Ueli Steck: An Appreciation

Tropical John Medinger pens an ultrarunner’s eulogy for mountaineer and ultrarunner Ueli Steck.

By on May 4, 2017 | Comments

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
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.