Ueli Steck was killed in the Himalaya last weekend. The 40-year-old was near Camp 1, on the way up Nuptse when he fell into the Western Cwm. He was climbing solo, acclimatising for an ambitious new route that he planned to try, combining Everest with Lhotse. We celebrate an extraordinary life, complete with videos and climbers' tributes.
Later this month Ueli planned to climb Everest via the normal route to Camp 2, then branch off left. Taking the rarely-climbed Hornbein route to the summit and then descending via the normal route to South Col would result in a neat traverse. He then planned to traverse onto and up Lhotse, which is the neighbouring peak, and the world's fourth highest, before descending into the Western Cwm.
The neat circuit was an ambitious goal, and Ueli was excited to see if it was possible: “That’s exactly the interesting thing. Nobody has done that before,” he said in the video below, friendly and straight-talking as ever. He wasn't planning to take bottled oxygen, of course. Steck first climbed the world's highest peak without it back in 2012. But let's start at the beginning of what has been an incredibly inspiring life.
Ueli talks about his Everest-Lhotse plan
Ueli Steck — Eiger dreams
I've enjoyed interviewing Ueli for the BMC several times over the years. Here follows some excerpts from those articles, outlining his life and climbs.
Growing up in the ice hockey town of Langnau, Ueli had ice and speed in his blood. He could also see the Eiger from his home, and it would soon lure him off flat rinks and onto steep walls.
Ueli was introduced to climbing by a family friend, and there were early signs he would be a prodigy. He didn't want to top-rope. His very first climb was on the sharp end. After gaining a place on the Swiss Junior Climbing Team, he rapidly got bored. When the teenage Ueli climbed his first alpine peak, the Sheideggwetterhorn, he thought: “Now this is a real mountain.” Then his Eiger obsession really took off.
Steck spent a year training for his first ascent of the 3,970m peak. While out running with a full rucksack, he’d pause to scale telegraph poles with ice axes. Over the following years he worked through every 'worthwhile' route up the Eiger and added a new route, The Young Spiders, to the North Face.
He also ticked off increasingly hard alpine classics and rock routes up to 8a, often solo, and put up new test pieces in Nepal and Alaska. Ueli was a carpenter by trade. He was also an early adopter of social media, though, which soon led to sponsorship deals, and more time off to train. The Eiger came back into focus. At speed.
WATCH: Ueli sets his record of 2 hours 22 on the Eiger
Ueli trained harder than ever to climb the Eiger as fast as he possibly could. In 2004 he climbed it in ten hours, and it took three years to whittle that down to a new world record of 3hr47. Afterwards, curiosity led him to the Swiss Federal Institute of Sports to find out how fit he was. They told him: not very! Compared to Olympic athletes, who train very scientifically, it turned out that even top alpine climbers were still in the Dark Ages.
"Curiosity led him to the Swiss Federal Institute of Sports to find out how fit he was. They told him: not very!"
After a year working with a team of Swiss Olympic training experts, Ueli returned to the Eiger, stripped nearly an hour from his own record and had found his niche. “Mountaineering is still not very developed from an athletic prospective,” Ueli told me me. “This is what I am interested in.” His training was complex. Periods he worked on strength or base endurance. Mental training sessions. 10-12 training sessions a week, up to 1,000 hours a year.
In 2007, Steck got married, and took Nicole to the North Face of the Eiger on honeymoon. It took them two days on this romantic occasion. Steck was already making a good income from giving talks at events, and he liked to recount this story: “On the first day we climbed up to Death Bivouac [the place where German climbers Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer froze to death in 1935]. “Here we spent a beautiful evening together.”
"On the first day [my wife and I] climbed up to Death Bivouac. Here we spent a beautiful evening together."
Steck had a complex relationship with the imperfect science of risk calculation. On the one hand he once told me: “I like the efficient movement of speed soloing. You feel your body, your legs pushing, your arms pulling. You are 100% focussed. No future, no past. It’s a very nice moment.” On the other hand, he gave up soloing hard rock routes because that calculation was easy: If he continued he would definitely eventually die.
