Last week, Swiss super-alpinist Ueli Steck flew into Scotland for an under-the-radar mixed climbing hit with British alpinist and photographer Jon Griffith. Sarah Stirling tracked him down to find out just what he thought of our Scottish winter climbing, whether he’ll be back and what he’s got planned next.
"So what did you climb in Scotland, Ueli?"
“Errr... no idea,” Ueli said. “Ask Jon.”
“No idea either, to be honest,” Jon Griffith told me.
“I 'think' we did the first two pitches of Maelstrom (VII) on the Triple Buttresses of Beinn Eighe in the Coire Mhic Fherchair, but am pretty sure we went wrong at the top. The first pitch was a bit slow and buried, the second was great steep climbing but on very loose and friable rock, and the third was a steep corner slab, which led to the base of a huge roof. We spent a long time clearing the last pitch to try to find a way through but it felt too run-out with no real idea where to go. Then we got smacked by a big wet slide coming off the top.”
We had some great days out, just no idea what we were on - guidebook features were a bit useless with this much snow about. We also went up Central Buttress on Bein Eighe (VI) but went up a hardish line direct through the top. I’ve no idea of grade - we don’t have much Scottish experience - but the top crux pitch on the route we took was pretty spicy. We also did the first pitch of Piggots Route and then just went up the steepest parts of the buttress.”
What did Ueli Steck think about Scottish winter climbing?
Scotland is a fun place. This was my second visit. I really like the ethics, lack of bolts and the remoteness - it’s really unique. Even if there are only small mountains it’s really interesting climbing. Slow moving with a lot of commitment. Long walk-ins and short routes. We walked 3.5 hrs for 3-4 pitches of climbing. You would never do that in the Alps! Then fish n chips and lots of beer.
The weather was really Scottish. We had one day with a little bit of blue sky. The first day was pouring with rain, and the days after were also pretty rainy. It was really warm - way too warm - so nothing was frozen, there was a lot of digging and it was not possible to do any harder climbs. You just have to accept it in Scotland and I really like that. On such bad days you would never go out in Europe but in Scotland it’s just normal. You don’t even worry about it. You just go and have a look.
I think I can learn a lot from Scottish climbers. Just go, you know. Just try. If it doesn’t work you come back.
The ethics of Scottish winter conditions is complicated. If you want to winter climb the rock has to be white, but of course there’s some stretch in that. We came down from a route because we thought it had some turf climbing and wasn’t a pure rock and ice mixed route. But then Ian Parnell told us: “That’s not a turf route you could have climbed it”. It’s hard to understand but I’d rather not climb and be on the safe side with the rules because otherwise it just destroys the whole ethics.
(When mixed routes have turf on them it’s good ethics to only climb when the turf is properly frozen, thus ensuring it doesn’t get damaged more than necessary so others can enjoy the route.)
And of course there’s no fixed gear, which makes Scottish winter climbing more interesting. This time I brought a rack of hexes to Scotland. Last time I didn’t and that made a big difference. Scotland’s rock is made for trad protection. If you wanted to transfer the no-fixed-gear ethic to limestone cliffs elsewhere in the world it would be almost impossible to climb hard routes safely. It wouldn’t work, generally. But of course it would be good to have a little more ethics in this way all over the world.
Scottish winter climbing was the beginning of mixed climbing. The climbing in Scotland was state-of-the-art. Then people started to mixed climb all over the world and it started out this strong ethic. I think that’s really cool. Scotland has made me think a little bit more about using bolts for sure.
(Mixed climbing is a combination of rock, ice and turf climbing)
I think it’s really nice that trad ethics are still alive in the UK. It’s not like the UK just changed their ethics after people started to climb differently all over the world. Of course there are some areas with similar trad ethics like in Utah, where people are also really aware of not using fixed gear, but it’s still cool.
You can’t say using bolts is bad though because it increases the technical levels of climbing a lot. Getting strong on bolted routes elsewhere, of course this increases the level of trad climbing in the UK. You would never get that strong just trad climbing because there is too much effort about the protection. I think climbing needs both trad and bolted routes.
Peak gritstone is really high on my ticklist. Before climbing on gritstone I need to get in a little bit better shape though. I’ve spent too much time on expeditions the last five years. Coming back to gritstone in bad shape is just too dangerous.
I need to get the motivation back and sort things out for myself, so I’m keeping the schedule for this year really loose. I plan to climb a lot and not go on big expeditions. I need a little break. Annapurna and Everest really wasted me mentally. For sure I will go back to the Himalayas but not this year. Maybe next year.
(Ueli Steck completed the first solo ascent of Annapurna's South Face in a record 28 hours last year. It was one of the boldest Himalayan climbs in history. Earlier in the year he attempted a difficult route on Everest without oxygen but instead made headlines when a brawl broke out with Sherpas.)
This year I just want to enjoy a little bit of sun. I’m really looking forward to spending a spring season in the Alps. I haven’t done that for six years so I’m really psyched.
I accepted a lot of risk on Annapurna and this makes me a little bit worried. Looking back I think I was accepting too much risk. I think it’s really important to be careful with climbs like that. You can’t do that sort of thing again and again, it’s a dead end. So what I will try to do for myself now is step back and reassess what I’ll do in the future.
I’m trying to work more closely on product development. That’s what I’ll push for in the future rather than just being an athlete. Because I’ve reached a point in my climbing life where I think I shouldn’t push further. I need to look at other options in my mind otherwise I’m going to kill myself.
Many thanks to Ueli and Jon for the interview, and Mountain Hardwear for their help.
FACEBOOK: Scottish shots from last week by Alpine Exposures - Jon Griffith Photography