The north face of the Eiger shoots up nearly 6,000 feet in the sky like a vertical dagger of limestone and ice. It is a classic symbol of the Swiss Alps, and also the perils that can accompany the sport of mountaineering; having claimed the lives of more than 60 climbers to date, the north face is so dangerous that it’s sometimes called the Mordwand — German for “Death Wall.” It was first scaled in 1938 over the course of three days, securing the climbers who achieved it — Heinrich Harrer, Anderl Heckmair, Fritz Kasparek and Wiggerl Vörg — a place in the history books of modern mountaineering. In February 2007, professional climber Ueli Steck turned the sport on its head when, all alone, he scaled the entire north face in 3 hours and 54 minutes, setting a record for the fastest time ever. A year later, he did it again, this time entirely without ropes. His astonishing new time: 2:47:33*.
A Swiss native, Steck began his climbing career at the age of 17, first climbing Eiger’s north face at 18. In 2012, he summited Everest with his climbing partner, Tenji Sherpa, neither man using supplemental oxygen during the entirety of the ascent (now a rare feat upon the world’s highest mountain). During an ascent the following year, Steck was involved in an altercation with nearly 100 Sherpas at Everest’s Camp 2, sparking international media attention. The incident nearly cost the lives of him and his company, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith; the trio never finished their summit. Focus in the climbing world has since shifted to Ueli Steck’s most recent undertaking, a solo summit via the south face of Annapurna, perhaps the most technically challenging climb in the world. Despite an avalanche, Steck did it in a marathon 20 hours, arriving back at his base camp eight hours after he summited. This landmark achievement granted the climber the Piolet d’Or, one of the climbing world’s most prestigious awards, and secured his foothold among the world’s best. We sat down with the living legend to talk about the gear he can’t live without and his approach to the sport, and to find out if there’s life for him after climbing.
* Swiss climber Dani Arnold recently beat Steck’s record time by 19 minutes, though he used ropes and didn’t complete the climb during the winter season, as Steck did.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. How to cook a delicious meal.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. On my first expedition to the Himalayas I spent the night with an open bivvy at 7,000 meters without a sleeping bag. It felt like endless cold hours until the sunrise.
Q. Name one piece of gear you can’t live without.
A. Running shoes. I always have a pair somewhere in my bag when I am traveling.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I am traveling all over the world doing talks. I’m preparing a project for the summer and climbing a lot of peaks in the Alps.
Climbing Everest is about the challenge of thin air. If you use [supplemental] oxygen you are just avoiding this. For me it’s like pulling the quickdraw in the crux of a free climb.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: There are many people that are very inspiring. I love authentic people who do things with patience. I think life should be driven by patience!
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I am in the public and people know a lot about me. But the real Ueli Steck is not what the media shows. I am definitely not a machine. I am a very sensible person.
Q. Describe your relationship with fear.
A. Fear is important. Without fear you will kill yourself in the mountains!
Q. Free soloing has been a topic of debate in the climbing world recently. Dry-tooling [climbing rock with ice axes and crampons] is likewise controversial. How do you respond to critics claiming it is too dangerous?
A. I can understand. Of course it is dangerous. But climbing with a rope is also dangerous. It depends a lot on personal skills. Every person can choose how much risk they want to accept in life. As long your risk doesn’t put other people in danger, it’s your own decision. But you also have to accept the consequences if something goes wrong. And it makes sense to be aware of the consequences.
Q. Why don’t you carry supplemental oxygen?
A. Climbing with supplemental oxygen is not what I am looking for. Climbing Everest is about the challenge of thin air. If you use oxygen you are just avoiding this. For me it’s like pulling the quickdraw in the crux of a free climb. But it’s a personal choice how you climb. Everybody is free to do what they like.
Q. How does speed play into modern mountaineering? Why is it important for you to move so fast?
A. It’s just fun to move fast. It makes climbing more efficient and offers you a lot of possibilities. Time always matters in the mountains. It’s also a matter of safety. The whole speed game offers new possibilities. As an example: Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell just climbed the Fitz Roy traverse. It’s very simple [to climb], but nobody has done it before because they’ve been too slow!
Q. What do you eat during long climbs, and how do you fuel up before them?
A. I usually eat all kinds of PowerBars and gels. Before a big climb I like to eat a big plate of good pasta.
Q. What did you learn from the incident at Camp 2?
A. A lot. I am definitely more suspicious of human beings. I don’t trust people that easily anymore. It’s better to have some distance and get out of the way from crowds.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
A. Go your own way. It’s important to find your own passion, not what others think it should be.
Q. How do you see life for yourself after retirement from the sport?
A. I will climb as long as I can walk. But of course climbing becomes a different priority after a certain age.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. Nobody needs to remember Ueli Steck when I am dead. It will not change anything for me.