The Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck was probably the best mountain climber in the world. In a sport where a willingness to take risks is as crucial as fitness, he combined an Olympian’s physique and a calculated daring few could rival.
His death this weekend at age 40 — on the Nepalese Himalayan mountain Nuptse, which neighbors Mount Everest — on a training foray, came when he fell around 3,000 feet while climbing alone.
The equipment and terminology of conventional climbing are often difficult to convey to the layman. Solo climbing — which Steck excelled at — is not. It’s as dangerous as it looks. There is no trick of the light, no specialized piece of gear. A mistake is fatal. The more difficult the climb, the more practiced and disciplined the climber should be.
Soloists can look at it one of two ways. Either the risk decreases with years of dedicated practice, or more simply, the more one undertakes dangerous climbs alone, the greater the chance of an accident. The long list of great mountaineers who have been killed climbing alone points toward the latter argument. As Steck put it in a 2016 video, “The risk is constantly there — and you deal with it.”
As satellite phones, helicopter access and a lack of virgin terrain squeeze the unknown and unexpected out of mountaineering, alpinists have had to fight for relevancy. With new routes and unclimbed peaks becoming scarcer, many have transitioned into completing classic climbs as quickly as possible. Steck, who often ran up difficult routes in little more than tights and a headband, could easily have been mistaken for a distance runner or Nordic skier. But try as mountaineering might to masquerade as a traditional endurance sport, the risks remain, increasing as gear is stripped away to the bare minimum.
Speed is an easily quantifiable thing. It’s exhilarating to be able to move so quickly. And if mountaineers were measured by this benchmark alone, Ueli Steck was the greatest in history. He climbed the Eiger’s infamous North Face in 2 hours 22 minutes, sprinting up the 6,000-foot-high “Wall of Death” in the time it takes to run a fast marathon. In 2015, he climbed all 82 of the peaks in the Alps 4,000 meters or higher. (That’s 13,123 feet.) It took him a mere 62 days, including the time spent biking and paragliding between mountains.
His legendary endurance, bolstered by years of science-informed physical training, earned him the nickname the Swiss Machine, but more important, it showcased what a talented mountain climber could do if given the time and funding to prepare like a conventional endurance athlete. He challenged the image of the bearded, beer-swilling mountaineer; here was a honed engine who ran on a Spartan diet and planned his ascents down to the move. Preparation trumped danger, or so it seemed.
The availability of Steck’s feats on YouTube and Vimeo helped bring mountaineering out of the doldrums. Watching alpine climbing now felt as fast and exciting as viewing tennis or soccer. And while the American company Clif Bar canceled its sponsorship of several climbers because of discomfort with the risks they were taking, Steck’s European sponsors, like Audi, gave him free rein.
Like many of his more traditional athletic counterparts, Steck had his share of controversial moments. Having ascended Everest in 2012 without supplemental oxygen, he returned in 2013 with a more ambitious plan, to climb both Everest and a neighboring peak, Lhotse, in one push. On the way up, Steck, the Italian climber Simone Moro and the photographer Jon Griffith passed a group of Sherpas who were fixing ropes low on Mount Everest. In doing so, the trio violated an understanding held by the Sherpas and Western guides on the mountain that no one would climb until the ropes were in place. Steck and his team had no use for the safety of a fixed rope; they simply wished to sprint by. In the ensuing confrontation, Moro hurling an insult at the Sherpas in Nepali didn’t help.
When the climbers returned to camp, they found themselves challenged by angry Sherpas who shouted insults and hurled rocks toward their tent. Fearing for their lives, Steck, Moro and Griffith hoofed it down the mountain and gave up their attempt. It is difficult not to make the assumption that Steck’s elite stature encouraged the hostile exchange: a clash of the old and new worlds of mountaineering.
The second blip in Steck’s career also occurred in the Himalayas. In 2007, he had tried a mountain called Annapurna, whose deadly south face had become a kind of Grail for talented alpinists, combining sheer technical difficulty with high altitude. The face had claimed the lives of several pioneers of Steck’s particular, dangerous game, “fast and light” alpinism.
The brilliant British climber Alex MacIntyre was struck by a single falling rock and killed there in 1982. In 1992, the French alpinist Pierre Béghin fell to his death, leaving his partner Jean-Christophe Lafaille to descend the face alone in a harrowing multiday ordeal. During the process, Lafaille, too, was hit by a falling stone, which broke his arm. Steck attempted the south face in 2007, but was also hit by rockfall and knocked unconscious. “Only luck,” he wrote in the magazine Alpinist, “kept me from dying.” In October 2013 he returned alone, finishing the route Lafaille and Béghin had begun, in 28 hours round-trip.
But doubts swirled around his Annapurna climb. Why hadn’t Steck, for whom the camera and altimeter watch been constant companions, better documented his ascent? He claimed a small avalanche wrenched the camera away, and his altimeter watch had broken. Ultimately, he brushed the criticisms aside, letting his actions on successive peaks speak for him.
Repeating routes as quickly as possible or linking up multiple summits are specific undertakings. If you keep getting away with it, there’s limited or no negative feedback. You either have a success rate of 100 percent, or zero. Those who live into old age are usually the soloists who quit climbing alone.
Steck was killed before attempting to link Everest and Lhotse in one marathon effort — his goal from the interrupted 2013 expedition. Ultimately, speed and training weren’t enough. Steck will be remembered as the climber who ushered mountaineering into its latest modern age. But his death is a reminder that those on the cutting edge are still subject to mountaineering’s oldest companion: tragedy.
Michael Wejchert is a climbing guide.