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Man of the mountain.


A carpenter by trade, the man with crystal-clear blue eyes from Langnau in Emmental had a conventional life mapped out in front of him. But he was destined for greater things. Deep within him burnt a passion for adventure and, one day, it would make him one of the very best alpinists in the world--and one of the fastest.

Think Alpine Spiderman and you get an idea of the agility and staggering velocity with which Ueli Steck takes on some of the highest and most challenging peaks in the world. It is fitting that his 'house mountain' should be the notorious 3,970-metre Eiger, whose merciless north face has claimed at least sixty lives since 1935 and has been nicknamed Eigermordwand (Eiger murderous wall). Together with a friend, Steck completed his first ascent of the face at the age of eighteen. The feat, which had been preceded by months of tireless preparation, was a momentous achievement for the young alpinist: "There is so much history to this place and it was such a big dream for us ... I remember just how proud we were, when we reached the top. We thought: 'now we are real climbers!'"

Going it alone

Steck's passion started when a family friend took him out climbing for a day at the age of twelve. Inspired by the experience, the boy quickly abandoned his childhood past time of ice hockey, the sport his brothers were hooked on. "I preferred climbing, because it is so simple. There are clear rules and strict boundaries. You don't rely on anyone else. If you don't reach the top, it's your own fault." This fed the competitive streak in Steck, who was always eager to seek out new challenges and to push himself to the limit.

Yet, as ambitious as he was, the young climber was also a realist--and he was realistic enough to know that the passion he had chosen was unlikely to ever put bread on his table. After all, in the history of alpinism, only few had ever succeeded in living the dream on a full-time basis. And so he pursued a career in carpentry and lived from hand to mouth for many years, just so that he could finance his next vertical adventure.

However, dreams die hard--and after a decade-long battle of heart over head, frivolity eventually took the better of him. In 2003, a 31-year-old Steck put aside his reservations and became a professional alpinist.




The man ibex

Three years later, Steck was a 'world champion'. He had discovered speed climbing and, reaching the top of the Eiger north face in a mere 3 hours 54 minutes, had clocked a new record. But the man, who competes only against himself, knew that he could do even better. "It was too easy. I knew, I hadn't reached my limit and wanted to try and see what I could really do," Steck justifies his decision to challenge the great Eiger once again in 2008. He was keen to find out how much faster he could be, if he shed some weight and climbed entirely without aid. Four kilos lighter in bodyweight and with five less kilos of baggage to slow him down, Steck free-climbed the Nordwand at a new record of 2 hours 47 minutes that very February. This silenced even his last critics, who had questioned whether the alpinist had used existing fixed ropes during his first speed ascent--a routine practice. The following May, the sportsman was presented with the inaugural Eiger Award for his outstanding achievements.

A video of the historic climb shows a speedy Steck traverse the diminishing ice-fields with the light-footedness of an ibex. Fast and confident, he pushes on, as if it were a walk in the park. As the camera zooms out, the climber is merely a dot on a perpendicular wall of rock and ice--David against Goliath. But undeterred, the underdog blitzes hundreds of metres in altitude; his mind, master of his body; his face, the image of pure concentration. It is as if someone has pressed fast-forward--and, before you know it, it is all over and David has come out on top.

Taught by nature

"Climbing is a school for life--you have to make decisions and take responsibility for them. The result is immediate." Steck describes another facet of his passion, before turning to its darker side. "Climbing can put you in real danger and if you constantly live life on the edge, you are going to die one day. It is important to know exactly what the risks are and how to manage them. You have to take climbing seriously." This is why the native Emmentaler plans each venture meticulously and is as prepared as he possibly can be every time. He loves control and structure--"like a typical Swiss German," he laughs. Even his bodyweight is never an accident. Steck follows a strict nutrition regime, depending on whether he needs to lose or gain weight for any given venture.

However, even the best preparation can never protect you completely. The Annapurna, a Himalayan mountain fraught with danger, could have easily taken Steck's life in May 2007, when he was hit on the head by a falling rock. After a period of unconsciousness, the climber awoke 200 metres below where he had fallen, fully aware that if he didn't make it back down to base camp quickly, he would die. "The most important thing is to have a strategy to get out of the situation you are in. I had to think clearly and get down the mountain as quickly as possible," recalls Steck. With great difficulty, the experienced mountaineer dragged himself back to base camp--with a concussion and covered in bruises.


A year later, as he was preparing for his second attempt, fellow alpinist Inaki Ochoa de Olza was not so lucky. Steck and his colleague Simon Anthamatten rushed to the Spaniard's rescue at 7,400 altitude metres, but were unable to save him. These are sobering experiences.

Living life to the full

"But you have to move on," says Steck "One of the greatest challenges in life is to make the most of the little time you have. To do so, you need to keep on moving forward and to cherish every moment--those who live in the past, are dead. And you never know what tomorrow will bring!" The sportsman is well aware that one day, he will no longer be able to push his body as hard he does now, but then "I won't have any regrets. I will have lived my life to the full. And when it comes to it, I am sure I will find a new challenge."

For now, he is still a man on an Alpine mission. But already, his list of achievements is long, including everything from a free climb of the 'Golden Gate Route' at El Capitan to bold speed climbs and solos in the Alps and Canadian Rockies. On his current wish list are the world's fourteen 8,000-metre peaks. Since 2009, he has already bagged the Gasherbum II in Pakistan, the Makalu in Nepal and the Shisha Pangma in Tibet. It is a sign of more exciting things to come for the alpinist.

"What is it like to be living the dream?" I ask. "I don't have to wait for the weekend or for the evening to do what I love. Every time I climb, it's like a holiday," he says. And I believe every word of it.

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Title Annotation:people: profile
Author:Scheuringer, Carina
Publication:Swiss News
Date:May 1, 2012
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