“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering. All the rest are merely games…” Earnest Hemingway…
There wasn’t a Ueli Stick before he arrived on the international mountaineering scene and there won’t be one now that he is gone. He was unique, a multi-faceted alpinist with a deep reservoir of skill and accomplishments and an ever deeper resolve to train to the max for every thing that he did. It was Steck who became the first “speed climber”, clambering up difficult, treacherous slopes at a pace that left his companions winded and onlookers in awe. Steck had the stamina of a marathoner and the nerves of a bomb defuser. He summited Everest without oxygen and did the North Face of the Eiger (nicknamed the “Wall of Death”) in a little over two hours, less time than it takes to have a really good dinner with friends. His climbing resume was filled with first ascents and speed climbs that made him a legend. His unique combination of skills and accomplishments earned him the nickname “the Swiss Machine”.
Over the last weekend, while training for another adventure, climbing on Nuptse in the Nepalese Himalayas, Steck fell. The fall was 1000 Meters (3000 plus feet) and he did not survive.
World class mountaineering is a pursuit that takes a heavy toll on the world class mountaineers who reach the summit of the sport. Make a mistake in baseball, and it’s an error or a home run. Make a mistake in football and it’s interception or a punt return for a touchdown. Make a mistake in mountaineering and all too often it’s death. It’s a deadly serious sport that requires a level of concentration and training that is just not present consistently in other sports, with consequences for failure or underperformance or error that are literally life or death.
The safety net for mountaineers is provided by a combination of training, technique, and experience. You must be superbly trained and cannot afford any loss of strength, balance, or endurance while working your way up a massive rock face. Technique must be perfect. Imperfect technique leads to falls. And you must have a deep, vast, reservoir of experience to help you through situations that you’ve not precisely encountered before but in which you can see “similarities”. Steck was the textbook example of what it takes in terms of education, training, technique, experience and commitment to be a world class mountaineer. He always felt his life was in the best hands when those hands were his own–which is as it should be if you’re a mountaineer.
For a top mountaineer like Steck, there is always the continuing issue of “what next”. The better a mountaineer becomes, the more mountains he summits, the more impossible the climb, the greater the search for the next goal. The world is small now, and you can book a flight to Nepal in 24 Hours. There are fewer “firsts” to accomplish. Mountains get crowded (Everest is a perfect example) with mountaineers trying to check off another big climb or create new route. The hunt for “what’s next” now pushes mountaineers to create new challenges that push them to–or over–their absolute limits.
One of the very appealing facets of mountaineering and alpinism is the level of intellect the sport attracts. Mountaineers are some of our most intelligent athletes. They think about their sport, about the edges of the sport, about the consequences and risk mitigation. Many of our best alpinists would be equally comfortable running hedge funds–they have a fine and accurate sense of risk and how to manage opportunity or reversals. Steck was such an athlete. He pioneered a new way of mountaineering, using less equipment, going faster, and often doing it solo. He was expert at managing the risks and then, one day, he wasn’t.
Michael Wejchert wrote a compelling, intelligent, piece on Steck’s death for the 1 May 2017 issue of The New York Times. Wejchert’s piece is not just a fitting and appropriate eulogy for Steck, but lays out the philosophy and risks of mountaineering in elegant prose; Wejchart knows what he’s talking about because he is one of them–a mountaineering guide. In his piece, Wejchart shows how the path of accomplishment in mountaineering so often leads to a sudden and brutal end. It’s a very, very good piece of writing and deserves to be read.
To bring a different perspective to the life of Ueli Steck, also included with this post is a short film on Steck, which features not just Steck but a group of his contemporaries who discuss his unique abilities.
When we lose someone like Ueli Steck, we lose a little bit of the possibilities of life, as shown by someone who took it to the edge and, every time but one, came back.
That should make all of us sad, whether we are mountaineers or not.