Ueli Steck: An Appreciation

Aloha, TJI never met Ueli Steck. I heard him speak once, and we exchanged a few emails three years ago. (He had signed up to run the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, later withdrawing before the race with a calf injury.) He was the most accomplished mountaineer of a generation, and perhaps ever. Unbeknownst to many, he was also a pretty good ultrarunner–hardly elite, but well better than average. Last year he finished the rugged Eiger Ultra Trail 101-kilometer race in 14:35:05, 26th place out of 345 finishers.

Steck was perhaps most well known for his speed records on the iconic North Face of the Eiger, near his Interlaken home in Switzerland. (I suggest you check out this video chronicling his 2008 record effort on YouTube; it’s pretty much mind blowing.) But the mountaineering community will point to his solo ascent of the South Face of Annapurna in Nepal as his most impressive effort. “The most audacious accomplishment in the history of mountaineering” is the way one veteran observer, Italian climber and climbing journalist Venicio Stefanello, described it.

Steck died last Saturday in a climbing accident in the Himalayas. He was 40. His death shocked me and the entire outdoor world. Yes, mountain climbing is an extremely perilous endeavor. It’s an activity where a single misstep is often fatal; even the strongest and most talented climbers can make a mistake. Yet Steck was just so gifted, experienced, and careful it seemed he would be the rare climber that would live to a ripe old age.

As ultrarunners, we generally have one foot on or very near the ground at all times. A technical mistake might mean an embarrassing face plant or a scraped knee. Yes, we push the boundaries of what is humanly possible but the risks we take are incremental: generally small and rarely dangerous. For most of us it’s hard to grasp taking potentially life-threatening risks for sport. And yet, when Steck was asked about the risks and his motivation, his response was akin to the response one might expect to hear from an ultrarunner:

“I have repeatedly asked myself, why I do this. The answer is pretty simple: because I want to do it and because I like it. I don’t like being restricted. When I climb, I feel free and unrestricted. This is what I am looking for.”

This simple, yet eloquent summary resonates with us all.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Does Ueli Steck inspire you? In what way?
  • Do other athletes–who combine multiple sports to move in the mountains–influence your own outdoor adventures?
John Medinger

is the founder and race director of the Lake Sonoma 50. A former publisher of UltraRunning magazine, he ran his first ultra in 1980 and has now completed more than 130 ultras. He is also the founder and former race director of the Quad Dipsea race and has served on the Western States 100 Board since 1992.

There are 7 comments

  1. Quigley

    The helicopter footage of the swiss machine cruising crampon step after ice ax placement up the final stretches of the Eiger are simply unreal. I love the lyricrs to Fadical Face’s Welcome Home that is the soundtrack for the 2008 video: “Sleep don’t visit, so I choke on sun, And the days blur into one, And the backs of my eyes hum with things I’ve never done, Sheets are swaying from an old clothesline, Like a row of captured ghosts over old dead grass, Was never much but we made the most, Welcome home” What a beautiful man and a beautiful life. Very sad news about Ueli. Training for my first 100 miler I got lost on the keyhole route on Long’s Peak at 1am and spent many hours shivering on very sketchy terrain. To me, ultras have always been about enjoying time out in the mountains and woods. The scenery is the inspiration, but I do like reading about Killian’s mountaineering endeavors, and I greatly enjoyed reading about Ueli and Dean Potter’s running.

  2. Mark

    I don’t believe we know exactly what led to Ueli falling to his death, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to imply that it was a mistake on his part. Climbing on those particular mountains is extraordinarily dangerous of course and part of that danger is that death can come as a result of factors outside of your control, such as an entire part of the glacier collapsing while you’re on it.

    We can certainly debate the risks he took, but without further details I would hesitate to state that he made a climbing mistake given his unmatched experience and skill.

    1. Quigley

      I agree that we don’t know and will most likely whether Ueli made a “technical mistake” or even a “mistake,” especially as mountain terrain with ice and rock is such a dynamic medium. On the other hand, Ueli clearly made a mistake in that he thought he would most likely return safely, although it may not be a mistake for him not to know that, perhaps a chunk of ice broke off, there was, at least in some sense a mistake in assessment, on his part. For ultra runners, perhaps one possible, although not great, analogy is to think about running above treeline on a summer afternoon. You know there is some risk that you could be killed by lightning, but many people risk it anyways for various reasons. High-level mountaineering and Russian roulette are not completely different animals.

  3. Tropical John

    I doubt we’ll ever know for sure what happened on Nuptse. A crumbling bit of rock, a misplaced foot, a chunk of ice that broke off, some combination of things. You’re right, “mistake” might be too harsh a word, but a mistake or at least a misjudgment is the likely culprit. (The above tree line analogy isn’t quite right, as a lightning strike is a random event, more akin perhaps to dying in an avalanche.)

    In high-risk solo mountaineering, I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but somehow it does. And whatever it is that caused his demise, it saddens me.

  4. broken arrow

    Nice piece by Tropical John and Steve House paying tribute to Ueli who was the best speed alpine climber ever. He took alpine climbing to another level, he is this generations Reinhold Messner.
    There are only a handful of men that have this kind of talent, Alex Honnold is another climber that is doing things that few have the skill to attempt.

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