When I first heard about the death of the Swiss mountaineer and speed climber Ueli Steck on Everest’s west peak, Nuptse, I was shocked and surprised, but there didn’t seem to be anything mysterious about it. But then an enlightening interview with the Sherpa who found his body raised many questions, and turned a simple accident into a strange mystery.
I was shocked because – as I wrote in my tribute to Ueli – I truly believed he was one of those climbers who would survive into old age. But I wasn’t mystified. Ueli had been intending to climb Everest by the West Ridge, then traverse down the South-East Ridge to the South Col, from where he planned to climb Lhotse and descend.
He died after an 800m fall on Nuptse on April 30th. He was travelling alone and unprotected on steep terrain, where a single mistake meant certain death.
Nuptse is a continuation of the ridge beyond Lhotse. Ueli hadn’t mentioned climbing it in his pre-expedition publicity, but nobody was too surprised to see him there. In an interview shortly after his death, the great Himalayan alpinist Reinhold Messner speculated that Ueli had been reconnoitring the Everest Horseshoe when he fell. This holy grail of Himalayan mountaineering was a slightly longer version of the route that Ueli announced he would be climbing. It involved traversing across the summit of Lhotse and along the ridge to Nuptse, then descending to Everest Base Camp. It’s a route that many people have talked about, but nobody has ever attempted. Would Ueli be the one?
“All of us tend to proclaim more modest intentions at the outset, so that when we succeed [in achieving something more ambitious] we can subsequently announce our success,” Messner said in the interview.
Jonathan Griffith, one of Ueli’s former climbing partners on Everest, also expressed no surprise that Ueli was on Nuptse that day. It was completely in character for him to whiz up a difficult mountain on a whim.
“He would have been in Camp 2 and seen conditions looked good on Nuptse. Why not climb Nuptse to acclimatize rather than the Lhotse Face?” Griffith told Outside Magazine.
But Messner also said the North Face of Nuptse should not be underestimated. Did Ueli underestimate it, or was it just a rare mistake?
Ueli made his name completing speed climbs up the North Face of the Eiger, known as the Eigerwand. Messner pointed out that despite his consummate ability, he performed feats that were laden with risk beyond his control.
“If a large rock falls from above and hits you on the Eigerwand, you are going to fall and you are going to die,” he said.
Mountain guide and writer Michael Wejchert echoed this sentiment in a tribute to Ueli in the New York Times of all places, when he said that “Those [solo climbers] who live into old age are usually the soloists who quit climbing alone”.
But in Men’s Journal (which sounds like a pornographic magazine, but is actually about health and fitness), the alpinist and Everest climber Conrad Anker pointed out that “Too often it is the simple mistake that catches us unaware.”
It was no mystery then, either for Ueli Steck to be on Nuptse or for him to die there.
It seemed the case was closed, but it’s in the nature of humans to ask questions, and a man called Leo Montejo, team doctor with Madison Mountaineering, decided to talk to Vinayak Jaya Malla, the Nepalese mountain guide who found Ueli’s body. Vinayak turned out to be a fascinating interviewee, knowledgeable, inquisitive and, crucially, possessing a good memory for detail.
Vinayak was climbing up from Camp 1 in the Western Cwm in perfect weather conditions – cloudless, with no wind – when he saw a climber on a ridge high on 7,861m Nuptse. He estimated the climber was at 7100m to 7200m, and heading towards the summit of Nuptse I, the highest of Nuptse’s seven summits. A short while later he heard a sound like something falling, and looked up to where he had seen the climber, but the climber was no longer there.
He met a Sherpa colleague on his way down from Camp 2, and they spoke about what Vinayak had seen. They agreed to go and look. At 9.34am they found Ueli’s body at an altitude of 6,300m, roughly 300m off the main route.
Vinayak offers three explanations for why Ueli fell. He saw a rock the size of a football nearby, stained with blood, one of Ueli’s crampons was missing, and he wasn’t wearing a harness. Solo climbers often wear harnesses on steep terrain so that they can attach themselves to a rock, lean back and take a rest when they are tired. Rockfall, a missing crampon, or tiredness, could all have contributed to a fall.
So far, there is no mystery, only facts that help to explain the story. But then Vinayak helped to gather and inventory Ueli’s belongings, both at the place where he landed, and in his tent at Camp 2, and this is where the mystery starts.
Vinayak states that Ueli was carrying or wearing 6000m mountaineering boots, crampons, a good jacket and trousers, a small bag of water, a chocolate bar, a GPS and a camera.
This information wasn’t enough for the inquisitive Vinayak, who went on to note the items Ueli didn’t have. These included a helmet, gloves, a harness, ice axes and trekking poles.
Of course, he could have lost these during the fall. But did the equipment in Ueli’s tent offer another clue?
In the tent they packed away Ueli’s sleeping bag, food, another pair of boots, another pair of crampons, 50m of 5mm rope, and a pair of ice axes
Vinayak was surprised that Ueli hadn’t taken the rope, but he was gobsmacked at the thought that he may have been climbing without ice axes. Ueli was well known for completing difficult routes with only trekking poles. Later in the article, Dr Montejo produces a photo of Ueli standing on the summit of Island Peak with a trekking pole, but no axes (interestingly, he is also wearing a harness). Having climbed Island Peak myself, I can say with confidence that I could not have done it without an ice axe (but I’m to Ueli Steck what Carlton Palmer was to Bobby Charlton – and that’s being unfair on Carlton).
Could Ueli have taken this approach on the north face of Nuptse, which Messner said should not be underestimated? Vinayak believes that Ueli was climbing Nuptse with trekking poles (which means, presumably, that he lost them in the fall), because this was Ueli’s climbing style. But his description of the route that he saw Ueli take makes this sound foolhardy.
Ueli was climbing Nuptse I and did not use the standard route. From camp 2 he went up the glacier on a block of ice, and then continued on a 70-75 degree mixed wall of ice and snow. The wall then traverses to the ridge which is also a mix of rock, ice, and snow.
Climbing a 70-75 degree wall of ice with trekking poles?
There is a light-hearted moment in the interview, when Dr Montejo asks Vinayak what he would have found most useful that day that Ueli did not take with him.
Vinayak’s answer: a climbing partner.
Of course, Ueli’s best-known attribute was that he liked to climb solo, but even in this respect there were signs that Ueli had a change of heart. He had been intending to climb the West Ridge and Lhotse with Tenji Sherpa, with whom he climbed Everest in 2012. But Tenji was suffering from frostbite, and was told by his doctor not to climb. Then Ueli tried to team up with another alpinist, Yannick Graziani, but Graziani was told by his operator not to climb Nuptse because he didn’t have a permit.
Did Ueli, a man famous for meticulous preparation, training and practice, underestimate Nuptse? This, for me, is the mystery.
Often the most profound explanation is the simplest one. At the end of the interview, Vinayak provides some of the wisest and most poetic words I’ve ever heard used to explain a mountaineering accident.
If you have been to the Himalayas, you will often see Bharal, blue sheep, very high on the mountains. They are very agile and fast so as to protect themselves from snow leopards. But sometimes, blue sheep fall off from cliffs. Each time they do, there is a different reason. Sometimes they fall due to rock fall, other times, they have perhaps run too fast, etc.
Perhaps we must think of Ueli as such – as a Bharal, as one of our blue sheep of the Himalayas who one day fell for an unexpected reason but was otherwise a master.
You can read the whole of the interview with Vinayak here.