Remembering Ueli Steck, the World's Fastest Mountaineer

Credit: Simon Habegger / 13 Photo / Redux

The world lost one of the greatest mountaineers in the sport’s history on Sunday when Ueli Steck, 40, died in an accident in the Himalaya. The "Swiss Machine," as he was affectionately known, pushed the boundaries of the sport — and human athletic ability — in a way few others could. Or dared. His most famous achievement came in 2007, when he set a speed record of three hours, 54 minutes on the deadly North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland. In 2008 he repeated the feat, blowing away his previous record and clocking in at just two hours and 47 minutes — this on a classic climb that can take two to three days for experienced climbers. Along the way, he reinvented alpine philosophy, proving that speed ascents were the safest and most aesthetic way for a human to summit a peak.

“His fast ascents in the Alps and Himalaya have changed climbing,” says Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club and owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. “He was great at so many disciplines — free climbing big big walls, soloing big Alpine faces — and he did it all so fast.”

The details of Steck’s death have yet to be released, but reports claim that he slipped and fell over 3,000 feet into a crevasse at Camp 1 of Mount Nuptse. He was acclimatizing for a speed ascent of Mount Everest and 27,940-foot Lhotse — a climb that would combine both summits in one day. The trip, which Steck planned to do without supplemental oxygen, was to begin with an ascent of the Hornbein Couloir, a route so difficult it has not been competed since 1991. The route was inherently risky, but it was representative of how Steck viewed alpinism and the evolution of the sport. It also spoke to a purity of climbing far from the equipment-heavy, expensive trips many pay to take in the Himalaya.

Steck’s achievements were constantly redefining what previous climbers thought possible, and twice earned him the esteemed Piolet d’Or, climbing’s highest honor. Beyond the Eiger, he holds the speed records for the north face of the Matterhorn and the Grandes Jorasses in the Alps. He also completed a solo speed climb, in 28 hours, of 26,545-foot Annapurna in 2013, surviving an avalanche on the way to the summit.

“HIs legacy is immense,” said Swiss alpinist and adventure photographer David Carlier. “Reinhold Messner opened that door in the 1980s, Erhard Loretan developed the light and fast alpine technique in the Himalayas in the 1990s, and Ueli was the logical leader of the new generation of modern alpinism.”

For Steck, speed climbs were always more about style than setting a record. In an interview with Men’s Journal in 2015, he said: "I don't care if I'm the fastest. That's not what matters. Sometimes you push really hard and maybe the result is not a record, but it has more value because you know how hard it was — you know what your performance was. You want to climb it for yourself. That's what matters."

Moving in the high-stakes world of the death zone, Steck found himself in the midst of controversy in 2013, when he was involved with an altercation with disgruntled Sherpas on Everest who did not want the Swiss mountaineer and his partners climbing above them. In 2014 he survived an avalanche that killed two climbing partners on Shishapangma. And in 2015 a Dutch climber fell to his death while attempting to follow Steck’s line on a speed ascent of the Alps' highest peaks. But those accidents overshadowed the true, gentle, and affable nature of the man.

Steck’s legacy reaches further than his big-mountain achievements, however. In his home country, the guide is a hero who exemplified the national ethic of hard work and dedication, and who always had time for those who wanted to explore and push themselves in the mountains. “He was really ‘Swiss’" says Carlier. “Low profile, always willing to help and share his passion without any fuss. [He was] happy to explain the basics of a new piece of gear to someone who would show up to a booth at an outdoor fair, even if that person had zero knowledge.”

Thank you Ueli for being a mentor in alpinism and a constant source of inspiration. Every climb with you was a learning to keep improving along with a mountain lover. My thoughts are with Ueli's family and friends. In loving memory Ueli Steck Gràcies Ueli per ser un referent en l'alpinisme i una font constant d'inspiració. Cada sortida amb tu era un aprenentatge per seguir millorant al costat d'un amant de la muntanya. Tot el suport a la família i amics en aquests moments tan difícils. Gracias Ueli por ser un referente del alpinismo y una fuente constante de inspiración. Cada salida contigo era un aprendizaje para seguir mejorando junto a un amante de la montaña. Todo nuestro apoyo a su familia y amigos en estos momentos tan difíciles.

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On Everest the news came as a shock to so many climbers who saw Steck as a role model and a friend. “The mood at Everest Base Camp is somber,” says American climber Jim Davidson, who is on the mountain for a summit attempt this spring. “If a climbing master like Ueli can die in the mountains, what does that say about the safety of the rest of us?” Davidson’s first attempt on Everest came to an end when the 2015 earthquake hit.

“We will each grieve and reflect in our own way, but I doubt that many will turn away from the mountain and leave because of Ueli's tragic passing,” he added. “Watching Ueli climb and hearing him speak represented the pure essence of what climbing could be for all of us: movement, growth, challenge, and a joyful celebration every time we were in the mountains.”

Thank you Ueli!

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