The Zen of Ueli Steck


Climbing alone and into the night. (All rights reserved)

While the 2014 Everest season is becoming reminiscent of the hockey lockout of 2012-13, and the Khumbu is looking like an empty rink, I thought it was a great opportunity to share what other amazing things climbing has to offer. Just because Everest is the biggest doesn’t mean that it is still the apex of our sport.

I asked Jason Cobb to elaborate on a discussion he and I had about the 2014 Piolet d’Or. The award is an opportunity to celebrate climbing. Cobb, a weekend alpinist and father of two from Edmonton, Alberta, compares Ueli Steck’s solo ascent of Annapurna’s South Face with another remarkable climb. Here’s his guest post…

How bad-ass was Ueli Steck’s Annapurna climb?

All different kinds of labels apply–free soloing, mixed alpine climbing, high altitude mountaineering. But by any measure, it was pretty stunning. Even for the experienced, it’s hard to make sense of the bold and audacious, oxygen-free solo of 8091m Annapurna’s S-Face in 2013. The 11th highest peak in the world via a face more than 2,500m high, in 28 hours round-trip, and by himself. He even dropped a mitt…on the way up. It just won a Piolet d’Or, an international award that recognizes the year’s “greatest” climbs.

But why does it matter?

From my point of view as both armchair historian and amateur alpinist (a.k.a. weekend warrior,) Steck’s Annapurna climb and the Piolets d’Or could inspire me ramble on about a range of topics. However, the question of “what do you compare it to?” first inspired a Twitter chat with Andrew and led to this longer ramble.

After I got over my initial awe and amazement when I heard about Steck’s climb, and well before the Groupe de Haute-Montagne (GHM) assembled their remarkable jury, my first thought was another incredibly bold solo climb from 2013 that has lit the imagination of the climbing world and beyond: Alex Honnold’s free-solo send of El Sendoro Luminoso (5.12d, 530m) in under three hours.

From the luxury of my armchair, I pondered: which one is harder? Which one is a better climb, a greater climb? They’re both free-solo…Ueli was at altitude and alpine climbing, but much of it was on snow and ice. Alex was climbing technically hard ground, free soloing on-the-edge-of-5.13 slab fer cryin’ out loud. But he wasn’t at altitude, and it was only 500 and change meters long, whereas Ueli’s climb was five times that long.

These are both mind-blowing climbs. Very different climbs, but comparable on a number of fronts–both of the most audacious category of bold; innovative, in that they each saw an opportunity for a different fundamental approach; stunning in the speed and grace of their execution; both demonstrating utter dedication, experience, and commitment, leaving the smallest fractional room for error.

But my mind has been blown by other climbs in the past as well. After wiping the dampness away from my sweaty palms watching Alex in this early clip, my first thought in comparison was actually not Ueli’s Annapurna solo but a very different Himalya climb: Kurtyka and Schauer’s alpine-style W-Face of Gasherbrum IV in 1985. Further contemplation lead to Mick Fowler (the ULTIMATE weekend warrior, I might add) and Victor Saunders’s remarkable Golden Pillar route on Spatnik on their summer vacation in 1987. And what about Alex Huber’s 2002 free solo of Diretissima (5.12) on Cima Grande in the Dolomites, or Reinhard Messner oxygen-free and completely alone up Everest’s North Face in 1980?

I got nowhere with these comparisons. All of these climbs are stunning accomplishments. Each have their merits. Some even have grades of technical difficulty and objective hazard, and while some of the climbs are more comparable than others, trying to figure out some sort of definitive pecking order of greatness is annoying and futile.

So by March 2014, we’re back to the Piolets d’Or, with a shortlist of five climbs from a pool of more than 70 in 2013. Despite all of my armchair comparisons, the 2014 award jury–chaired this year by George Lowe, in my opinion one of the all-time preeminent alpinists in the world–awarded two Golden Axes: one to Ueli, and another to fellow-Canucks Raphael Slawinski and Ian Welsted for their first ascent of K6 West (7040 m.). While acknowledging that “that all the nominations should be celebrated as representing the highest ethical ideals of mountaineering,” the jury noted that “the first ascent of K6 West and the solo ascent of the Annapurna South Face are, in their own way, representative examples of the state of the art of mountaineering today.”

Furthermore the jury also awarded a special Brotherhood of the Rope mention to Stephane Benoist and Yannick Graziani, who repeated the Steck route. Despite much more difficult conditions and illness high on the mountain, the pair were able to summit and descend safely and in good style. In the words of the jury, Benoist and Graziani demonstrated “that a partnership can be greater than the sum of its parts.”

It seems George Lowe and the jury got it right. I agree with the GHM when they explicitly state that “questions of style and means of ascent take precedence over reaching the objective itself.”

I think comparing the highest achievements in climbing can provide each of us with our own illumination from which to consider how we climb, and by extension, why each of us bothers.

Cobb on the sharp end on the crux of Big Step on the East Ridge of Mount Temple (Brett Wheler)

Like many, I have never believed that the heart and soul of mountaineering is a competitive endeavour, at least not in the classic sense with winners and losers. I certainly don’t believe that you conquer the mountain when you climb it; if you master anything, I believe that you master your self. If there is a test in climbing it’s a test of your mettle, your skill, training, preparation, your willpower–and in many cases, it tests those qualities in your partnership, the brotherhood of your rope team.

The grand accomplishments of Ueli, Raphael, and Ian are a far cry from my weekend expeditions in my home range the Canadian Rockies, but their climbs–along with the others I mentioned–will remain as benchmarks for some of the qualities that I find most appealing in climbing: adventure, skill, self-reliance, determination, fitness, wilderness, fun, discovery.

The late great Alex Lowe had a deceptively simple, very powerful answer to the who’s-the-best-climber question: “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.” I’ve always loved that. It deflates self-importance and unnecessary competition and puts the crux of the matter right back on the crux that all of us climbers face, whether we crank 5.13s for breakfast or just manage to make it up the trail to see the flower-burst meadow at the pass or turquoise tarn sparkling beneath the peak.

(Of course, when it comes to alpine climbing and mountaineering, there’s always that sage wisdom from Barry Blanchard, that “it doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun.” But that’s meat for another conversation…)


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