Ueli Steck and Annapurna: the interview after his South Face solo
Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck talks about his fast and impressive solo ascent up the South Face of Annapurna South (8091m, Nepal, Himalaya) that on 8 and 9 October 2013 enabled him to make the first ascent of the direct line attempted in 1992 by Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Pierre Beghin.
He's the mountaineer on everyone's lips. And his ascent up the South Face of Annapurna is already a part of the history of mountaineering. But it's worth adding immediately that Ueli Steck has always been, not just now, the climber everyone wants to be. Maybe it's because he doesn't talk much, but does a great deal. Or perhaps it's because his alpinism has a unique style, something which is his very own. The fact of the matter is that he often prefers to climb alone. That he executes unthinkable climbs with disarming simplicity. And that he's fast, supersonic. Just as his recent climb up the South Face of Annapurna. 28 hours from Advanced Base Camp to the summit and back again, to make the first ascent of the direct line located between the British and Japanese routes. An immense "journey", difficult and dangerous that began at 5:30am on 8 October and ended, after 28 hours ascending and descending, at 9:30am the next day. All alone and - perhaps there's no need even to underline it - without supplementary oxygen. An "impossible" undertaking attempted in 1992 by the two Himalayan greats Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Pierre Beghin. At the time the two French ace alpinists reached an altitude of 7500m. But during the descent, at 7200m, tragedy struck: an abseil failed, taking with it Beghin and all the gear forever. What followed was Lafaille's lone struggle against death and, after a 4-day ordeal, he miraculously managed to escape the face, wounded but alive. And now, after his attempts in both 2007 and 2008 , Ueli Steck has completed this great and visionary line. He did so alone - in what in all likelihood is the first solo up Annapurna's South Face - and in doing so he stunned the mountaineering world. But as can be gleamed from this interview that Ueli Steck granted us directly from Kathmandu, this climb holds a far greater meaning for him than any world record.
Ueli Steck, first of all can you provide us with some details about your ascent up the South Face of Annapurna... above all the "rhythm" and the style of these 28 hours climbing alone...
Things just worked out. Although the weather was OK the winds were still quite strong. In the end my partner Don Bowie decided at the Bergschrund not to enter the face. He felt it was technically too demanding to climb without a rope. This is the pre-requisite for a route like this. So I continued alone from the Bergschrund. At first it was difficult to switch to climbing alone. But the good conditions helped me focus pretty quickly on the actual climbing once again. Things almost developed on their own accord. We had stashed some gear at 6100 metres. We had acclimatised on the face beforehand and had deposited a rope, tent, stove, some food and gas up there. I packed the tent and stove in my rucksack. I didn't take the rope since I already had a 6 mm rope that I'd taken from ABC. For weight reasons I left my sleeping bag clipped to a peg along with the extra food, gas and rope. The ascent below the headwall proved relatively easy. From 6600 metres I encountered some wind and spindrift. I then climbed to right beneath the headwall. I wanted to pitch my tent there and wait. Either the wind would settle and I'd be able to continue, or I'd simply down-climb the next morning. But I failed to find a decent, suitably protected site for my tent so I climbed down a bit. A 100 metres further down I found a crevasse. A perfect bivy site, I'd be able to pitch my tent out of the wind, protected from sprindrift. It was now time to eat and drink. In the meantime the sun disappeared. Everything calmed down. Just like I'd already noticed at ABC the previous evening. And it was like that again. It quickly became dark and quiet. This was my chance. I was sure the winds would pick up again in the morning. So the only way to reach the summit was at night. An almost continuous line of ice and firn ran down the headwall. Finding the right route at night should be possible therefore. About an hour after reaching my bivy I set off again. Upwards. On some short sections the ice and firn proved somewhat thin, and on a couple of occasions I had to climb a few metres up rock. Surprisingly the face wasn't really vertical. Just a few sections of stepped terrain. Ideal for soloing. As long as I can climb like this, then I'm extremely efficient. This is what continued to run through the back of my mind. The thin air at 7000 metres isn't really the "Death zone", up here you can still progress fairly well. Only the cold proved somewhat tedious. While looking at a photo of the headwall I'd taken a few hours earlier I was hit by some spindrift, all I could do was clutch my ice axes to stop myself from being flushed down the face. In doing so I dropped one of my down gloves and my camera fell, too. I now had to climb into the night with only my climbing glove. I wore the down outer glove on either my left or right hand, depending on which felt cold. The headwall was shorter than I thought. Difficult to say in terms of pitches because I didn't use a rope. But my feeling was that I'd reached the upper section relatively quickly. It was there that for the first time I became aware of where I actually was and what it all meant. I now knew it was just a race against the wind. One step followed the next. I kept telling myself "All you need to do now is just fight a little more." Over and over again. I couldn't believe it on the summit ridge. It was night, the stars were out and suddenly the ridge dipped in front of me. I checked my altimeter, observed the ridge and knew I was on the highest point. I spent less than five minutes up there before starting the descent. I was still completely tense. My goal was down there, at the Bergschrund! It woul be all over then.
