Ueli Steck and the Graziani-Benoist Odyssey on Annapurna

Climbing alone into the night. (All rights reserved)

Before I get into Ueli Steck and Annapurna, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of a very special and influential alpinist. As you probably heard, Sir Doug Scott passed away on the evening of December 7, 2020. He was part of the first ascent of the Southwest Everest expedition in 1975–where he was benighted and suffered through the highest open bivy to date on the descent–and embraced traveling in small light teams on his 30 other ascents that included El Capitan, Mt. Asgard, Denali, Mt. Waddington, Shivling, Nanga Parbat, Kangchenjunga, Pic Lenin, and many more. He also did a great deal of charitable work benefiting Himalayan communities.

As accomplished and pioneering as Scott was, he was not unapproachable. Alex Rodie, the editor at Sidetracked Magazine, shared a story like several others I recalled hearing over the years but hadn’t recorded to share. Rodie gave me permission to share what he tweeted about Sir Scott’s passing: “Saddened to read this. Doug Scott was once very kind to me as a young and clueless amateur climbing historian nosing around in the Alpine Club archives.” I raised a toast, and hope you’ll join me, “To Sir Scott: For his accomplishments and that he lived to be 79.”

Last week, I asked if you believe Ueli Steck climbed the South Face of Annapurna in a continuous 28 hour push through the night, and more importantly why? Many of you admitted that you were not familiar with the controversy, some stated firm positions on both sides, several significant partners of Steck were deliberately silent, and one asked posed a different question for all of us. But first, let’s get everyone caught up on the facts.

OCTOBER 9, 2013

Camped on a grassy knoll, Steck’s intended partner, Don Bowie of Canada, and Tenji Sherpa, one of Steck’s climbing friends, Dan Patitucci, a climbing photographer, and a filmmaker named Jonah, waited in camp at the base of Annapurna to the south. Steck and Bowie only went up to camp at 6,100 meters on an earlier attempt days before, and came down. Bowie was sick, or at least not in good shape, and wasn’t going to proceed with Steck. Steck immediately started thinking about going alone. Now he had been gone for over a day, saying he was going to cross the Bergshrund, which he felt was in bad shape, and go as high as he could, perhaps only 5,000 meters at ABC or their high point. But Tenji Sherpa saw a headlamp creep up slowly during the night, and saw it as high as about 200 meters below the summit.

The South Face of Annapurna had been climbed only a few times. It is one of the largest continuous slopes globally, quite steep, and requires advanced technical climbing skills across snow, ice, and rock. The first ascent was by Don Whillians and Dougal Haston as part of a seige-style British expedition lead by Sir Chris Bonington in May 1970. It was the most challenging route on an 8,000-meter peak to date. Nil Bohigas and Envic Lucas went up another line to the east of the first ascent that was more direct to the summit in 1984. Then there was an attempt by a route that captured Steck’s imagination created by Pierre Béghin and Jean Christophe Lafaille in 1992. Béghin died during the retreat and created a true epic for Lafaille over a five day struggle to return safely to home. Lafaille tried again in 1995, 1998, and then, reached the summit in 2002 by the East Ridge with Alberto Inurrategi.

Steck is a speed climber and traveled very light to begin with. He brought with him a down jacket, a fleece hoody, a GPS watch, a camera, a 6mm rope, propane and a stove, a thin primaloft jacket, a tent, heavy down mittens, hardshell pants, double-layer gloves, a little food most of which appeared to be energy bars and chocolate, five bolts, and an ice screw. He didn’t bring a sleeping bag or wear the hip belt on his pack. It was very light and, generally speaking, proven on his solo excursions in the Alps.

In the morning, Bowie, Tenji, and Patitucci went up the snowslope prior to the ice fall to meet Steck with tea. He was alive, well, and reported he had successfully summited the mountain. News flew over social media fast and reached my device. Sometime in the next day or two, Steck was interviewed by Elizabeth Hawley, the great Himalayan climbing archivist, in Khatmandu. She recorded his solo ascent as a bona fide successful climb to the top.

However, while Miss Hawley was satisfied, Steck’s story faced stringent scrutiny from a new generation of critics who’s standards were far more technical than Miss Hawley’s questioning about the climb and what the climber saw, and weighing the climber’s character. At the heart of the evidence against him, Steck had no route data due to a malfunction in his GPS wrist-watch and he reported losing his camera during a small avalanche early on the ascent. While he was clearly on the Béghin-Lafaille line started in 1992, whether he reached the top in the dark was disputed.

DOUBT AND A PIOLET D’OR

During climbing’s rise to being mainstream (not that alpine climbing has ever truly been mainstream,) the New York Times covered this topic: “Swiss climber’s feat honored despite lack of proof,” read the headline. The Piolet d’Or is an annual award that honors the greatest climbs of the year. If you believed Steck, there was no doubt his ascent was worthy of such a trophy.

When I first heard the criticisms, I wasn’t annoyed. The critics were nitpicking; Steck had an honest character. He had no need to lie, conflate, or exaggerate his claims. But my attitude shifted during my annual volunteer work for the Banff Centre’s annual literature competition; I read Ed Douglas’ story in Rock and Ice #251 from July 2018, “The Other Annapurna,” a title inspired by how Maurice Herzog ended his book on the first ascent of the mountain, “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” Douglas wrote about two French climbers, Yannick Graziani and Stéphane Benoist, nearly eclipsed by the fanfare around Steck.

The coverage here in the states about Graziani and Benoist was limited to PlanetMountain.com, if I recall correctly, but it was there. The news I read at the time was modest, but the gist was shortly after Steck returned, the Frenchmen went up the Béghin-Lafaille route too and experienced much harsher conditions, made it to the summit, experienced severe frostbite, and were rushed to Kathmandu for treatment after an eight-day slog. Shortly after they returned, Douglas says Graziani might have seen some ice axe pick marks in the snow higher up but could not be certain. The only other sign that Graziani and Benoist did see was a tent platform cut out, and that, they told Douglas, was before the “real difficulties.”

Douglas also mentioned a report on Steck’s 2011 Shisha Pangma climb that struck Graziani in retrospect. The author was French climbing analyst Randolphe Popier, and he concluded, though Steck was on the route, he could not have made it to the summit of Shisha Pangma in 2011. Graziani told Douglas: “If [Steck] can lie once then he can lie twice.” Popier produced an even more thorough analysis on Steck’s 2013 Annapurna South Face climb. In the Annapurna report Popier used more photo illustrations and points in time to demonstrate credible reasons for doubting Steck. Asking other’s opinions on these reports, after having read them most tell me the same thing: He climbed incredibly but he could not have actually reached the summit and he lied to all of us.

Graziani’s and Benoist’s story was far more credible than Steck; compared to their Odyssey on Annapurna, Steck’s seemed vague, and as Popier and others have pointed out, inconsistent. How can you believe Steck? But could we all be wrong? Or could Steck have been so consumed by pressures that delusion and ego rose up and enveloped his sense of truth? My curiosity rose from just doubt and suspicion to Steck, to a new question: Could Steck still, in light of this research, have made the top of Annapurna, and if he didn’t what happened that compelled him to claim he did?

I’ll be back later in the week, and with luck on Thursday, my usual target date. If you enjoyed this post and want to follow along, you might want to follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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