A visionary in his own right, Ueli Steck chased projects that have been nothing short of a revolution in modern-day climbing.
82 kinds of highs
Ueli Steck, ‘the Swiss Machine’ who conquered peak after peak as he ran, cycled and paraglided from one to the other — all in 62 days
After a little over two months of toil, Ueli Steck arose during those unforgiving hours before dawn to conquer the final peaks en route the ‘82 Summits’ target he had set himself on June 11 this year.
“In the beginning, you don’t know if it’s going to work,” he says over email, from his hometown of Ringgenberg in Switzerland.
“You need a lot of good weather… so you don’t know how it will pan out. After I finished the Mont Blanc massif (at 4,810m, the highest summit on the list), I was pretty sure I was going to make it.”
The idea was to conquer the 82 peaks, scattered across a 4,000-m region in the Alps, in one push, without the use of motorised vehicles. That called for, besides extraordinary climbing skills, strengths in running, cycling and paragliding.
So, for week after week, a typical day involved running to the base of a mountain, climbing to the top, perhaps paragliding down if the opportunity arose, and cycling to the next base camp.
“Cycling is not really dangerous. So I guess climbing mountains is more serious. It was more important for me to have the experience,” says Steck.
It certainly wasn’t a new concept. The first to attempt it were French climbers Patrick Berhault and Philippe Magnin, on March 1, 2004. On summit 67 (Täschhorn), Berhault fell and died. Then in 2007, Slovenian Miha Valic first achieved the feat in one push, without use of motorised vehicle, in 102 days. The following year, Italians Franco Nicolini and Diego Giovannini finished it in 60 days.
Steck took 62 days.
“This project is very weather-based. So I was never after a new record. Each summer is different, so there is no point in comparing two feats. Otherwise I would not climb with my wife and some friends,” he says.
Time, then, was never a factor for the man christened ‘The Swiss Machine’ for his 82-peak odyssey. He took on solo some challenges such as the Brouillard ridge, while the climb up Arete de Diable with Robert Bösch and Ueli Bühler — ‘which took forever’ — was simply a good day out together for the old buddies.
With mountain guide Andreas Steindl, Steck scaled 18 peaks in a single day. At other times, he indulged in a nice, relaxed climb up routes such as the Finsteraarhorn, accompanied by wife Nicole. Then there were the reunions in the mountains with long-lost friends such as mountain guide Andreas Wälchli.
After 61 days of navigating a carefully chalked out route from east to south, Steck set off for the final summits, Pic Lory (4,088m) and Barre des Ecrins (4,102m) on the Les Ecrins Massif. Yes, the 60-day record had eluded him, but there was still a lot at stake after all that he had endured.
En route, he lost a companion — 32-year-old Dutch climber Martijn Seuren, who fell to his death in a crevasse while attempting the Aiguille de Rochefort in the Mont Blanc massif; another, Michael Wohlleben, had injured himself when paragliding down the Schreckhorn Hut.
“I needed some time to sort things out,” he says, reflecting on Seuren’s death.
On the final day, as Steck started running from Ailefroide in the darkness, he reached a signboard that read ‘Glacier Blanc and Glacier Noir’. “I was sure the arrow for Glacier Blanc directed towards the left. So I kept running for another couple of hours until I could see the mountain. But it was strange, as it did not look like the mountain I wanted to go up,” he says.
It was not until he reached the end of the valley that he realised he was on the wrong side of the mountain. “It’s almost impossible to miss the trail! But I did, and had to turn around. I kept making fun of myself as I backtracked; I thought to myself that it was a great detour, so at least it was a good training day,” he reminisces.
That’s an attitude developed over years of experiencing the many moods of a mountain while accomplishing unprecedented feats such as the stunning, first solo attempt of Annapurna’s South Face (8,091m) in 28 hours in 2013, for which he was awarded mountaineering’s highest accolade, the Piolet d’Or, and topping Shishapangma (8,027m) in 10.5 hours in 2011.
“It’s different (from climbing 8,000-m peaks in the Himalayas). Here I was moving almost every day. It’s not about sitting in a base camp and waiting for good weather. I did 117,489 vertical metres in these two months and covered 1,772km. On an expedition, you never move that much. Normally, after an expedition I feel very unfit, now I feel very strong,” he says.
After 62 gruelling days on the move, Steck finally celebrated in a way best-known to mountaineers. “We had pizzas and went to bed. The next day, we left for Ceuse to go rock-climbing (with Daniel Mader, who was in charge of logistics),” he says.
An ascent of Nuptse is next on his wish-list. And finishing 22nd on the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in the last week of August was a step closer towards that dream.