The extreme mountain climber Ueli Steck Photo: ©Robert Boesch, Switzerland, www.robertboesch.ch
Ueli Steck has died in an accident in the Himalayas on 30 April. We are shocked to hear of his tragic passing, and our thoughts and condolences go out to his family.
His tragic accident just goes to show that any of us, no matter how professional and well-prepared we are, can experience tragedy at any time.
We are proud to have had the opportunity to conduct the following interview with Ueli a few months ago, and we are deeply saddened that it is only being published now, shortly after his tragic death.
7 hours and 4 minutes. That is all Ueli Steck needed to climb three of the most famous great north faces of the Alps solo. He has been awarded the Piolet d’Or – the mountain climber’s Oscar – for his achievements. We interview Switzerland’s most successful solo mountain climber and ask him about taking risks and what we can learn from the mountains.
Ueli Steck, in which currency is risk calculated?
Risk is subjective. For me, risk is very closely connected to my own abilities. I need to be good at assessing myself, my skills and my limits so that the risk can be reduced to an acceptable level.
Failure is also part of risk – how crazy do you need to be to retry something that went wrong?
If you are scared of failing, you will never be successful. Failure is part of the learning curve. It is important that failure is carefully analysed so that you know why it didn’t work. If you do this, you will have made great progress by the time you make the next attempt. And by testing out different things, you gain experience that you can constantly build on. If you don’t try anything, you don’t gain experience.
Going to extremes that everybody believes is impossible – how do you make it possible?
That’s the exciting part. This exact process – this is what drives me. Trying something I thought was impossible. Finding solutions to make the impossible possible. But I’m also a control freak so I try to prepare myself by making the extreme a normality.
Are there life lessons to be learned from the mountains?
Mountains are very honest and they treat everybody equally. You need to make many decisions and face up to their consequences. I don’t make excuses if I go the wrong way. You need to have a solution straight away to get back on track.
Do you have a good strategy for dealing with extreme challenges?
I always try to block out any pressure. I never say: “I will do that.” I always say: “I will try.” I know exactly what it means when I’m up there without any ropes. I know my limits. When you reach your limits, it is important not to be influenced by others. This is how you make the right decision. I try to always have an option available so that if it all gets too much for me, I can stop or turn around. If I actually turn around, everything is analysed and I begin from scratch. Or I decide that it’s not possible right now.
You’ve been through a lot. You have gained so much experience. Which experiences could you have definitely done without?
There are pleasant and unpleasant experiences. I think all of us would rather not go through the unpleasant experiences. They are usually tiresome at the time, but they actually allow you to progress much further. When people look back, they usually say that these testing moments helped them to progress, although they were seen as negative at the time.
What is more difficult: climbing an eight-thousander or writing a book about it?
You can’t get cold fingers when you write about it. When you’re climbing a mountain you sometimes curse yourself and wonder why you do this to yourself. But it’s these moments that later shape who I am – these memories will be with me for the rest of my life. Writing a book is ultimately just a reflection of the past and perhaps thoughts of what is to come in the future. This experience is never as defining as actually climbing a mountain.
When he was seventeen, he became a grade 9 climber in Switzerland. At 18 he climbed to the top of the Eiger north face and the Bonatti pillar in the Mont Blanc massif. In 2004 Ueli Steck climbed the big three – the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau – in a record time of 25 hours. The Swiss native is considered one of the best extreme mountain climbers in the world. His books “8000+. Entering the Death Zone” and “Speed. The Three Biggest North Faces of the Alps in Record Timing” are available in German from the Malik Verlag.