Ueli Steck, Trail-Running Speed Alpinist, Interviewed
January 2, 2012 by Meghan Hicks · 27 Comments
Ueli Steck is one of the world’s best speed alpinists. This means he climbs as fast as he can over rock, ice, snow, glaciers, and whatever else the natural world throws at him en route to the top of a mountain. The 35-year-old Switzerland native’s home territory is, of course, the Alps. He holds or held speed-ascent records on a number of the range’s mountains, including the north faces of the iconic Matterhorn and Eiger.
A brief glance at Steck’s Eiger speed record provides us runner folk with an understanding that Steck is as good as they get in speed alpinism. Steck’s Eiger record is 2:47:33. He set this record in 2008 after training for a year to do so. The previous record was also his, which he set at 3:54 in 2007. Before that, the record was 4:40, set in 2003 by Christoph Hainz. Over the course of about a year, Steck bettered an already-strong mountaineering record by close to two hours. In changing the game, he laid the path for others to take the record under two and a half hours (although with variations in climbing style).
[Start everyday by watching this from 2:15 on. You'll be better person for it.]
In 2011, Steck spent several months acclimating, training, and recording a couple speed ascents in the Himalayas. And, he’s got more plans for those mountains in the 2012 climbing season.
Steck uses running and speed hiking as a part of his training for speed alpinism. When I met him last summer by complete happenstance, he ran up the street and into Lauterbrunnen, the little town in which we were vacationing, to finish a training run.
People have nicknamed Steck the Swiss Machine. He’s not only almost inhuman in his mountaineering abilities, but, as he trains for and executes these speed ascents, he’s about as precise as a Swiss watch. The following interview shows us that we trail and ultrarunners can learn something from the guy who moves up mountains faster than everyone else.
iRunFar: iRunFar’s readers are trail and ultrarunners with a wicked sense of adventure. They like to use their bodies to test their limits. So do you. Though trail running and speed alpinism share similar philosophical principles, your sport is totally different. How do you define it?
Ueli Steck: It’s simple. You climb as fast as possible. There is one big difference from trail running. If you make a mistake, you’re gonna’ die! So, in a technical speed ascent, I never push my body to its absolute limit. That’s too dangerous. Of course, while training, I push myself as hard as I can. If you run and you get tired, you run slower. On a speed ascent, if you go over your limit, you fall.
iRF: So, let’s put this into perspective. Talk about your speed record on the Eiger for a minute. Was there any running involved? Or, what was the effort like if you could compare it to a run?
Steck: This is so different from running. You have to understand, my training for it was 40% running and 60% climbing. I was running with my crampons in training and on the record ascent. But, every part of the speed ascent is technical. That means you are always using your hands, too!
iRF: You’ve said before that you’ve honed in on certain kinds of training for your speed efforts. I know this includes running on trails and pavement as well as some speed hiking on trails with a lot of vertical. Can you give us the scoop?
Steck: Mostly I run uphill here in the mountains. Basically very steep terrain. To train for the Eiger, I used a mountain in my backyard that is exactly 1,750 vertical meters and almost straight up! On this mountain, I did all kinds of training. Sometimes I did speed intervals, sometimes long jogs, meaning I did the ascent three times.
iRF: How many hours a week are you training in the months leading up to some speed-ascent project? Lay out, say, a week of intense training for us, both the climbing and running sides of things.
Steck: In training, it’s very important that I have a periodized plan. I work with three-month periods. But the specifics of those periods all depend on the kind of project I’m training for. As I said for the Eiger, I still climbed a lot, free soloing up to 5.13b. [Author's note: You should know that very few climbers in the world can free solo a 5.13b. It's freaking insane.] I climbed five times a week and did around 18 hours of endurance training.
Now, I will focus more on Himalaya projects. This means my climbing can reduce a lot. For these projects, it’s not necessary to be able to climb 5.14. 5.13 is good enough. This gives me more capacity for endurance. With this, I still have a lot a potential. But to work more on endurance, I need to be patient. It’s not done in one year! All in all, I train about 1,200 hours per year.
iRF: You’ve joked that you’re like a Swiss watch, super precise. How does this character trait spill over into your sport and the training you do? Are you equally precise with your training?
Steck: I work with a coach. He is very serious about training. This includes food, rest, and other things. When we first started working together, I doubled my training hours and I got much stronger. And now, we’re still on the way to improvement and still adding some hours.
iRF: We met in Switzerland just as you were finishing up a run, so I’ve seen you move. You have bow legs, yet you can haul ass. Do you ever have issues with your legs?
Steck: My legs are very special. I don’t have a choice, they are mine. My coach is also my physiotherapist. We take care that I do not destroy my body completely. Without him, maybe I couldn’t run anymore.
iRF: After we met, we poured over trail maps of the Alps. You rattled off names of trails and routes, giving us recommendations on where to run during our vacation. You were like a kid showing off your favorite toys. It seemed to me then that running is something that excites you. What do you think of that?
