Ueli Steck and Everest: the ascent of a great alpinist

The report of Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck who on 18 May 2012 reached the summit of Everest along with Tenji Sherpa. We have published the account in its entirety as this provides insight into the crowds present during this pre-monsoon season, the job of the Sherpa and what it means to climb the world's highest mountain without the use of supplementary oxygen. Even for an absolute ace alpinist such as Ueli Steck.
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Ueli Steck on the summit of Everest on 18/05/2012.
Ueli Steck
Mount Everest is the highest point on earth. Nowhere is the air thinner. It's the third Pole. Climbing the highest mountain in the world had always played in the back of my mind.

Nevertheless I was scared. This mountain is literally cannibalised from the commercial point of view. A great business has developed there, and business is done mainly with clients who try to summit Everest with the use of supplementary oxygen via a route prepared with fixed ropes. To date 142 ascents have been registered without the use of supplementary oxygen and considering the nearly 6000 ascents in total, this really is a rather small percentage.

Ever since Loretan and Troillet, no other Swiss climber has made it to the top of Everest and back down to base camp without the use of supplementary oxygen. This fascinated me. Many strong alpinists have needed diverse attempts to reach the summit and have done so without making use of this magnificent bottled doping.

I received an interesting statistic from the USA which studied the role of oxygen during these sort of ascents. The result is impressive: if you use 2 litres of oxygen per minute while resting it's as if you're at base camp. Put in other words: it's as if you're at an altitude of 5300 meters. If your body is under strain, then the result is slightly less extreme. But if you observe that on summit day most use 4 litres per minute of this English air – as the Sherpa used to call this oxygen – then it pretty much confirms Reinhold Messner's statement: it's as if you climb a 6000er. To be more precise: a mountain 6500 meters high.

All of this has little to do with Everest itself which is 8848 meters high. This means that 2348m are missing from the equation. I became impressively aware of this during acclimatisation. Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who in summiting K2 in August 2011 became the third woman to climb all 14 8000ers and who was the first to do so without using oxygen, warmly recommended I spend at least one night on the South Col. "Otherwise you'll expose yourself too much and it'll get too dangerous to summit Everest" she told me. I did as told. I'd always intended to sleep at the South Col anyway, but camping at almost 8000 metres is incredibly uncomfortable. Forget all images of romantic camp fires...

The first night you don’t really sleep at all. It's more about waiting until the next morning comes for you to descend. But you have to get through this and you need determination. If you use supplementary oxygen you don’t need to do any of this. Many alpinists have merely slept at 6400 metres before their summit bid. After this their acclimatisation is completed. Sometimes I've thought about what would happen if the oxygen runs out. You're not acclimatised and reality catches up very quickly indeed. The air is thin and this leads to a catastrophe which almost always ends in death!

But this shouldn't bother me too much. It's everyone's personal decision about how they wish to climb Everest. For me an ascent with supplementary oxygen was never an option, right from the outset it was clear that I wanted to stand on the summit for real, without any false air.

In 2011 thing's didn't quite work out during my Everest ascent. I reached 8700 metres on the Tibetan side of the mountain and had to quit my summit attempt. I was simply too cold, the risk of losing my toes was too great. Another characteristic about high altitudes is that blood thickens considerably and circulation to the extremities is very poor. You can counteract this by trying to drink as much as possible and by acclimatising properly so that your body gets used to this new situation. But my experience showed me that the chosen summit day wasn't the right one. The 25/25 rule had been confirmed. Wind on the summit shouldn't be higher than 25 km/h and the temperature not lower than -25° Celsius.

But what would alpinism be if you simply get up every mountain? It wouldn't be interesting. So this is why I was doubly motivated this year. And of course I had more experience stowed under my belt.

Tenji and I had already climbed up and down the mountain three times before we started our summit attempt. Tenji is a 21-year-old from Nepal whom I've known for several years and who has also worked for me in the past. Now he too wanted to summit Everest without using oxygen. I offered that we climb together. That he join me, but not as my Sherpa hauling up my equipment. No. I wanted us to climb Everest together, as partners. At first he found this situation difficult to deal with. That I make tea for him was unusual. But at a certain point he accepted this situation and we had a great time together. I mutated from Sir to Dai. From Master to brother.

