Alpinist Ueli Steck Says He Lives, and Climbs, On His Own Terms
OURAY – He’s known for his speed records and free solo ascents of some of the world’s most formidable peaks.
But one of the biggest revelations in legendary Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck’s standing-room-only presentation during the recent Ouray Ice Festival came when he discussed his first attempt to climb Mt. Everest in 2011.
The climb didn’t get nearly the publicity of his latest aborted effort in 2013 that ended in a potentially deadly altercation with Sherpa working on the mountain. The 2011 ascent was sort of an afterthought, a “while we are in the neighborhood let’s knock off the world’s highest peak” kind of thing that was tacked onto the end of another expedition.
Steck and his climbing partners were attempting Everest – naturally – without oxygen. All was going well, but within an hour of the summit, Steck literally got cold feet. “And I decided I have to go back,” he said. “I think that was one of my smartest decisions ever made. I don’t think it’s worth it to lose any toes on an 8,000 meter peak.”
At least 150 people trudged past Steck on their way to the summit that day – most of them with supplemental oxygen. But Steck was at peace with his decision to turn around.
“This was a really good decision for me and it showed me, I really can make the right decisions, and I am really proud I turned around on Everest in 2011,” he said.
Reflecting on the moment during an interview with The Watch, Steck explained, “It’s all about your personal limits. And nobody knows your limits; it’s just yourself. And that’s very important. If you solo something, it can be really safe, if you really know where your limits are. But it can be really dangerous if you just get influenced from the outside. You just have to know it for yourself.
“And I think it is very important in life to realize what is really important; nothing’s going to change if you do a climb or not.”
Steck received a rock star reception during his brief Ouray Ice Festival appearance. Fans of all ages lined up in a snowstorm outside the Main Street Theater to have a chance to see him, and he signed hundreds of posters after his presentation.
But the so-called “Swiss Machine” admitted, he is not a person who was made for the spotlight. “It’s not my thing. I play the game,” he said. “For me, it gets kind of hard sometimes, being recognized all the time. It’s not that easy. Everywhere you come, people see you not as a person. They see you as a climber, or an alpinist.”
Steck does his best to live, and climb, on his own terms. He said he doesn’t feel a sense of pressure to live up to his own reputation, or to outdo himself by attempting more and more extreme adventures.
“I just do what I want to do,” he said. “I am not doing something just for pushing alpinism. For me, that’s just secondary.”
While maintaining a grueling travel schedule that has lately included a climbing trip to Patagonia with his wife, a quick double-back to Switzerland, his recent Ouray appearance, followed by another obligatory appearance in Switzerland to receive “a kind of Swiss of the Year award,” Steck said he has also been giving himself plenty of mental space, lately, to recover from his recent feat on Annapurna (he summited the treacherous 8,091 meter Himalayan peak without ropes and oxygen in October 2013, completing the round trip on his own from advanced base camp to summit and back in just 28 hours), and to dream of what might come next.
“You have to realize that this is a dangerous game up there,” he said. “You can’t do that 10 times and survive. You really have to step back. That’s very important.”
Steck wasn’t planning to summit Annapurna alone. But when his climbing partner changed his mind about going to the top, Steck took advantage of a weather window that had opened up, and quietly decided to go for it on his own.
“I think for the whole life, it’s like that,” he reflected. “You have opportunities, and if you don’t take it, they will pass by. It’s like a train. You can jump on, or just let it go. You can jump off on the next station, and wait for the next train. That’s life, you know? You have to decide where you go off the train and which train you jump on for the next trip.”
It is hard to imagine what kind of trip might come next for the climber who has just free soloed Annapurna. Steck has some thoughts, of course, but none that he is willing to share publicly yet.
He did, however, tip his hat to the Italian mountain climber Walter Bonatti, who became legendary for his solo climbs in the Alps and Himalayas in the 1950s and 1960s before suddenly retiring from alpinism at the age of 35. Bonatti, it turns out, had family ties in Ouray.
“I met him a couple of times,” Steck said. “He is a big inspiration, but for me he is really really important in his career because he was 35 and just said ‘That’s enough.’ He was not going to keep on pushing. He was one of the only ones from this time who survived, because he said, ‘Okay, alpinism for me, that’s enough.’”
Bonatti went on to have a career in journalism, and died at the ripe old age 81, in 2011, at his home in Rome.
“He was really smart,” Steck said. “A lot of people blamed him for that. But he was the only one who survives. For me, that is really impressive.”
Which begs the question: Does Steck feel like he may reach that point one day?
“I will never stop climbing for sure,” he said. “But pushing up 8,000 foot peaks, I will stop that. It’s a dead end.”
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