I genuinely believed that Ueli Steck was one of those extreme climbers who would end up living to a ripe old age – not because I thought he would be one of the lucky ones, but because he was that good.
I was shocked when I woke up on Sunday to the news that Ueli was gone. His body had been found near Camp 1 in Everest’s Western Cwm. He had apparently fallen 1000m while climbing unroped and unprotected on Nuptse.
Tributes have poured in from the climbing community. He was respected by everyone, but his appeal extended beyond the climbing community too. He was probably the most famous mountaineer in the world (or at least the most famous currently active one), a face that was recognisable not just to climbers, but to the outdoor community in general.
The word inspirational has been used a lot in those tributes, an adjective that requires some explanation. Ueli did things which no ordinary person could do – things that some of the most talented and experienced climbers couldn’t do either. It would be ludicrous to try and repeat any of his climbs, and yet there was something about him that ordinary people like me – people who aren’t proper climbers – could identify with.
Why was this? I can’t speak for anyone else, but in this week’s post I’m going to try and explain why Ueli Steck – a man who, as I explained in a previous post, did ridiculous things on mountains – was inspirational to me.
I had never heard of Ueli Steck when I arrived to climb 8,035m Gasherbrum II in Pakistan in 2009, but the previous year he had set a record by climbing the North Face of the Eiger in 2 hours 47 minutes, a route that routinely took lesser climbers, many of them highly experienced, several days. He was the name on everyone’s lips at Base Camp. Ueli this, Ueli that (nobody ever used his second name – it wasn’t necessary, and I didn’t even find out what it was until I arrived home and Googled him).
There were around 50 or 60 people at Gasherbrum Base Camp that year. Most, like me, were either members of fully supported commercial groups there to climb one the two 8,000m peaks, Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II, or were so-called ‘independent’ climbers, who intended to follow the schedules and climb the fixed ropes installed by teams like ours.
I use the word ‘independent’ in inverted commas because these climbers weren’t truly independent. They needed the commercial teams to provide the infrastructure, keep the route open by breaking trail and installing fixed ropes, and set the schedule by receiving weather forecasts and assessing likely conditions.
By contrast there was a team of alpinists camped beside us in Base Camp who intended to climb the smaller, but more technical peak, Gasherbrum IV. These were ‘proper’ climbers, who kept their own schedule, and did all the work of establishing the route themselves, without any commercial support above Base Camp. They knew they were in a different category. They kept aloof from the commercial climbers like us. They didn’t talk to us, and complained if anyone came too close to their camp. On one occasion another commercial group tried to set up camp next to them, but they were rudely ejected.
Ueli was different though. In terms of climbing ability, he was head and shoulders above everyone, including the alpinists, but he seemed like a normal guy that anyone could have a pint with. He didn’t wear his greatness like a crown. He was climbing the ‘easy’ peak Gasherbrum II like we were. He stopped and chatted to the commercial climbers on the trail, exchanged weather reports and talked about plans, just like everyone else.
But he was on a very different schedule to the rest of us. I spent two months in Pakistan that year, and the weather was atrocious. When it wasn’t snowing and turning the slopes of Gasherbrum II into an avalanche hazard, the jet stream dropped below 8,000m and battered the summit with 100 km/h winds.
After a six-day stint at Base Camp we decided to climb up to Camp 1 for a leg stretch. The forecast wasn’t very good, and we had no intention of climbing any higher. But a night at Camp 1 before descending again the following morning, would be good for us, and stop us going stir crazy.
As we rested at Camp 1 in the Gasherbrum Cwm, we were passed by a lone figure on skis. It was Ueli. He stopped to ask us how we were and what our plans were. We told him we had just come up for a stroll, as bad weather was forecast and we thought the slopes above Camp 2 would still be unsafe after recent snow. He nodded, as if to agree with us.
‘I will just go for a look,’ he said, and passed through Camp 1 on his way up the mountain.
We didn’t regret descending the following day. The weather at Base Camp was cold and windy, and we knew it would be worse higher up. These certainly weren’t summit conditions for us, but Base Camp was alive with rumours that Ueli had been spotted climbing high.
He made his solo ascent in marginal conditions that would have been unsafe for lesser climbers. He broke his own trail through deep snow, and bypassed the dangerous avalanche slopes above Camp 2 by climbing the adjacent rock ridge – harder but safer. He was one of only two people to climb Gasherbrum II that year, and he was the one we all remembered.
I never did find out if the alpinists made it up Gasherbrum IV, but their contrast with Ueli helps to explain why so many ordinary people saw something in Ueli that they could identify with.
There are a few things about the climbing world that many people find off-putting. Firstly, there is a macho culture. Many climbers are competitive, concerned with appearances and what their peers will think of them if they don’t behave according to established customs. For a sport that celebrates the freedom of the hills, there are a lot of unwritten rules, and an obsession with being seen to climb in a certain style.