I had studied the weather forecast intensively and I knew this was key. Tenji and I were acclimatised well, we'd already spent a night on the South Col at almost 8000 meters. Meteotest sent me a positive forecast for the 17th and 18th of May. For the 19th they'd forecast stronger winds and from 20 May onwards this would become critical. And then there was the other big problem.

The crowd of people. For us the number of alpinists on route at the same time as us represented a huge potential danger. We wouldn't be able to wait up there. We would suffer frostbite very quickly indeed. But we couldn't do anything about being on the route with the whole crowd of alpinists. Yet the solution proved simple. Since the fix ropes hadn't been fixed to the summit, the commercial expeditions couldn't make their bids. The so-called fixing teams comprised of 10 Sherpa had planned to leave on 18 May to install the fixed ropes up the summit. A lucky situation for us and, as it happened, also the warmest day forecast. We decided to summit with them.

On 16 May Tenji and I reached Camp 2 after 3.5 hours of easy going climbing. We spent a pleasant afternoon and a long night at Camp 2 at 6400 metres. The following day we weren't in a rush. Tenji and I waited for the sun to come out and then we enjoyed a hearty breakfast with toast, coffee and cornflakes. Tenji couldn't do without his Zampa, a flour batter knead into a mush. It's very nutritious but not usually found on my menu.

At around 8.30 am we were ready. In approximately 2.5 hours we reached Camp 3. Here, where we had spent the night a week beforehand, chaos reigned. Early that morning an ice avalanche had buried many tents. Ours too. Everything was buried under snow and ice. Luckily we hadn't planned on sleeping at Camp 3, we wouldn't have been here anymore… Miraculously only one Sherpa was injured and luckily no one else had been hurt. Most of the tents were ruined. Tenji and Dendi, who was also climbing with us, stopped. Dendi had to take some oxygen bottles from the tents and Tenji wanted to help him. But they first had to locate the bottles under the snow and ice, so I decided to continue on up to Camp 4 and pitch our tent before it started snowing again that afternoon.

I was hot on the Lhotse face. I was happy to have left my down suit in my backpack. Most alpinists ascend with their suits up to Camp 2 and I really don't understand why they choose to do so in this heat. So I reached the South Col comfortably and without over heating. I pitched our tent and immediately started to melt snow so that we could drink a lot. Tenji arrive late, at about 17:00. The weather was perfectly wind still and we felt as if it was very warm. At least, warmer than then last time up here.

We set our alarm clock for 23:00. But the beep wasn't needed to rip us out of our sleep. The Fixing team has already set off with a couple of alpinists from Chile. The clinking of gear and their chatting had woken us up. I began melting ice again. We drunk plenty of tea and coffee, ate bread and honey. We were ready at 00.30 am. We saw the lights up ahead of us. They had started 1.5 hours before us, yet we reached them in a quarter of an hour.

Immediately I thought about how long we'd be out on mountain. What would happen if they had to fix ropes after the Balcony? I calmed myself down and thought that going slowly would be a good idea as I'd have enough energy reserves for later. I enjoyed it. We reached the balcony as the new day dawned. The entire group stopped to eat and drink. I changed the batteries in my boots. The system is simply brilliant, I always had warm feet and hands. High altitude mountaineering isn't that bad after all…

After a short rest we moved on. Fixed ropes had to be installed from now on. The terrain isn't that steep, actually you could climb it without ropes. My special Leki stick, equipped with a kind of axe, proved to be an ideal tool here. Nevertheless I was nervous because of the speed, but I didn't overtake anyone. Overtaking the Sherpa while they were doing their job would have been disrespectful. And they did their job really well. Never before had I seen a Sherpa team working together so efficiently. I queued in line, just how things should be. And it was fun. We had to wait here and there and we even got the chance to chat. Tenji had dropped back but he then caught us up. We were the only ones who weren't hiding behind an oxygen mask. We received a lot of respect for this from the Sherpa. But I had just as much respect for them and what they were doing up there!

