Trail Magazine delves inside the mind of speed climbing sensation Ueli Steck, the fastest thing on two crampons, and asks: what makes the Swiss Machine tick?
Just in case you hadn’t guessed, Ueli Steck is the figure in this photograph. The vertical ice wall he’s hacking into is the north face of the Eiger, and the reason you can’t see
a rope hanging from his waist is because there isn’t one. He’s up there on his own, with no safety net, pushing himself to the limit on one of the world’s most treacherous mountains
– and there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
“You have to find a find a way of living that you’re happy with,” the Swiss climber told Trail. “When I’m in the mountains, nothing else matters. Everything is perfect. It’s a simple way of life, and it’s the life I love.”
If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume you already subscribe to that philosophy, but what so few of us are capable of understanding is just how Ueli does what he does. This is a guy who can climb the Eiger in less time than it takes to watch the Coronation Street omnibus, and who – just last year – raced up and down the 2500m south face of Annapurna (the world’s tenth highest mountain) in just 28 hours, summiting in darkness with only a water bottle, two power bars and a short length of rope for company. Critics are often quick to dismiss Steck as crazy, or as having some kind of elaborate death wish; but listen to the mild-mannered 37-year-old talk and that couldn’t seem further from the truth. Yes, he’s an exceptionally driven individual who takes risks most people will never come to terms with; but deep down he just loves the outdoors.
“It’s hard for people to understand what I do because they don’t see what’s behind it,” he said. “It’s the same when I see a Formula 1 driver race at 200mph. I think that’s crazy because I don’t know the game, so I understand the reaction I get. But mountains give me freedom to be who I want to be. When I climb it’s just me, nature and nothing else.”
The main question climbers get asked is why? Why risk everything by chasing dreams up rock faces that gravity suggests humans have no business going anywhere near? But Ueli Steck is different. He doesn’t just climb these faces; he does it with a speed and strut that leaves the rest of the mountaineering world staring open-mouthed in disbelief. He flies up with the minimum amount of kit – an axe in each hand, a crampon on each foot and a small pack on his back. This ‘speed ascent’ style means that if he makes even the smallest mistake, he won’t be coming back. So why the hell does he do it?
“People always talk about my ‘speed climbing’, but they forget time has always mattered in the mountains. When I was growing up people told me to get up and down as fast as possible, to reach the summit and get back before dark.
“I wasn’t the first person to check their watch after a climb. Everyone you meet on a mountain always tells you how long it took. Walkers, climbers – everyone talks about it. You have to be efficient and move fast, so I learned how to run in crampons – and it worked out well for me.”
‘Worked out well’ is a slight understatement. Ueli climbed the Eiger for the first of 37 times in 1995, and 13 years later became the first recipient of the ‘Eiger Award’, after smashing his own ascent record by soloing the north face in 2hr 47min. The following year he summited the Matterhorn in 1hr 56min to achieve his dream of setting records on the three great Alpine north faces – the Eiger, the Matterhorn and the Grandes Jorasses. Hitting those heights in those times involves more than a little element of danger – especially when you consider a ‘normal’ Eiger ascent takes three days – and leaves no room for the comfort of climbing partners, or even ropes…
“When you see me climbing without ropes I’m always in my comfort zone, but my comfort zone is at quite a high level. Of course there’s a chance I’ll fall and die because this is a risk sport, but I know I’m safe and in control. I know I’m not going to fall. I’ll never lose my respect for heights, but I don’t fear them.”
To understand the man we see today, it’s important to look back at how it all began. The first hobby to engage the young Ueli Steck was ice hockey, before a climbing trip with a family friend at the age of 12 changed his life forever. Although Ueli admits to being terrified on that first climb, it ignited a passion that over the next 25 years would see him become an icon in his native Alps, and eventually take him to the very top of the world.
