Climbing Mount Everest may seem like child’s play for a man known for his speed ascents up some of the world’s most challenging mountain faces, but for Ueli Steck it was an achievement to accomplish the feat without supplementary oxygen.
Along with a Sherpa, Steck found a window to achieve his dream on May 18. If he had waited a day longer, he would have had to adjust his pace to the crowds, since May 19 could go down in history as one of the busiest days the world’s highest mountain has ever seen. That was when commercial expeditions with hundreds of paying clients set out for the final push to the top.
At the outset of Steck’s expedition, the “Swiss Machine” was under a lot of pressure to attempt a new way to the summit or a more difficult path than the standard South Col route. Yet Steck says reaching the top of the world without oxygen was probably one of the physically most demanding things he had ever done in his life.
swissinfo.ch caught up with Steck in Kathmandu after his return from the climb. With his rosy cheeks, he looked rather like someone who had just come back from a beach holiday, and not as weather-beaten and emaciated as many other Everest contenders.
swissinfo.ch: Was climbing Everest without using supplementary oxygen high on your agenda, especially after having had to turn back 200m below the summit last year?
U.S.: There are a few things in Alpinism one has to do. For me, climbing Everest without oxygen has always been on my checklist and I am glad I have done it now.
swissinfo.ch: You have now climbed five 8,000m-peaks without the use of supplementary oxygen. How does Everest compare to the other peaks, which are lower?
U.S.: It’s hard to say but it is very similar to hitting the wall in a marathon. Going up to 8,500m is ok but once you get above, it gets really hard. It reminded me of the last 12km of a marathon.
swissinfo.ch: Did you wish you had bottled oxygen when you hit that wall?
U.S.: Not at all. When you climb Everest with oxygen, you never really stand on the summit as the altitude goes down to 6,500m. It is out of the question for me to use bottled oxygen. I either make it without or I turn back, go home and train more.
swissinfo.ch: When you reached the summit on May 18, you were climbing with a Sherpa friend and you were accompanying the rope-fixing Sherpas. On May 19 more than 300 people reached the summit. How do you feel about crowds trying to reach the top of the world?
U.S.: The crowds were a huge concern for me. The conditions for an oxygen-less ascent have to be perfect. It has to be warm, calm and without the crowds. We were lucky to be up there with the rope-fixing team as May 18 was the best day. The big commercial teams waited as they were worried that the ropes, which most people need, would not be fixed to the summit. There were about 20 people on the route; the following day there were about 150 [Editor’s note: 316 people were believed to have summited between May 19 and 21; four climbers have died during that time].
swissinfo.ch: Did you have to use the fixed ropes?
U.S.: Going to Everest is a different game. It is not real mountaineering but I have to accept the rules. I often had to wait behind the rope-fixers but I would not pass them out of respect for their work. I often did not clip onto the fixed ropes.
swissinfo.ch: Do you think that having climbed Everest will change your status in the mountaineering world?
U.S.: Well, there is one stupid question I can finally answer with ‘yes’: ‘Have you climbed Everest?’ For me it is not the biggest achievement in my mountaineering work, but on the other hand, there is probably nobody else who free-climbed a route on El Capitan and summited Everest without oxygen. It is still a big step for me.
swissinfo.ch: Even though climbing Everest does not really qualify as “mountaineering” in your books, it must have been challenging.
U.S.: The high altitude is really hard. Near the top, I was suffering and fighting not to give up and go down. I think that is the biggest challenge. A lot of people don’t really know what it means to climb without supplementary oxygen.
swissinfo.ch: So what does it mean?
U.S.: It’s hard to explain. When I arrived at base camp, everyone was expecting something special from Ueli Steck. They were surprised that I was ‘only’ planning to do the normal route. Only a few people have climbed Everest without oxygen and a lot of strong climbers have tried and failed – maybe that puts it into perspective. The people who use oxygen are in a different world. They think they know how it feels to climb Everest, but they don’t.
swissinfo.ch: You had planned to climb some technical routes on other mountains to acclimatise. How did that work out?
U.S.: Freddie Wilkinson and I wanted to attempt three North faces, however, due to the dry conditions we dropped that plan and only climbed the normal route of the 6,812-m-high Ama Dablam.
swissinfo.ch: Now you have achieved the ultimate goal and reached the highest peak in the world without bottled oxygen. What’s next?
U.S.: Going to the beach.
Every year, more than 800 climbers attempt to reach the top of Everest with an average of around 500 to 600 having reached the top every season for the past five years.
Spring is the main climbing season and more than 60 expeditions usually settle on the south side in Nepal and the north side in Tibet on the foot of the mountain.
Most climbers use Sherpas, oxygen and the rope, which is fixed by the Sherpas.
Every season, the so-called Sherpa “Icefall Doctors” prepare the treacherous Khumbu Icefall with ladders and fixed ropes for the climbers to get through. It is considered the most dangerous part of the climb.
In total, Everest has seen 5,567 successful ascents (this number includes multiple ascents) and almost 15,000 people have attempted to reach the summit since 1953.
Since Everest was first climbed in 1953, a mere 134 people have reached the top without supplementary oxygen, two of which were Switzerland’s Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet. The pair achieved a speed record on the North Face in 39 hours in 1986.