This was your third attempt at Annapurna's South Face. What does this mean to you?
It was difficult to try again. Somehow though I was convinced that it would work out. But what if I failed for a third time? Especially after that anything but successful spring expedition.
Some have already described this as the ascent of the decade. How do you view this, in the light of your experience on other routes?
I think this time I was just lucky, I was well prepared and had conditions of the century!
You've come to be known as the Swiss Machine. How does this nickname suit you? And can you tell us a bit more about your mountaineering?
For me, performance is central. I love climbing routes that are difficult for me. Feeling completely spent in the evening is something very important. A sunrise on the summit isn't the most important part of a climb, although I do enjoy it and take in the beautiful atmosphere. For me its the climb that is key, completing a project. I'm pretty ambitious and try to explore my limits.
The ritual question - what did you take with you during those 28 hours?
60 metres of 6mm rope, 2 ice screws, 5 pegs, a few carabiners and slings. Abalakov hook and knife. Helmet, Dartwin crampons, 2 Quark ice axes, harness. A Down jacket and Primaloft jacket. Thick undergloves and down gloves. Googles and sunglasses. A stove, tent. 1 gas cartridge. Satphone, sunscreen. Headlamp and spare batteries. And First aid kit. 6 Power Bars, 3 Energy Blends, 2 Perronin and 100 grams of cheese.
Another important ritual question - did you ever think you might not make it?
When my down glove was washed down the face I got a little uncertain.
What did you think when you reached the summit?
It was funny. It was just like that, there was nothing more to ascend, all I could do was return. That was it, so I started to descend.
From 1 to 10, how much did you risk? And how much fun did you have and how much did you suffer?
Fun: 8. Suffer: 5. Risk: 7.
You went against the flow and reported practically nothing during the ascent: just one sms from Kathmandu, one smss from 5000m and a (very short) sms from Base Camp after the climb. Was this a conscious decision and, if so, why?
This suffices. I try to focus on my climbing as much as possible. That's what I enjoy doing. It's true, I have sponsors that allow me to do so. And they expect something from me in return. But I climbed Annapurna for myself only. It's very selfish, but I can tell you it was my best experience ever! I had a brilliant team that supported me. Don gave me the opportunity to try. It was awesome.
What should people say about this ascent? What would you write?
There's no need to write anything about it...
You'd promised us - your point of view about today's alpinism? The beautiful and ugly aspects
Hmmm, that's a difficult question. At the end of the day everyone has to decide for themselves about how and what they want to do. You cannot compare high altitude mountaineering with free climbing. Which one is worth more? The fact of the matter is that it simply doesn't matter. Everyone should decide for themselves about how they want to climb. I've given up thinking about this. After what happened last the spring I now have my personal point of view and I'm keeping that to myself.
It's often said that climbers, immediately after reaching a goal, already have their sights set on a new face, on new mountains. Does this hold true for you, too? And what do you desire most?
My inner fire is burning once again. It was almost extinguished after Everest. Now it's flared up again, fully. This makes me happy and I think I'm beginning to find the fun in life once again!