Before I even had my coffee on a sunny morning in Alexandria, Virginia in October 2013, I woke to several notifications all with the same simple news: Ueli Steck returned to basecamp after climbing Annapurna’s South Face solo in a continuous push over 28 hours. I was mesmerized and aglow from that news all day.
I remember the sunlight shining through early fall leaves into my old condo’s kitchen as I poured the coffee into my favorite mug from Middlebury, Vermont. I was re-tweeting posts and posted on Facebook about the news. This was special. It was the most significant human achievement in the mountains I had witnessed since I started this T.S.M. blog just a couple of years earlier. And it was something to share with my non-climbing friends, which were mostly nonclimbers then, because even they saw videos on YouTube of Steck climbing fast solo in the Alps. I was a witness to a great moment.
I didn’t have a great deal of detail about Steck’s climb that morning, but I was aware the South Face was arduous and rarely climbed. (I think I thought the route was similar to Denali’s avalanche prone Wickersham Wall, which wasn’t precisely the sole challenge. It’s also at high altitude and steeper.) It was first climbed by an expedition lead by Sir Chris Bonnington in 1970, via a vulnerability on the western side of the South Face. Steck climbed the route started by Pierre Béghin and Jean Christophe Lafaille in 1993. That first attempt was Lafaille’s epic. Béghin died during their retreat, and he wrote about it in a memoir, Prisonnier de l’Annapurna (2003).
Steck was nominated and won a Piolet d’Or for the ascent. But before he earned a Piolet d’Or, doubt had crept in. He climbed without his partner, Don Bowie of Canada, his altimeter wristwatch malfunctioned, and he had no photographic proof; his camera fell early on during the ascent. He had no documented proof of his climb — a notable first ascent of a new route. The New York Times even covered the controversy.
Considering Steck’s lack of evidence, I have been asking questions and trying to come to conclusions. Is what he did reasonable for Steck? If he lied, why would he have done so? Was he mistaken? Delusional? Was it media pressure for a professional athlete? And does good reputation and Steck’s character overcome all doubt? I’ve struggled with wanting to believe he pulled it off, but the more I’ve dug, the more complex is the story and our own human judgments.
Over the next two weeks, I hope to have a conversation with you over social media and over email. At the same time, on this T.S.M. blog, I am going to share what I have learned from interviews, what I can share from some confidential sources, and what other climbers have written about Ueli and whether he actually climbed the South Face of Annapurna, or whether its a hoax, a delusion, or something else entirely that points its finger back at ourselves.
Before we go down this rabbit hole, the key question is this: Do you believe Ueli Steck climbed the South Face of Annapurna in a continuous 28 hour push through the night, and more importantly why? Leave me a comment on Twitter or Facebook or shoot me an email (which is on my About page.) I look forward to hearing from you.
Read the next post in this series by clicking here.