Ueli Steck, the man and mountaineer
In memory of Ueli Steck, the great Swiss mountaineer who died yesterday on Nuptse close to Everest.
Ueli Steck was alone yesterday on Nuptse, that enormous and difficult mountain opposite Everest. He was on his own because after his climbing partner Tenji Sherpa suffered frostbite, Ueli had decided to push on. He was continuing his acclimatisation phase. And it was up there, between Camps 1 and 2 on Nuptse, that Ueli fell. It is up there that one of the greatest mountaineers of all time left us for good. Ueli had got us accustomed to everything. He was great, in every sense. This is why, yesterday, I didn’t want to believe the news of his death, why no one wanted to believe it. The mountaineering world, the entire world, was at a loss for words.
Yesterday I was asked if Ueli Steck had risked too much, if he had defied the mountains too much. No I replied, instinctively. Absolutely not! It’s true, his project, the Everest - Lhotse traverse which aimed at enchaining the highest mountain in the world with the planet's fourth highest peak, is an undertaking that has never been achieved before, one that must be described as something that borders on beyond the impossible. And although Ueli perished while preparing for precisely that extremely high, extremely difficult traverse, I didn’t hesitate for a moment: Ueli had not risked too much. His preparation had been meticulous and he was strong, perhaps the strongest of all. More importantly though, he was extremely conscious of what he was doing. He certainly didn’t challenge the mountains. He was born in them, he lived in them, and this is exactly how he climbed them: extremely quickly, up the most impervious terrain with a sense of control, power and awareness of what he was doing that was absolutely unique. And he knew all too clearly about the possible consequences of his actions… I know it sounds rhetorical: but this was Ueli’s life, his be-all and end-all, and this is what Ueli was like.
I was also asked about Ueli Steck’s legacy, about what he gave to mountaineering, apart from his astounding records. It’s difficult to provide an answer for this one. But once again I replied instinctively: Ueli left us the memory of what he was like, as a person. A man who was sincere and modest. Yes, this may seem strange, perhaps not credible and too celebratory even, for someone who many described as the best alpinist of recent times. But Ueli was precisely this, an absolutely modest man, of rare generosity, always willing to share his time.
However what Ueli gave to alpinism and all alpinists, apart from his cutting-edge ascents and records, is something which many are unaware of or have perhaps simply forgotten. The year was 2008. Ueli and his friend and highly talented alpinist Simon Anthamatten were camped below the South Face of Annapurna. They aimed to attempt a direttissima when, all of a sudden, they received an unexpected call. It was Horia Colibasanu, a Romanian mountaineer they’d met the previous week together with his climbing partner Iñaki Ochoa de Olza from Spain. The two were pinned down at 7400 meters on the immense South Face, Iñaki was extremely unwell and needed help urgently.
Ueli and Simon were not acclimatised. All they had with them was their trekking gear, because all the climbing equipment was already stashed at Advanced Base Camp. It was dark, but not a second did they didn’t hesitate: they set off, towards that distant tent lost high up on one of the most difficult and dangerous faces in the world. This was the start of one of the most difficult and incredible rescue attempts ever. The two Swissmen were joined by a handful of other mountaineers, including Denis Urubko and Don Bowie. The fight lasted six days. Ueli was the only one who managed to reach Iñaki, who then died in his arms, yet in all likelihood Ueli’s ascent saved Horia’s life. In the end all rescuers miraculously managed to dodge the continuous avalanches and escape the face. Well, yes, it is up there that Ueli, Simon and the others really did push themselves a step too far. It is up there that Ueli risked too much, went beyond all limits. But he did it (they did it) in order to save the lives of others. When, much later, I asked him about that "crazy" rescue attempt, Ueli almost didn’t understand the question. For him there was no question in the first place: someone had asked him for help, and he responded. And, he added, what he did was nothing special. That’s what Ueli Steck was like.
by Vinicio Stefanello