Ueli Steck’s New Record in the Himalayas

You know Ueli Steck is a phenomenon when you get emails or Facebook posts about Ueli Steck from friends that know nothing about mountaineering. Youtube and vimeo are largely to blame because they have impressive films of Steck climbing in the Alps to some popular soundtracks. Frivolous popularity and hype aside, Steck deserves the homage.

Steck, the Swiss alpinist that turns 35 years old in October, climbed Shishapangma (26,289 ft./8,013 m.) on Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011 in an astounding ten-and-a-half hours. That is ten-and-a-half hours from advanced base camp to summit and back again on the world’s fourteenth highest mountain. According to PlanetMountain.com, Steck combined three routes to achieve this record, including the original southwest face route, Krzysztof Wielicki’s 1993 solo route and the 1995 Spanish route.

While the appreciation by non-climbers is a tribute to his inspiring courage and accomplishments, mountaineers and even non-technical hikers can appreciate his lifelong commitment to the mountains and his chosen approach to his craft. After all, climbing as Steck does is thanks to his experience and skill that he started accumulating when he was a teenager. He learned the fundamentals and elevated what he was comfortable with in the mountains — essentially raising the bar for what was considered comfortable and what required courage.

Steck also embraced alpine style climbing wholeheartedly, used the “fast and light” approach that I associate with Steve House, Barry Blanchard and Mark Twight, and transformed “fast” into “acceleration.” In this way, he takes just what he needs in his pack, doesn’t use fixed ropes or camps (often not using ropes or camps at all), has a minimalist mentality in terms of gear in order to travel quickly, and then he runs… kicks steps, swings the axe and repeats, probably forgetting the last move as soon as he starts the next one.

Steck’s style is admirable and has some pros and cons. For slow pokes like me, I would argue that Steck climbs his routes so quickly he barely notices that he is in a beautiful location; the experience is hardly a memorable one since he probably doesn’t forgets placing his crampons or axe as soon as he kicks or swings for the next hold. He doesn’t ever pause to enjoy the roses, if any grew up there.

However, Steck’s approach appears to be a balancing act of safety and risk, not unlike other more traditional climbing styles, but has it’s own rewards and dangers. He often climbs unroped, with minimal gear, and moves at a rapid pace through dangerous places. As Peter Bernstein says in Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, the chances something will go wrong are related to how many opportunities for failure can occur during the given time. In other words, the less time Steck takes to climb, the less can go wrong.

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