Being Ueli Steck....

23rd May 2014

I always look forward to my copy of Trek & Mountain magazine hitting the doormat.  As a magazine for mountain adventurers it is always packed with inspiration.  Having been involved in a number of gear tests and articles I also know the quality of reviews and content is very high.  The editorial team always choose very experienced contributors who are out using the kit on a very regular basis and have the expertise to back up their advice.  

This months edition was another belter and there was lots of articles I really enjoyed.  It was interesting to read Jon Gupta's personal account of ascending Everest, of 17 year olds William White and James Hobbs walking 600km across Iceland.  Will Legon's article about choosing a trek was great for starting out Trekkers and there was the usual detailed skills and advice section to absorb.  The gear reviews on scrambling footwear and various other kit were typically through (having been involved in these group tests I know from experience that great efforts are made to ensure the reviews are as realistic as possible).  Of them all, however, I was especially keen to read Katy Dartford’s interview with Ueli Steck.  Ueli is a legendary mountaineer whose ground breaking solo's have, to a large degree, rewritten part of the rule book on modern alpinism.  The interview didn't disappoint.

Ueli has been operating at the highest level for some time.  I watched the footage of him racing up the North Face of the Eiger a number of years ago and felt truly inspired.  His time of 2hrs 47mins unsurprisingly blew all previous records out of the water.  More recently, his monumental solo ascent of the South Face of Annapurna last year was simply staggering and won him a prestigious Piolet d’Or award this year..  This is without his record of hard rock climbs, numerous Alpine enchainements, other Himalayan speed ascents and some cutting edge winter climbs.  It seems there is no branch of vertical adventure Ueli doesn't excel in.

The interview in Trek & Mountain gave a really interesting insight into the drive and character of the man.  He is happy to share his weaknesses, to discuss mistakes (like not getting enough evidence of his Annapurna ascent to silence some doubters), gives some details of his training regime (intense would be one word to describe it!) and a few verbal snapshots into his future plans.

There was one observation that he made in his interview, however, that has really had me thinking over the last few days.  For Steck to support a lifestyle from climbing he clearly needs to satisfy the demands of sponsors but, at heart, he says that he climbs for himself.  In the interview Ueli says, “I’m not someone who likes to brag, because climbing mountains brings nothing to humanity.” This was, in my opinion, a really interesting comment that, taken to its logical conclusion, goes to the heart of the value of all types of celebrities.  Is there any value to humanity in any of them?

A friend is currently in hospital and when I visit I watch in awe as a team of doctors and nurses work to help his recovery.  They are busy and they are sometimes pushed for time but, from what I've seen, they always make time to look after the patients in their care as well as they can.  Their contribution to humanity is without question.

I regularly work with teachers and I know their job is challenging in many ways.  Often their spirits are knocked by politicians, workload or pupil's challenging behaviour, but they still turn up each day to inspire and educate the next generation.

Construction workers, police officers, delivery drivers, soldiers, supermarket staff, refuse collectors and, infact, every service role I think of - the contribution they all make to humanity can be quantified.  But maybe Ueli is correct?  Maybe a mountaineer speed climbing a challenging face is of no benefit to anyone except themselves?  

In my opinion Ueli couldn't be more wrong.  We couldn't manage without the nurses, teachers and builders just like we need the inspirational Mandela's and Mother Teresa's.  Surely, though, we also need the people, like Ueli, that are pushing the boundaries in ways that inspire others.  That could be Bradley Wiggins giving his all in a race just as it could be a champion chess player who has mastered her sport.  We all take inspiration to better ourselves from different sources….but we all need the inspiration. There is so much about Ueli Steck that encourages me to better myself and I am sure his mastery of the sport he loves has the same effect on many others.

When Ueli sets his mind to a goal it is clear he is totally focussed.  He spent over a year training specifically for his record breaking climb on the Eiger.  I watched some footage of his preparation and he said that it isn't that he's a better climber than anyone else - he is just willing to train and train and train.  At the start of this year I set a challenging gritstone climb as my target for the year.  Sometimes, when I can't be bothered training I find myself thinking whether Ueli would also be glued to his sofa.  Thinking of his training commitment usually gets me up and busy.  If I manage my climb by the end of the year then Steck will have had a hand in it.

Solo on a Himalayan face or climbing difficult mixed terrain needs a huge amount of mental strength and that's immensely inspiring too.  I stood at Annapurna Base Camp last autumn and stared at the immense South Face (more details on that visit in this blog post).  How could anyone, I wondered, find the drive and mental strength to climb that face alone?  Maybe if Ueli can find it within himself then I can also, at my own level, push my boundaries too?  

Ueli talks a lot of his need to stay in control.  He plans his challenges meticulously and strives for perfection in all his adventures.  His equipment, his focus on weather reports and his research into future projects all reflect his desire to stay in control.  He also recognises that, if he keeps pushing the boundaries on harder and harder projects (particularly high challenges in the Himalayas), there will come a point where he may lose control.  With this in mind he has declared that he is seeking to ensure future ascents are more controllable.  I remember reading how, on his first attempt to climb Everest (without oxygen), he lost feeling in his toes a short distance from the summit.  Rather than press on and risk serious frostbite, he turned around and descended.  His view was that Everest would be there for another year (he returned to climb it without oxygen successfully) and it wasn't worth losing his toes for.  That's a level of control that is inspiring.

A person's character can also be inspirational.  The way they come across, their love of and passion for their sport or simply how nice a person they are.  I have known sports people with incredible drive but who don't come across very warmly in interviews.  Sometimes it can seem that their drive and focus makes them more introspective and serious.  Maybe the intensity needed to succeed can make certain people this way.  I've never met Ueli in person but in the interviews and footage I've watched he always seems to come across as a fun loving and engaging person that doesn't take himself too seriously.  He is focussed and driven yet still portrays a calm and endearingly self-deprecating manner.  He comes across as someone it would be fun to spend time in the mountains with (if you could keep up with him!).

The upshot of all this Ueli positivity is also, in my view, that he is a great ambassador for a sport that gives so many people so much pleasure.  Connecting people to the natural environment and inspiring people to push their own physical and mental boundaries is an incredibly positive thing to do.   Climbing and mountaineering are growing in popularity and that's a great thing - people like Ueli have a big part to play in that.  So, Mr Steck, you do give a great deal to humanity and I hope you keep on doing it.   You are a great ambassador, an inspiration to many and we need people that push the physical and mental boundaries of human achievement.  I'm heading back to my gritstone project tomorrow so I hope to take a dose of Steck power with me.

Now see the man in action.  Video of Ueli Steck on his record breaking Eiger solo......

Posted by Paul