Ueli Steck: Conquerer of the Impossible

Following in the footsteps of Boivin, Profit and Escoffier – the pioneers of fast and light mountaineering – Ueli Steck is taking the discipline to the highest level and revolutionizing it even further.

Photo courtesy Julbo.

“The Swiss Machine” hit the headlines once again last fall by opening a new route on the deadly south face of Annapurna (8091 m) in an astounding solo round-trip of just 28 hours, without oxygen. This exploit won him his second Piolet d’Or, the highest mountaineering award. The Piolet d’Or jury had this to say about Steck’s ascent:

“After reaching the bergschrund, Ueli Steck had to accept that his climbing partner thought the risk too high. In climbing the face alone, Ueli subjected himself to maximum exposure. Despite not knowing what was awaiting him above 6500 metres, he managed to complete the unfinished route of Pierre Béghin and Jean-Christophe Lafaille (of 1992). Achieving a first ascent on this wall, climbing alone, in very rapid alpine style, seems to be a new dimension in high altitude climbing.”

Ueli Steck? Yup, Conqueror of the Impossible.

article continues below

The Machine has done the Alps – including Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau, Grandes Jorasses, Matterhorn and Les Droites – with north face enchainments in record time. In the Himalaya he linked up a series of stopwatch-pummelling firsts: Pumori, Cholatse, Tawoche, Tengkampoche, Gasherbrum II, Shisha Pangma and Cho Oyu. And then Annapurna.

“Anything I can imagine is possible,” says Steck.

Photo courtesy Julbo.

Three questions for Ueli:

Can you tell us about your time on Annapurna?

“I’d wanted to do it for a long time. I set off at night to take advantage of the good snow conditions. That didn’t stop me getting hit by an avalanche during the ascent. I spent 28 hours in my own little world, without thinking of the future or the past, but just me in the present. Up there, I accepted that I could die. When I got back down, I realized that the danger of death is ever-present in those mountains. It showed me there were other important things in life.”

How do you see the next phase?

“For me, the 8000m solo ascent is perhaps the right time to say stop. Having had some very big goals, I want to return to a slightly more normal mountaineering life and just do what I like to do. That’s what I did with the winter enchainment of the three north faces of Tre Cime with my friend Michi Wohlleben. A great human experience and one I’d like to have more of.”


Photo courtesy Julbo.

How do your Julbo Trek sunglasses help you?

“Up there, I need real mountaineering eyewear that offers faultless protection. But I also need good ventilation like trail runners. By combining these two elements, the Trek is a perfect match for my “fast and light” philosophy. I can climb quickly whatever the conditions, despite the heat released when I’m working really hard.”