With records as a solo and speed climber, the Swiss top alpinist made himself immortal. But that’s not what drove Ueli Steck. His life was a masterpiece of physical engineering – and he demonstrated this with Swiss precision.
Ueli Steck, who had a fatal accident during a training tour on Mount Nuptse in the Himalaya, had many characteristics that we like to describe as Swiss. He was successful and industrious, yet he downplayed his achievements. Rather than seeing them as a big deal, he insisted they came from hard work. Ueli Steck was a humble man.
A lone wolf
He also embodied the values that we attribute to our country. He was precise down to the last detail. In addition he was cosmopolitan, agile and incredibly responsive. But above all, Ueli Steck was a lone wolf. He organised alliances and rope teams based on projects. He had many friends and no real enemies. So he enjoyed the respect of rivals as well as everyone who worked with or for him.
It is not surprising that his death shocked the nation. Thousands of people had encountered him in the Swiss Alps. As they were gasping and struggling with each step, he jogged past them nimbly – greeting them cordially. Many Swiss attended his slideshows, which he organised to generate income. Steck was a talented narrator who was always able to reflect on his tours intelligently.
What drove Steck was likely not only the pursuit of altitude or records. It was also the tinkering on his own body. He focused on two areas: climbing technique and endurance, both on a world-class level. In terms of endurance he was particularly ambitious, paying careful attention to his diet. He switched from burning carbohydrates to fat in an effort to increase efficiency. This was not a new technique for an alpinist, but it extended the reach of this top-class sportsman. That was fitting for him, because at the end, Steck was probably just as fascinated by the performance of human muscle as he was by the mountain world itself.
Inevitably, it became difficult to understand Steck. In his speed climbs, some saw unnecessary drive, disagreeable ambition, and, not infrequently, egocentrism. To many hobby alpinists, Steck’s manner of tackling a peak was the opposite of what the Swiss mountains convey: respect and calm dignity that make us humans small.
The man Steck may have been driven, and he was probably aware of it. That is precisely why he took safety so seriously. He did not see this in climbing hooks or rope mates, but rather in the further refinement of his abnormal abilities. This made him a great athlete and a trailblazing role model for the next generation of top alpinists who compete not with the mountain, but with themselves.
What do you do if you’ve brought your body to the point where climbing 4,000-metre mountains is almost like going for a Sunday afternoon jog? Steck had to push the limits; for him there were no alternatives. It was only logical, and after all, top alpinists live from sponsorship. Steck saw his new challenge more in terms of endurance than risk, and inevitably, at the highest heights. He certainly feared death, precisely because he had already encountered it.
Would anyone ever have expected that a rock buried in deep snow would have such a devastating effect on Formula 1 star Michael Schumacher? In the case of Ueli Steck, fate struck in a similar manner. Death was always foreseen in Ueli Steck’s adventures, but not on the Nuptse last Sunday. Tragically, a great alpinist died during a training tour. A great Swiss.
Translated from German by Susan Misicka