As I was about to edit this part three of three posts about Ueli Steck and his climb on the South Face of Annapurna, I was wrapping things up at work and taking nearly two weeks vacation, when there were still family responsibilities for Christmas undone, and, perhaps worse of all, I came down with a sinus infection. As if that wasn’t enough, my doctor wanted to rule out the plague of 2020, so I got tested and waited anxiously to see if the disease would ruin our Christmas plans. Fortunately, it was not detected and we carried on. For Christmas, Natalie gave me a copy of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, which is on my long short-list of books to read, which I look forward to finally reading. But lets get to the reason you’re here… the conclusion.
HE MAY NOT HAVE REACHED THE TOP
The two glaring incidents that mare Ueli Steck’s remarkable climbing record to many knowledgeable climbers and climbing historians were his climbs on Shisha Pangma in 2011 and the South Face of Annapurna in 2013. Randolphe Popier analyzed what we knew about both climbs and gave more credence to anyone with any doubt. Still, Steck was honored with a Piolet d’Or for completing the Béghin-Lafaille route on the South Face of Annapurna in a continuous 28 hour push.
I have been writing about this in my last two posts, the culmination of two years of research and pursuing interviews about Steck’s alleged or disputed Béghin-Lafaille route first ascent. Unfortunately, there is no new groundbreaking evidence. Popier and climbing data collectors like Eberhad Jurgalski and even Damien Gildea have all made a solid case against Steck about those climbs. While their points are impossible to argue, there is the chance that despite the lack of evidence, Popier’s conclusions are wrong. None of us were there. Perhaps that works into the favor of a solo climber.
The most persuasive argument against the summit on the South Face of Annapurna was that at night, without instruments, and not being intimately familiar with the features around the summit, it would be difficult to say with confidence, yes, you were there. Steck’s headlamp was seen high on the Béghin-Lafaille route at night, but not at the top. And at the end of the vertical portion of the Béghin-Lafaille line, there are a series of slopes that would easily be mistaken for the mountain’s highest point. Could Steck have thought there was no higher to go after one of of the slopes — a hump, really — descended, but not realizing it was a modest col before the final rise, or next-to-final rise, to the summit?
WAS STECK INCENTIVIZED TO LIE?
Going into this climb, Steck was in a traumatized state. Earlier the same year, Steck, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith were going to attempt a new route on Mount Everest. It was early in the climbing season and the fixed lines of the commercial guide services were not yet finished by the guide services’ local skilled climbers, colloquially referred to as Sherpas these days. Steck, Moro, and Griffith, ascended independently without the Sherpas’ fixed lines. The fixed lines to the summit were not finished and the Sherpas were still building the anchors between Everest and Lhotse, and that’s where the conflict erupted. Steck, Moro, and Griffith were trespassing according to the Sherpas; their work wasn’t complete and it was unsafe and disrespectful to pass them. Shouts ensued with some derogatory language aimed at each other. The disagreements turned to violence and threats with punches and thrown rocks in Camp 2. Melissa Arnot has been credited with brokering a truce.
Steck and his partners did not return to their route but instead went home. Steck says in his autobiography that he felt as though life was out of control on Everest. He tried to return to training and climbing, though in retrospect he admits that he was merely covering up his emotions rather than dealing with the events. Was this enough to motivate him to take great risks, of himself and his honor, to feel accomplished and in control again? The expedition to Annapurna had been on his itinerary for the fall even before he left for Everest, and the opportunity to attempt and succeed on the Béghin-Lafaille route took on new significance.
It can’t go unsaid that professional climbers like Steck also make their money in advertisements, promotions, and public speaking. Steck, I was told by a climber familiar with European professional climbers, that Steck would be paid more than most and had enough means, if he avoided debt, to keep anyone reasonably content. Of course, like in any career, does that income continue to flow if there become a string of failures? After the Everest mob, did Annapurna also create a need to grab, a by any means possible, a historic milestone?
A scene from the television sitcom Seinfeld keeps coming to my mind where the character George gives Jerry golden advice on lying: “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”
WHO STANDS BY STECK?
Ueli Steck was called the Swiss Machine because he climbed fast, often alone, and seemed to rarely stop moving. He died in 2017, which seems longer ago than when I thought. He fell 1000 meters, though we don’t know precisely if he slipped or the snow and ice wall on Nuptse he was climbing gave way. He was 40 years old. In remembrances, everyone expressed admiration. He was unique, special, a good guy, a good husband, and a great climber.
Steck has been a star of many amazing climbing films and stories. His autobiography, My Life in Climbing (2017), came out, ironically, in December after his fateful fall in April. Steve House wrote the Afterward, dated September 2017, and expressed admiration for Steck how we should follow his approach to life. I reached out to House about the South Face of Annapurna. House and I have exchanged messages over other topics before to help my stories or introduce me to people. My questions about Steck and the South Face of Annapurna, which there were several over months, were all read, but I never received a reply.
I reached out to Steck’s other climbing partners multiple times. I didn’t get any replies about this subject. Everyone was quiet. Considering the controversy, I understand the silence about the South Face of Annapurna. What advantage do they have in defending him now, and why reopen a wound.
I believe that Steck believed he climbed the Béghin-Lafaille route, but that he could not prove to anyone, nor disprove to himself, that he did not reach the summit. Camera lost? So what, it’s damn dark out here. Altimeter and GPS tracking broken? Crap. But who would doubt me if they see my headlamp on this clear night. And isn’t this climb supposed to be more about the climb than the summit anyway?
Steck’s ascent of the Béghin-Lafaille route is notable. It was not a hoax. It was unique. It was flawed. It was exciting. Just like the man who climbed the line.
SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: I’M TAKING A SIX-MONTH BREAK
After a lot of thought I have decided that I will take a six month break from blogging on The Suburban Mountaineer starting now. It is my blogging sabbatical. I’ve been blogging for over 10 years on this site. I have a stack of unread books about climbing and non-climbing subjects, and hope this will allow me to read them as well as complete other projects in a timely manner. Moreover, I am hoping this will refresh my perspective. I may just continue blogging or do more print article submissions. We’ll have to wait and see how life guides me.
However, I will still be posting on Twitter and the Facebook page (mostly Twitter, by the way.) I enjoy blogging here, so you can bet I will return in July 2021. I will still be reading and taking notes — I can’t help myself — so maybe I will have some posts from the inspiration I find over my break.
For now, be well. Have a good 2021. Climb safe. And keep reading!
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