The route to the summit was long and never-ending. Suddenly the pace didn't feel that slow any longer. I continued to look up but the South summit didn't get any closer. Finally the leader disappeared. This meant he'd reached the South Summit. Which meant we had a further 100 metres to go to reach the summit. From the South Summit you descend 20 metres and then the ridge leads to the main summit. I checked my watch. It was late. We'd get to the summit in the afternoon. The weather was still perfect, but what would happen if it changed? A storm was unlikely. The forecast was still good for the 19th , a bit windier but good nevertheless. But I trusted the Sherpa. They had been on summit so many times, they knew what they were doing. I knew from experience that I could descend fast. If I descended now from the South summit, I'd reach the South Col in 1.5 hours. I decided to take the risk and move on. A few clouds made their appearance, but this is normal, due to convections which form during the day. The crest continued on majestically. The summit didn't seem than much higher, the distance now seemed more horizontal than vertical.

I had to wait much longer at the Hillary Step. At least 40 minutes. I started to shiver. The absolute temperature wasn't too low, maybe -20°C. Nevertheless I shivered away and was happy when we finally moved on. I was almost a little disappointed by the famous Hillary Step. I had imaged it to be more impressive. And it is not even that steep.

Suddenly I got the feeling that everyone else was faster than me. I could hardly follow. “This can't be” I said to myself. Surely I couldn't be more tired than the others. From now on I had to fight. I convinced myself that reaching the summit was only a matter of determination. And I decided that I would reach the summit.

Tenji was somewhere behind us and I couldn't see him. But he would come. I concentrated on every step. Every step took me one step closer to the summit. But where was it? I really couldn't make anything out. I was totally focussed and I had finally accepted the fact that the others were faster than me. As long as I could keep up with the supplementary oxygen alpinists, then everything was OK. I could also think clearly and decided carefully. I checked my pace and my climbing: it was all under control. My lack of power had to be due to the altitude. I didn't feel exhausted. I was simply slow, terribly slow.

A final section led to the knife-edge ridge. Finally, on the left and almost at the same height, I managed to make out the summit. A bundle of prayer flags fluttered in the wind. And a few Sherpa were there already. There were no more fixed ropes, all you had to do was traverse across. I'd clipped my ski stick to my backpack before the Hillary Step One and one of the alpinists from Chile handed it to me. I finally had a tool in hand. It was afternoon already.

At 13.15 we reached the highest point in the world. Clouds had formed, the view was reduced. To the north I managed to make out Tibet with its dry plains. Makalu reared out from the clouds. My thoughts drifted to how exhausted I had been back then. All alone on the summit. Having no view now was no problem at all. I knew the panorama anyway. It all seemed familiar, I felt as if I knew precisely where I was. I managed to orientate myself, it seemed neither strange nor new! I took some summit photos with the Sherpa. Tenji was still out of sight, but I decided nevertheless to descend. The first were already on their way down.

How easy it was to descend. A completely new feeling! Although I was tired, now that we were descending, we were finally going forwards once again! I met Tenji shortly after the Hillary Step. I asked him if he was OK. I got the impression he was doing well. "Yes” he said “but very slow". I spoke some words of encouragement, told him the summit wasn't that far off and that this was normal without a mask! I saw his smile. I saw his determination and I realised that he too would reach the summit.

I continued on down and reached the South Col at 16:15. I almost failed to recognise Camp 4. In this short time span a small village had sprung up. Dendi, his daughter and the whole team with whom we had shared Base Camp together had made it up to the South Col. Tomorrow was going to be their summit day! I was happy to have made it.

But a mountain is only ever climbed when you're safely back in BC. I waited for Tenji at the South Col. He arrived three hours later. We had wanted to descend to Camp 2 but it was too late now. We stayed at Camp 4. That night another 150 alpinists set off on their way up to the summit. What a spectacle. Tenji and I spent another night at almost 8000 metres. We slept deeply, just like bears din hibernation.

The sun woke us up at 5.30 am. After breakfast I packed my equipment and descended. I yearned for Base Camp. Tenji slept a little longer. I reached Base Camp just in time for lunch. I had now climbed Everest.

At this point I want to thank all of you for having joined us, for your great support and encouragement during this expedition. And thanks for all the marvellous congratulations I received after this beautiful success. I now wish you a wonderful summer! See you soon.

Ueli Steck

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