The Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck (1976–2017) was widely regarded as the greatest mountain climber of his generation. After setting several speed records in the sport, he was preparing to scale Mount Everest by climbing a minor peak in the Nepalese Himalayas when he fell to his death.
Although he disliked the nickname, Ueli Steck was often dubbed the Swiss Machine because of his scientific approach to training and his singleminded approach to climbing. These factors allowed Steck to break numerous speed records on mountains in his native Europe and North America, as well as in the vast Himalayan range in Nepal where he ultimately met his death. “Climbing a mountain and looking for another challenge is like a drug that you can't quit,” he once told Nam Hyun-woo of the Korea Times News. “Maybe that's the truth and I am very addicted to that drug.” Steck's “addiction” propelled him to several climbing speed records, including the fastestever ascents of routes on the three great peaks of the Swiss Alps: the Matterhorn, the Eiger, and the Grandes Jorasses. As quoted by Katie Mettler in the Washington Post, Nick Paumgarten highlighted Steck's 2017 death as “a reminder, as though another one were ever necessary, that mountain climbing is an extremely perilous endeavor, and that even its strongest and most talented practitioners, experts by necessity in the art of risk assessment, need a great deal of luck to make it to old age.“
The son of coppersmith Max Steck, Steck was born on October 4, 1976, in the village of Langnau im Emmental, Switzerland. Growing up in a lush valley surrounded by high peaks, he was almost destined to become a mountain climber, and he fell in love with the sport at age 12, when a family friend took him on a climb up a nearby ridge called the Schrattenfluh. The friend challenged Steck to take the lead and climb without a rope, and the daring attitude required stuck with him.
Although Steck worked as an apprentice to a local carpenter, he was soon devoting most of his time to climbing. In 1995, shortly after turning 18, he and Iff made the first of what for Steck would be many ascents of the Eiger. They climbed the mountain in two days, accomplishing something that for many climbers would serve as the experience of a lifetime. For Steck, summiting the Eiger was a milestone that he now needed to exceed. He followed up with a climb up a part of the Mont Blanc complex and ascents of two other major Alpine peaks: the Mönch in 1998 and the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses in 2001. In the early 2000s, Steck began climbing mountains beyond the Swiss Alps, traveling to Nepal to summit Pumori near the border with Tibet in 2001, and to the Central Alaska Range to climb a challenging route called Blood from a Stone on Mount Dickey in 2002.
As Steck entered the prime of his climbing career, most of the world's major peaks had been summited and the focus of younger climbers was now speed. Steck excelled at finding his way up a difficult mountain face, and he was able to maintain a strong pace despite the lower air pressure at high altitudes, which decrease the oxygen available to climbers with each breath. “There are those who climb better than I do,” he once admitted in an interview quoted by Martin Gutmann in Climbing magazine, “and there are those who have more endurance and are better suited for expeditions at extreme altitudes. My strength is yesterday standing on El Capitan [a difficult sheer rock face at Yosemite National Park but not at a high altitude] and tomorrow on one of the highest summits.” Steck went on to joke with Gutmann that his new focus on speed was the result of his marriage to fellow climber Nicole Steck in 2008: “Well, you know, … once you get married, there are certain responsibilities, like being home for dinner on time.”
In 2007 Steck set a new speed record on the Eiger, climbing its Heckmair Route in three hours, 54 minutes, and beating the existing record by 47 minutes on a climb that takes most hikers three days. Ever pushing the limits, he felt that, to take his training to a higher level, he needed topflight instruction. Up until now he strengthened his lungs and built endurance by running marathons, and he also enjoyed rock climbing, paragliding, and trail running. He now commissioned a training program from a coach at Switzerland's Olympic center, augmenting it with treatment from an Olympic physical therapist. Although he kept the details of his training regimen secret, he admitted to Gutmann that “most professional runners train only 900 hours per year. I train 1,200.
As Steck adhered to his new training program, more records began to fall. In February of 2008, he shaved more than an hour off his 2007 Eiger record, climbing the mountain in two hours, 47 minutes. The popularity of YouTube videos allowed him to share his feats: a video of him running across an Eiger snowfield achieved special popularity. Steck equaled his Eiger feat on the other two peaks of what the Swiss call the North Face Trilogy, climbing a section of the Grandes-Jorasses called the Colton-McIntyre in two hours, 21 minutes, and setting a new record of one hour, 56 minutes on the north face of the Matterhorn. Sometimes he climbed solo, but he gave up that practice temporarily at his wife's request.
