In the following article, journalist and climber, Billi Bierling, pays tribute to her friend Ueli Steck, the Swiss elite climber who died on Sunday on an Everest expedition.
Since I first met Ueli in 2007 I got to know him rather well - partially because of the Himalayan Databaseexternal link (former journalist Elizabeth Hawley's authoritative record of mountaineering expeditions since the early 20th century to more than 300 significant Nepalese peaks) and the work I do for ‘Miss Hawley’ and partially on a private basis.
What I liked about Ueli was his modesty and the fact that despite his amazing achievements he was down to earth - never arrogant. When you look at the CV on his websiteexternal link, it says: Profession: “trained carpenter” even before he lists all his incredible mountaineering achievements.
It was always a pleasure to see him in Kathmandu and talk to him about his climbs for the records of Miss Hawley’s Himalayan Database. Every once in a while, I also interviewed him as a journalist, and in particular for swissinfo.ch. He always took the time to talk to me, even though he hardly ever stayed in Kathmandu for longer than 24 hours.
I remember the incident with the Sherpas in 2013. At the time, I was at Everest Base Camp and of course, I received a phone call that I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to from Dale Bechtel, editor of the English service of swissinfo.ch, asking me whether I could interview Ueli. I did not want to bother Ueli with this as he was more to me than just a ‘subject’ for a good story - he was a friend. But still - I am a journalist at heart and so I went to see him. At first he said that he would not talk to the media but in the evening he came over to our camp and told me that he trusted me and that he would talk to me. I really appreciated it and the conversation revealed how shaken he had been by the whole event.
‘Swiss Machine’ label
One thing Ueli did not particularly like was the term ‘Swiss Machine’. He was branded with it, but he never warmed to this description of his abilities; so reading it all over the media now makes me almost sad. He was much more than a machine – he was a kind, down-to-earth and rather introverted person.
We all know that he was extraordinary - I don’t need to go into this. But I feel fortunate that I got to know Ueli personally and was lucky enough to enjoy his trust. I remember after he had got back from the South Face of Annapurna 1, it did not take very long for the first doubters to emerge. I was trekking in the Khumbu when I received an email from a journalist trying to dig up some dirt about the ascent.
It really shocked me that so shortly after this impressive climb, people were already trying to break him. I sent him a quick text to warn him and he just replied: “Thanks - it’s great to have friends like you.” It makes me very sad that to this very day, people doubt his ascent of Annapurna 1 and of course, only Ueli knows whether he reached the top or not. But both Miss Hawley and I have always believed him as we are convinced that he was absolutely capable of doing this. I think a lot of the doubts came from the fact that people did not think it was feasible to do - but with Ueli it was. He made the impossible possible.
When I heard about this tragic accident on Sunday morning, I was in the midst of translating his latest book, which I have been working on for the past two months. Ueli and I were very excited that one of his books was finally going to be published in the English-speaking world as he had always wanted to have an English version of one of his works. So I have lived and breathed Ueli for the past two months. I would like to share an excerpt from the Annapurna South Face chapter, which I re-read several times after I had heard about his accident. Maybe this section can help us better understand, where Ueli was coming from:
“I was completely detached from the other world. There was nothing else but climbing. No goal, no future, no past. I was climbing in the here and now. One swing of the ice axe after the other; one step after the other. I only saw my ice axes and how they penetrated the snow and ice. My view narrowed and I had adopted some sort of tunnel vision. And here I was; in the middle of this gigantic face with very limited equipment. I felt light, but also extremely exposed. I knew that the tiniest mistake would mean certain death. However, I was not scared of making a mistake. I was still giving orders and controlling the person climbing the south face of Annapurna. It did not feel like me. If this person fell, it would not really concern me.”
I remember when I once asked him how he could possibly not be scared when scaling such gigantic steep faces without a rope, he responded: “Climbing is like walking the stairs. I never expect to slip and fall. Do you?” And this is exactly how he viewed climbing - like walking the stairs. But unfortunately, on Sunday these stairs became fatal for him. It is a great loss for the climbing community; a great loss for his friends and family and of course a huge loss for his wife Nicole. My thoughts are with all of them and I will certainly remember Ueli as an amazing climber, a good friend and an inspiration for a lot of people. Despite his fervor for speedy ascents, he never lost his love and passion for the mountains.