilant when he called base camp with the news just after 8 a.m. Nepal time Tuesday.

"We are standing on top of the world," he said in a radio transmission from the summit, recorded for the expedition's blog, http://blog.firstascent.com/, as base camp members and Sherpas cheered and banged pots and pans far below.

"It's beautiful up here," Whittaker said. "We've got just a little bit of a plume. Winds are light. Looking into Tibet, and 360, really hard to find a cloud today. It's good to be up here. Pretty exciting for me. It took a while, but here we are ... following in Uncle Jim's footsteps."

Jim Whittaker in 1963 became the first American to stand atop Everest. Peter Whittaker is the son of Jim's twin brother, Lou, another noted climber who launched RMI, the longtime Mount Rainier guide service that Peter now co-owns and operates along with a gear business, Whittaker Mountaineering.

The expedition is sponsored by local sportswear company Eddie Bauer, which is using it to promote its new First Ascent line of expedition gear, designed by Whittaker, Viesturs and other Rainier Mountaineering guides. Jim Whittaker's landmark 1963 climb also featured Eddie Bauer gear.

"They are all in fine spirits," base camp manager Linden Mallory reported on the expedition blog. "Definitely a long day under their belts so they are tucking in, boiling water, making tea, trying to rest and rehydrate before they descend to Camp 2 tomorrow and return down here to Base Camp the following day."

After spending a month establishing camps and fixing ropes on the South Col summit route, the First Ascent team had spent the better part of two weeks waiting for a weather window to strike out for the summit.

A second RMI team, led by veteran guide Dave Hahn, has left base camp and reportedly will attempt its own summit bid as weather allows in coming days. That group is also in experienced hands. Hahn, with 10 Everest summits to his credit, has been atop the mountain more times than any non-Sherpa climber.

RMI guides Melissa Arnot and Seth Waterfall, a Crystal Mountain Ski Patroller, are with the Hahn group, which includes other paying clients.

That group's trek from base camp to the summit should take about five days, if weather cooperates.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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