Running up a trail in the predawn darkness, 39-year-old Ueli Steck, the greatest speed climber of his generation, made the same mistake that countless novices make every day in the mountains: He took a wrong turn. It was August, and Steck had completed 81 of the Alps' 82 peaks higher than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). For two months, the Swiss mountaineer had climbed across the heart of Europe from summit to summit, as many as 18 in a single day. Then, nearing the end, he simply misread a sign, winding up in the wrong valley, three and a half hours out of his way.
"So I ended up running 47K — that's good! Otherwise it would have been too short of a day," says Steck, who's known as the Swiss Machine, both for his climbing style and his businesslike attitude in the mountains, an approach that's also earned him a reputation for a certain callousness. Steck's goal was to complete the 82-peak feat in 80 days; he did it in 62. Even more impressive, he did it all under his own power, hiking, biking, and paragliding between summits, traveling a total of 1,101 miles. He missed the record for the summit linkup, set by an Italian team in 2008, by less than 24 hours, but he almost assuredly would have broken that mark, too, had it not been for the death of a mountaineer who had joined him for one of the summits.
Dutchman Martijn Seuren had also been pursuing all 82 peaks, though over several years, and he had asked Steck if he could summit the 4,208-meter Grandes Jorasses, a multi-summited ridge on the Mont Blanc massif, with him. It held the last five peaks Seuren needed to become the first Dutchman to snag all 82 high points. But early on the morning of July 22, when Steck was climbing separately on a nearby peak, Seuren fell off a narrow ridge and plummeted into a crevasse, 1,000 feet below.
In the wake of the fatal accident, Steck took four days off — "to make things right with the family," he says — before resuming. "There was no question of not continuing," Steck explains. "You have to accept these risks in the mountains, or you just have to stop climbing. It's black-and-white."
Steck is known as the fastest climber on the planet, a man who runs up routes that most climbers tackle with ropes and harnesses. In 2007, he set a solo speed record of three hours 54 minutes on the deadly north face of the Eiger, a big wall that most climbers spend two or more days ascending. The next year, Steck blew away his record, clocking in at a blistering two hours and 47 minutes, an astonishing pace of nearly 80 feet per minute.
"He's a visionary," says alpinist and photographer Jonathan Griffith, who joined Steck for a portion of the 82-peak project in July. "When you're climbing at his level, you have to be a visionary to progress."
In 2013, Steck was ascending Nepal's Annapurna alone when an avalanche swept over him on the wildly exposed south face. Had he fallen, it would have meant certain death. But he held on as ice and snow washed over his back, ripping off one of his gloves as he shielded himself. After the onslaught finally stopped, Steck pushed on to nab the 26,545-foot summit. The 28-hour ordeal won him the prized Piolet d'Or award, the Oscar of the alpine world, despite the fact that the avalanche ripped his camera out of his hand, leaving him with no documentation of the climb.
Hiking the Alps' highest peaks was supposed to be a way for Steck to relax. "It wasn't a race," he says. "This was just about enjoying different days on different mountains with friends." But Steck's willingness to make it a social affair worked against him. His original partner for the endeavor, German alpinist Michi Wohlleben, injured his leg on a rough paragliding landing just four peaks in, forcing him to quit. Then, after Seuren's death, both local and international media, unaware that Steck and Seuren had never been climbing partners and were not together at the time of the accident, began lambasting Steck for continuing his quest.
"Ueli had just met Martijn," says Griffith. "The media spun the story quite heavily."
But this was not the first time the hard-charging Steck had courted controversy. In 2013, he, Griffith, and Italian climber Simone Moro got into an ugly fight with dozens of Sherpa guides on the flank of Mount Everest who claimed that Steck and his party were endangering their lives by climbing above them. Video from the incident went viral and Steck was accused of being headstrong and unsympathetic to working Sherpas. Then, in 2014, two of Steck's climbing partners perished in an avalanche just short of the summit of Tibet's Shishapangma; Steck and two others survived.
All these incidents caused many non-alpinists, who often equate speed with recklessness, to wonder if Steck was driven too much by ego. As for Steck, he contends that he's not in it for the records — he even dislikes the "Swiss Machine" moniker.
"I don't care if I'm the fastest," he says. "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."