Steck: Trail running is a lot of fun! I like it. And here it is so simple, I just go out of my house. No need to drive a car or travel. You just pick up your small backpack and go. In running, I can push myself to the limit. In speed climbing, there is always some danger. I try to find other activities than climbing solo. If I do that too much, I will die one day. It’s also easier for my family if I go running and not soloing something.
For me, trail running is just fun. I started also to train more on the flats. It’s interesting, I try to improve my technique there. It’s something different. I just like to always be moving. I know there is a lot of improvement possible for me in running. Of course, it’s the best training for my Himalaya dreams.
iRF: You’ve done some running races. You’ve run the Jungfrau Marathon in your homeland, which has both pavement and a bunch of trail, too. Are they training runs for speed climbing? Are they outlets for your physicality? Are they just for fun?
Steck: Marathoning is something completely different. This is just for fun. Running will always be less important than speed climbing.
iRF: You’ve said that you trained for a year to get your Eiger speed record. You did the Eiger’s north face in 2007 and set a record time, faster than anyone had done it before. But you realized that you could have done it even faster. So you trained specifically for a year, then came back and did it more than an hour faster than your own record. This kind of training specificity and long-term commitment can be beneficial to trail and ultrarunners, too. Can you talk about what you see as the value of training specificity and a long-term training commitment?
Steck: To improve endurance, for example, I think you need at least five years training! The specific training I did from 2007 to 2008 was just a starting point. I learned how important it is to know were I wanna go! I’ve now decided to go for more Himalaya peaks. This means I have to reduce climbing. That’s hard because I like it. But I’ve made the choice and now I go for it. Maybe after this, I will go back to climbing more again. But for the next couple years, 5.14 is not possible while I work on endurance for the Himalaya peaks.
iRF: In 2011, you spent a bunch of time in the Himalayas and you set a speed record there, climbing 8,000-plus meter peak Shishapangma in a little over 10 hours. Before setting the record, you hung out in the region for a while, climbing and running to acclimate to the altitude. Trail and ultrarunners have to acclimate to altitude, too, if they are going to have success in racing up high. What were some key elements of your Himalaya training and acclimating?
Steck: To get acclimatized, that’s a different game. You need to sleep high. But, if you sleep high, your body does not recover well. So, this means no hard training. But here I am talking about 7,000 meters and higher. Down at 5,000 meters, that’s not a big deal. After two weeks of adjustment, I can still train like at home, no problem.
There are so many theories about altitude training. The best, in my opinion, is to do what makes you feel good. I’ve seen people push too hard at altitude and then they can’t recover, don’t recover, anymore. Your body always needs time to adjust. In this period, you should be a lazy bastard. After you are adjusted, you can go on with your training.
iRF: You must spend a lot of time alone when you’re out there. I mean, there can’t be a lot of people fit enough to hang with you. This idea spills into trail and ultrarunning. Even the most sociable trail runners spend a lot of time alone, too.
Steck: I like to be alone. I am focused on what I am doing. I feel the nature and I feel my body. It’s so simple.
iRF: Let’s talk about gear. You’re a gear freak constantly on the search for the lightest gear that performs exactly how you want it to. You’re lucky to have Mountain Hardwear supporting your efforts. The company created a line of hyper-custom stuff for you. We’re seeing this trend in trail and ultrarunning right now, too. Some of our sport’s elite are getting custom gear made for them by their sponsors. Tell us about your gear, how saving grams but keeping perfect function gives you an extra edge.
Steck: That’s a big story about Mountain Hardwear. Topher [Gaylord, Mountain Hardwear's President,] promised to produce all the equipment I needed. This is now the Ueli Steck Project. All the products are basically reduced to the maximum. It’s all about improving upon details. For example, I didn’t want a zipper on my sleeping bag. First they told me that’s not possible. But a zipper is a weak insulation point. So we removed the zipper which saved weight and made the bag warmer. That’s the way to go.
My most-used word on this project was no! I said no to pockets, no to zippers, no to extra loops. In the end, all the products were so slim and light. Check out photos of me climbing on Everest. [Author's note: Steck attempted Everest without supplemental oxygen in 2011. He turned back about 100 meters from the summit because his feet were dangerously cold. He says he wants to try it again.] I have the same equipment as everyone else but my pack is half the size. Mountaineering is so much more fun with a small backpack than with a big one.
iRF: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Ueli. Best of luck with your 2012 season in the Himalayas. Go for a run for us there!
If you want to learn more about Ueli Steck, including his training regimen, his Eiger speed record, his projects in the Himalaya, or the gear Mountain Hardwear made for him, check out these videos. Also, here’s a day in the life of Ueli Steck from the words and pictures PatitucciPhoto, including some sweet pics of Ueli running.