Steck tested the limits of his endurance in ever more difficult climbs, many of them in the Himalayas. One of the toughest feats in climbing is the Nepalese peak Annapurna, the world's tenth-tallest mountain. While tackling Annapurna in 2007, Steck suffered a 1,000-foot fall, probably after being hit by a falling rock, although he was unable to remember what had happened after regaining consciousness. After this experience, he took several months off to ponder whether he was the victim of bad judgment or bad luck, ultimately deciding on the latter. Another Annapurna climb was interrupted when Steck and companion climber Simon Anthamatten stopped to help a stranded and dying Spanish climber on the mountain's upper reaches. He finally summited Annapurna, solo, in October of 2013, and the feat earned him a second prestigious Piolet d'Or award. He had earned the first in 2009, joining Anthamatten in breaking a new route up the north face of Tengkampoche, in Khmubu Valley, Nepal.
In 2013, Steck also planned an assault on the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest. His attempt was cut short, however, when he got into a brawl with a group of Nepalese Sherpas, skilled native climbers. The Sherpas were attempting to repair a set of ropes on the mountain; not intending to use the ropes, he ignored their request to leave the area, and when the Sherpas attacked, he thought they were trying to kill him. Given this unpleasant experience, Steck considered turning instead to Shishapangma, located in Tibet and the 14th highest mountain in the world. During a 2012 climb there with German mountaineer David Göttler, he had discovered the bodies of American climbers Alex Lowe and David Bridges, who died on the mountain in 1999. Steck later completed an ascent of Shishapangma solo after his companion, American climber Don Bowie, quit in exhaustion.
In 2017, Steck decided to make a second attempt to summit Mount Everest, intending to follow a difficult path between the mountain and a neighboring peak, Lhotse. Although he hoped to team up with trusted local guide Tenji Sherpa, the Nepalese climber was forced to leave the team when a severe case of frostbite inhibited his ability to train. Training on the mountain was important because the duo intended to make the climb without supplemental oxygen. On April 29, Steck sent a text message to Tenji, announcing that he planned to climb a nearby peak, the 25,791-foot Nuptse, solo.
On the morning of April 30, 2017, at around 8 a.m., Tenji Sherpa received a call from another Sherpa on the mountain, saying that a third Sherpa saw a man fall up above. Western climbers from other groups also witnessed the accident, and searchers soon confirmed that Steck had fallen some 3,000 feet to his death. Although the reason for his fall could not be definitively established, many in the mountaineering community were certain that, up to the moment of his death, Steck was “living the present intensely in its most perfect form,” as the climber once explained to Gutmann.
Steck's body was retrieved and transported to Tengboche monastery in Solukhumbu. During a private funeral service presided over by Buddhist monks, his body was cremated, with his widow and several close friends and family members in attendance.
Himalayan Times (Kathmandu, Nepal), May 1, 2017, Rajan Pokhrel, “Climbing Partner Tenji Sherpa Recalls Ueli Steck after Everest Tragedy” ; May 4, 2017, Rajan Pokhrel, “Famed ‘Swiss Machine’ Climber Ueli Steck Laid to Rest in Mt. Everest Region.”
Korea Times News, January 14, 2016, Nam Hyun-woo, “Speed Alpinist Ueli Steck ‘Addicted’ to Mountains.”
New York Times, April 5, 2014, Kelley Mcmillan, “Reaching New Heights the Hard Way” ; May 1, 2017, Rajneesh Bhandari and Jonah Engel Bromwich, “A Renowned Mountain Climber Dies near Everest” ; May 2, 2017, Michael Wejchert, “How Ueli Steck Met Mountaineering's Oldest Companion: Tragedy.”
Outside, April 2012, Tim Neville, “Speed Freak” ; May 30, 2017, Devon O'Neil, “The Last Days of Ueli Steck.”
Washington Post, May 1, 2017, Katie Mettler, “Ueli Steck, Famed Swiss Mountain Climber.”
Climbing, https://www.climbing.com/news/rapid-transit (June 8, 2011), Martin Gutmann, “Rapid Transit: Inside the World of Ueli Steck.”
Planet Mountain, http://www.planetmountain.com/en/news/interviews/ueli-steck-absolute-void.html (June 1, 2005), Christine Kopp, “Ueli Steck—Absolute Void.” □