Even things like the language of climbers can deter people – everyday words that have a particular meaning within the climbing community that ordinary people won’t understand. Climbing routes are ‘sent’ (i.e. successfully climbed without making a mistake, and without using your climbing gear to hang on while you take a rest) or ‘set free’ (i.e. climbed for the very first time). I’m not trying to mock these words or the people who use them. I am just pointing out that this is technical language. It would be appropriate in an instruction manual because it has a specific meaning which adds clarity, but it’s not going to inspire anyone who doesn’t understand the meaning.
This may sound trivial, but it subconsciously creates a closed community that is unwelcoming to outsiders. Many hill walkers who are aspiring climbers, for example, never break into that community and end up returning to a world of backpacking and hiking that feels more open (The British Mountaineering Council, which represents both climbers and hill walkers, got a surprise last year when it tried to change its name to Climb Britain without consultation).
Ueli Steck was an elite climber who transcended all of this and appealed to everyone. He didn’t seek validation from his peers; he was just somebody with a gift who enjoyed what he did. He wasn’t interested in climbing new routes on obscure rock faces that people outside the climbing community had never heard of. He climbed 8,000m peaks solo, at speeds nobody had done before. These were achievements that ordinary people could understand.
He had a humility about him. He wasn’t embarrassed about climbing Everest (as some elite climbers are, because of its association these days with commercial and guided climbing) – he had a proper respect for the mountain and the true difficulty of its more extreme routes. He wasn’t macho; there was an impishness about him that didn’t conform to the stereotypes.
He didn’t brag; he let his achievements speak for themselves. These included a 10½ hour solo ascent of the 2,000m South Face of Shishapangma in 2011. They reached their highlight with his ascent of the 2,500m South Face of Annapurna in 2013. When the cream of British mountaineering, led by Chris Bonington, made the first ascent of this face in 1970, they did it good old-fashioned siege style. Over many weeks, eight top climbers supported the summit pair of Don Whillans and Dougal Haston by fixing rope and carrying loads to a series of high camps.
Ueli did the whole thing in 28 hours, unroped, solo and unsupported. He even lost a glove. His climb was put in perspective the same month when a pair of French climbers repeated the route. It took them ten days, and one of them returned with severe frostbite. Under normal conditions theirs would have been regarded as a major achievement, but compared to Ueli they looked like a pair of pub footballers.
His big project this year was to be the Everest Horseshoe. He would repeat Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld’s 1963 ascent of Everest’s West Ridge and traverse down the South-East Ridge like they did. Then he would continue up the North Ridge of Lhotse, and perhaps over Nuptse too. Many people have talked about this dream route that makes the Snowdon Horseshoe look like a game of tiddlywinks, but nobody has ever made a serious attempt. With Ueli, we dared to dream that it might be possible. It was a route that made aficionados of Everest history salivate (OK, I didn’t salivate). If there was anyone in the world who could do it, he was the man.
Ueli was also an engaging, entertaining and funny speaker. I attended two lectures by him at the Royal Geographical Society in London, one about his life and times, and another about his many expeditions to the 8,000m peaks. I think they were the only two of the many lectures I attended at the RGS that were sold out (most mountaineering lectures at the RGS aren’t even half full).
His manner of speaking was matter-of-fact. He talked about his achievements as if there was nothing extraordinary in them, which often elicited wry chuckles from the audience. He was honest about the hard work he put into his climbs, how he trained like a professional athlete, spending all day in the gym, on indoor climbing walls, or out trail running in the Alps. These parts of his lectures were the most inspirational to some people; it was something many people in the audience could relate to.
Paradoxically, he regarded speed as an aspect of safety. If you can get an ascent done quickly, he reasoned, you were exposed to risk for a shorter period. You reduced the chances of getting benighted, or of taking longer than expected when there was a chance of bad weather overtaking you.
During a question-and-answer session at the end of one of his lectures, somebody asked if he was going to try and reclaim his Eiger speed record, which had just been broken.
“No,” he said. “You can’t keep taking the risk and climbing it faster and faster. A few years after I climbed the Eiger in 2 hours 47 minutes, Dani Arnold did it in 2 hours 28, so he was nearly twenty minutes faster than me. As soon as he did it the media were asking me if I was going to go back and beat it. But I said no way. There isn’t going to be a competition to beat it again and again.”
That was in 2014. In 2015 Ueli did go back to the Eiger, and he climbed it in 2 hours 22 minutes.
Poignantly, I ended one of my blog posts about Ueli’s lectures with a conversation I had in a pub afterwards with my mate Dan. Dan said that it was only a matter of time before he got himself killed, but I disagreed. Until last weekend, I still believed that.
But Dan was right, and I was wrong. Climbing solo is more dangerous because there is no one on the other end of the rope to protect you if you make a mistake. If we didn’t know it before, even the greatest make mistakes sometimes. The world is a smaller place this week, and another mountaineering legend has gone too soon.
Gone but never forgotten. Let’s relive that Eiger speed climb again. It’s a video I can never tire of watching.
Thieves, Liars and Mountaineers, the book about my 2009 expedition to Gasherbrum in which Ueli Steck features, has just been revised and published as a paperback.