Instead, Ueli decided to redefine what was possible at speed on what he called “average technical terrain.” From 2008-9 Steck also broke solo speed records on the Grandes Jorasses (2hr20) and Matterhorn (1hr56), completing a neat trilogy of notorious Alpine North faces.
Next, he raised his sights to redefining what was possible in the Himalaya.
Those who weren't living in a cave in 2013 will remember what happened next. Ueli was on Everest with Italian climber Simone Moro and British photographer/alpinist Jon Griffith, planning to try his ambitious new route idea, when an altercation with Sherpa's broke out. After that, Steck's Everest ambitions were put on hold for a while.
READ: Press storm on Everest
READ: Everest fight: the Sherpa side of the story
In 2013, Ueli made the first solo ascent of Annapurna, for which he was awarded a Piolet d'Or. He also soloed the Intégrale de Peuterey, the longest ridge traverse in the Alps in 16h09 (TD/ED1 1,000m ascent, 4,500m climb). Afterwards, he thought about calling someone to pick him up, but ended up walking home because it was a nice evening.
It wasn't all about ticking things off. in 2014, Ueli flew to Scotland for a spontaneous hit on the Ben with his long-time climbing partner, Jon Griffith. Afterwards, when I interviewed him, he enthused about British ethics, fish n chips and beer. He had no idea what routes he'd climbed, but he'd had a great time.
READ: Ueli unleashed in Scotland
It wasn't all about climbing, either. Steck enjoyed running races 'just for fun' and paragliding. In 2015 he climbed all 82 of the 4,000m peaks in the Alps, travelling between them by bicycle and paraglider. The journey incuded over 1,000km of cycling and 100,000m of altitude, and took him and his climbing partners on a rapid tour of the best views in France, Italy and Switzerland over 62 days.
Back to Everest
This spring, Steck finally returned to Everest base camp, with Tenzing (Tenji) Sherpa as a climbing partner, telling the world in a video: "My body is as strong as it was never before.” Soon after arriving, he set out for an acclimatisation climb, and later wrote on Facebook:
“Quick day from base camp up to 7,000m and back. I love it, it’s such a great place here. I still believe in active acclimatisation. This is way more effective than spending nights up in the altitude!”
A few days later, Steck left Tenji, who was suffering from frost bite in his hands, at base camp and set out into the dawning day for another acclimatisation climb — this time headed for Nuptse.
Our thoughts are with Ueli's wife, Nicole, and his many friends in the climbing community.
READ: Guardian Obituary by Ed Douglas
WATCH: Niall Grimes and Ueli Steck
Ueli — key achievements
2005 solo ascent of the North Wall of Cholatse (6440m) and the east wall of Tawoche (,6505m)
2007 Eiger Speed ascent in 3 hours 54 minutes
2008 New Eiger Speed record in 2 hours 47 minutes
2008 Speed record Grandes Jorasses in 2 hours 21 minutes
2009 Speed record Matterhorn 1 hour 56 minutes
2009 Awarded the Piolet D’Or
2009 Golden Gate Route on El Capitain/USA
2009 Ascent of Gasherbrum II (8,035m) in the Karakorum, Pakistan
2009 Expedition to Makalu/Nepal
2010 Free Rider El Capitain/USA
2011 Sisha Pangma South Wall
2011 Cho Oyu
2012 Mount Everest without oxygen
2013 First solo ascent of Annapurna
2014 Awarded the Piolet d’Or
Tributes to Ueli Steck
Steve House, talking to a Boston radio show:
“He was a great man. Ueli was an incredible athlete and he brought a level of athleticism to alpinism. WIthin alpinism you have to be good at everything — rock climbing, ice climbing. Weather. You have to understand the mountains and their moods. And not only did he become really good at that but he honed his athleticism consciously for going on 15 years now.”
"As humans we create this world around us that we believe we are in control of. In climbing especially certainty doesn’t exist. The environment is too dynamic, too complex to know what is going to happen. And eventually we have to understand as climbers that this can happen to us. There’s no escaping that. I’ve lost too many firends and Ueli was fully aware that that risk existed, too.”