The Swiss Machine: Ueli Steck
Ueli Steck was a man who sought simplicity in life. While mountaineering, one can only worry about what is essential to the success of the climb. It was this philosophy of simplicity that Ueli Steck found peace in. Steck was constantly on the move, traveling across the world in search of routes to challenge his ability to ascend. Steck was a speed climber, combining the endurance of a runner, mindset of a mountaineer, and the fearlessness of a freeclimber to set records on ascent times on mountains across the globe.
The North Face of The Eiger, Switzerland
Steck’s achievements distinguish him as one of the greatest free climbers to ever live, pushing the limits of mountaineering. Born in Switzerland to a copper smith father, Steck enjoyed a nordic life consisting of hockey, ski touring, and, of course, mountaineering. Trained to be a carpenter, Steck was a quiet, focused individual with a bright smile and dedication to pushing his own personal limits. By age 18, Ueli had ascended the north face of the Eiger, a formidable alpine route in Switzerland usually reserved for only the most daring expert mountaineers. Steck, growing up only 30 minutes from the mountain, spent his childhood years fascinated with the multiple thousand meters of rock and ice composing the Eiger. Eventually his curiosity brought him to the summit at an age much younger than most. With this ascent under his belt, Ueli moved swiftly to start conquering a slew of arduous peaks across Europe, demonstrating both technical rock climbing skill and high-elevation speed and endurance.
Ueli Free Soloing on Excalibur
Steck was no stranger to exposure. In 2004, he completed a full ascent of Excalibur Pillar in Switzerland without any protection. The route scales a 350 meter wall with a difficulty grading of 6b (5.10d), meaning that the climb was suitable for experienced climbers with excellent fitness. Completion of an unprotected climb of this scale thrust Steck into the spotlight across the world, and led him to his initial sponsorships, marking the start of his professional mountaineering career.
Individuals like Ueli are a rare breed of alpinist. His speed climbs demonstrate the efficacy of the “fast and light” mantra in mountaineering. Steck would accomplish most of his notable climbs with this technique. “Fast and light” alpinism is a simple premise - by reducing the amount of gear and supplies, the speed at which the climber travels can be increased. On routes traditionally accomplished in 2-3 days, climbers must bring sleeping supplies, extra layers for warmth, food, and bivouac shelters for resting during the climb. By forfeiting this gear, the alpinist has only one choice: to summit the mountain and return to safety in one attempt. Steck would not bring supplemental oxygen and could only rely on his cardiovascular conditioning to ensure he attains the summit safely.
Col du Plan in Chamonix, France
In addition to the forfeiture of sleeping supplies and extra food, the “fast and light” mantra included giving up protective measures such as ropes, cams, ice-screws, and belay devices, all of which are intended to catch a climber in the event of a fall. Without these protections, the climber is continuously managing the risk of falling - a mistake that proves fatal on most 5th class climbing routes. Steck was not a normal alpinist in the sense that he had to calculate every move he made; from route planning to hand placement on each and every rock, Stecks decision making determined his life.
Ueli on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses
Steck continued to establish speed records across the globe, with these records primarily completed solo and largely without protection being placed. He completed the first solo ascent of the south face of Annapurna, arguably his most astonishing achievement. The route is at extreme elevation and combines technical rock climbing, scrambling, and ice climbing on the over 8000 meter route to the summit. This was completed as a solo ascent, meaning that any false move meant certain death. With this ascent, Steck certified himself as one of the world’s most skilled and daring alpinists.
In 2017, Steck set out to pioneer a new alpine route, linking the summit of Everest and the Summit of Lhotse in one continuous attempt. This route would be the first of its kind in the Himalayas, requiring sustained output in the "death zone" without additional oxygen. During a acclimatizing climb on neighboring peak Nuptse, Steck tragically fell over 1000 meters to his death before embarking on the groundbreaking traverse. While his physical presence is now gone, the spirit and achievements of Ueli Steck will continue to push the world of mountaineering for years to come. Steck defined new boundaries for mountaineering and solo climbing, and will be remembered for his humble attitude and dedication to breaking down barriers.