“I got hooked straight away. I just loved it,” he recalled. “My parents knew climbing was dangerous, but they were just happy I wasn’t hanging around doing nothing. Now I spend all of my time climbing, running, hiking, cross country skiing, cycling or paragliding. There’s so much to do in the mountains that I don’t have the time for anything else. I don’t even own a TV!”
A common misconception of mountaineers is that they’re fearless. A group of iron-willed, emotionless superhumans capable of grabbing life by the balls and letting nothing stand in their way. The reality, of course, is often somewhat different. Although ice-cool masters in their own domain, they’re prone to the same doubts and insecurities that plague the rest of us in our day-to-day lives.
“People don’t believe it, but I’m actually a very scared guy. Whenever I try something for the first time, it scares me a lot. Climbing is where I feel comfortable, but it takes a lot of practice for me to feel confident at anything.”
As well as a glut of natural ability, it’s that desire to practise and improve that has made Steck the superstar of his generation. He’s a dedicated scholar of mountaineering who spends up to a year preparing for each ascent: analysing every route down to the tiniest detail, pushing his body to the limit on training runs and scrutinising weather patterns, waiting for the perfect time to strike.
“I’m typically Swiss when it comes to preparation,” he said with a grin. “I like to be in control of everything. It’s no big deal to wait a day or two for good weather, but you’ve got to be ready to pull the trigger when it arrives.
“I also learn from every climb. When I turned back near the summit of Everest in 2011 because my feet were cold, some people couldn’t believe it. But I know it was the right decision because I got to keep my toes!”
Steck returned to Everest in 2012 and summited via the south ridge, but it was his visit to the Khumbu Valley last year that generated more headlines. While attempting, along with Simone Moro and Jon Griffith, to complete the first Everest-Lhotse traverse without oxygen, he became involved in a controversial bust-up with a group of Sherpas on the Lhotse Face. Stories of high-altitude punch-ups and death threats quickly spread through the media, while Steck, Moro and Griffith were forced to retreat from the mountain. Today, sadness fills his face when the topic comes up and although he understandably doesn’t want to discuss the incident, it’s clear the mental scars run deep.
“The project we attempted on Everest still really interests me, but I don’t know if I want to go back there. I climb to have fun, so I’m not sure I want to expose myself to all that again. There’s a big spotlight on Everest – it’s like a big theatre – so it would be impossible for me to go back without creating publicity.”
If not Everest, what’s next for the man they call the Swiss Machine? After spending the last five years committing to a series of huge Himalayan challenges, Ueli admits it could be time to return to the Alps – although don’t expect to see any speed records falling in the near future.
“Once you get into the mindset of always going faster, it’s a dead end. Chasing records is super-dangerous, so when people beat your times [as Dani Arnold did by pruning 20 minutes off Steck’s Eiger record in 2011] it’s important to step back and say well done. If you get too competitive, that’s when people start getting killed.”
With such a glittering career already behind him, Ueli admits motivation is becoming a problem. He also admits to sacrificing some of that trademark Swiss precision by taking uncharacteristically huge risks on that Annapurna trip last year, where perhaps for the first time he got a glimpse of his own mortality. As a result, his next adventure will be a low key two-month climbing trip with his wife – and after so many years of chasing records, it seems now’s the time to start having fun again.
“The most exciting thing in life is always what comes next. I don’t live in the past,” he said. “I want to relax and enjoy myself for the next few months because the last few years have been very intense. I’ll definitely keep going back to the Eiger, though, because it’s in my backyard. I can catch a train at 7.20am and be there 40 minutes later. It’s a cool place to live – I call it paradise.”
So with the mountainous heart of Europe on his doorstep, what would the world’s most celebrated mountaineer consider the perfect day? If he could spend 24 hours doing whatever he wanted, anywhere in the world, where would it be and what would he do?
“I would wake up at home, have a nice breakfast with good coffee with my wife, then go for a run in the mountains. Then I’d come home and go climbing in the afternoon. Maybe on the Eiger...” Paradise indeed.
INTERVIEW: OLI REED
This Interview was first published in Trail Magazine in April 2014