In one of the most audacious, yet perfectly executed, climbs in recent years, Ueli Steck has soloed a new route on the south face of Annapurna.
The new route climbs the wide depression/gully between the 1970 British and 1981 Japanese pillars and is ca 2,500m high.
The line, which in adverse conditions becomes an obvious funnel for spindrift and avalanche from high on the face, is highly suited to a fast, light approach, and was first envisaged by the accomplished French mountaineer, Pierre Béghin.
In October 1992, Béghin, who when it came to cutting-edge ascents was France's foremost high-altitude, Himalayan mountaineer, and the talented top alpinist Jean Christophe Lafaille, who was on his first Himalayan trip, made an alpine-style attempt.
They had more or less overcome the technical difficulties and reached a height of 7,400m before bad weather forced a retreat. Three hundred metres lower, Béghin, abseiling from a Friend reportedly too small for the crack (but all that was available), ripped the anchor and fell to his death, leaving Lafaille to make an epic solo descent (during which stonefall broke his arm).
Steck's notable Himalayan solos began in 2005, when he climbed a new route on Tawache (6,495m) and a direct finish to the French route on Cholatse (6,440m).
In 2007 he made his first of three expeditions to attempt a completion of the Béghin-Lafaille line.
On his solo attempt he was at ca 5,850m, low on the face, where he was hit by a stone, which shattered his helmet and left him concussed. He fell to about 5,500m on the glacier and when he came to, bad visibility disoriented him.
He wandered around until found by a fellow team member, who had come back up the glacier. Steck had no memory of what had happened and wisely decided to abandon any further attempts that year.
The following year he tried the line again with Simon Anthamatten, but gave up further attempts to try to rescue Iñaki Ochoa from high on the east ridge.
This year he planned to try with Canadian Don Bowie. The two acclimatized on the face and stashed some gear (rope, tent, stove etc) at 6,100m but on what was to be the main attempt, Bowie felt uneasy at the rimaye and decided not to continue.
Conditions were excellent although the wind was strong, and above 6,600m Steck was bothered by a little spindrift. He reached the start of the steep section and main difficulties at ca 7,000m, and pitched the tent, hoping the wind would ease and he'd continue next day.
As the sun went down the wind dropped and Steck realized his only chance was to continue through the night: the wind would probably pick up again next morning.
Higher, while looking at a photo of the headwall he'd taken a few hours earlier for orientation, he was hit by a spindrift avalanche, which took away his camera and one of his down gloves.
He continued, swapping the other glove between right and left hands, depending on which felt cold.
He was comfortable with the technical difficulties, finding wonderful ice/névé runnels, and the steep section shorter than expected.
Steck reached the summit and then reversed the route by down-climbing and making a few abseils. He reached the glacier at around 9:30am, 28 hours after setting out on the route.
In the history of climbing on the 8,000m peaks there have been few alpine-style solo ascents of completely independent new routes that reach the main summit.
Perhaps the most well-known is Reinhold Messner's 1978 ascent of the Diamir Face of Nanga Parbat. While the route was non-technical, it was committing, with considerable objective danger, a line that could only be contemplated by a fast-moving climber. And it has not been repeated.
Beghin's career highlight was undoubtedly the 1989 solo traverse of Makalu. Given that no-one else summited Makalu that season, this was a magnificent effort up a partial new line on the south face. However, with two other climbers he'd already fixed rope to 7,200m, and although the upper part of the line was technically demanding, it was common to the Slovenian Route.
Krzysztof Wielicki soloed the south face of Xixabangma in 1993, following the 50° snow couloir to the right of the 1982 British route.
In 2006 Slovenian mountaineer Pavle Kozjek soloed a partial new route on the south face of Cho Oyu. There was a technical section at 7,200m, after which he joined the previously climbed west ridge. However, he completed the 2,000m ascent in less than 15 hours, marking the first time that a new route on an 8,000m peak had been soloed in a single push and in a day.
Inevitably the passage of time leads to greater and greater achievements. Steck's sheer talent, professionalism and punishing training regime have just taken high altitude climbing to a new level.
Annapurna has played a major part in the advancement of Himalayan climbing: for a start it was the first 8,000m peak to be summited.
In 1970 two routes marked the beginning of a new era of Himalayan climbing; a deliberate attempt on a difficult face to a previously ascended 8,000m peak.
First came Chris Bonington's expedition to the south face of Annapurna, with Dougal Haston and Don Whillans reaching the summit after the team had overcome high technical difficulties on the south pillar of the main top.
This was followed a month or so later by the German success on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, the Messner brothers reaching the summit first and then descending the Diamir Face.
Climbing alpine-style on the highest peaks was inaugurated by Messner in 1975 on Gasherbrum I, but by the end of the 1970s other players were in the field.
In the spring of 1982 Alex MacIntyre made the historic first ascent of the south face of Xixabangma in alpine-style and in the autumn planned to up-the-anti with a new line on the bigger and technically more difficult south face of Annapurna. Sadly, on an attempt with René Ghilini he was killed, hit by a single stone.
The line was completed in 1984 by Nil Bohigas and Enric Lucas, two Catalans who were then largely unknown on the international stage.
After spending six weeks acclimatizing in the Annapurna Sanctuary, this pair made an on-sight, alpine-style ascent of a technically difficult line to the central summit.
One year later Wojiech Kurtyka and Robert Schauer achieved an equally similar feat on the west face of Gasherbrum IV. Today, these ascents (both unrepeated) still garner enormous respect and are considered pivotal events in the evolution of mountaineering.