Being more Ueli

Ueli Steck

‘There are dreams that are worth a certain amount of risk’ Ueli Steck

By now you are more than likely to have heard the news about the death of Swiss super Alpinist Ueli Steck.  Ueli took a fatal fall from the steep flanks of Nuptse while acclimatising for his audacious attempt to complete the unclimbed traverse from Everest to Lhotse.  He was, as he so often did, climbing alone (although he had a Sherpa climbing partner who was recuperating at base camp). He was 40 years old and leaves behind wife Nicole.

This news really knocked me for six and it was clear from the media outpouring that many others were just as shocked.  Of course Ueli completed some incredible ascents and there was high potential danger in many of his exploits, but he always seemed so calculating and demonstrated such great judgement.  It seems inconceivable he had made a mistake on what was, for him, relatively easy ground.  Of course, no one knows what caused Ueli to fall and it is unlikely we will ever find out.

Events like this force me to ponder on death and I have done some strange things in the time since the news was released.  A couple of nights ago, for example, I found myself visiting the Castleton Burial Ground during an evening ride.  I’ve no idea why, but it was a peaceful place to spend some time reflecting on a beautiful spring evening.  Ultimately, though, I didn’t spend my time at the burial ground reflecting on death – I spent time thinking about life.  Some thought about the nature of the lives those around me may have lived, but mostly about Ueli’s life.

Ueli Steck was an innovator who changed the game for elite alpinism.  It was through imagination, commitment to strict training regimes, dedication and skill that Ueli raised the level.  He sought solutions, was willing to pursue a goal with unwavering vision and he was always keen to keep notching up the bar.  It was inspiring for all of us who looked on with admiration and maybe thoughts of Ueli even occasionally kicked some of us into getting out on that training run when we wanted to stay glued to the sofa.

In truth though, none of this was really in my thoughts as I reflected that evening.  I admired his climbing achievements but I was always more taken by all the other parts that made up the man.  His character and personality. The way he carried himself.  The person he was.  Despite my efforts and the time I spend moving in climbing circles, I never met Ueli Steck and I never heard him speak live.  Even so, there was something about the way he presented himself that made me feel like I knew him.  

That is quite a quality and I admired him greatly for it. If you ever watch Ueli being interviewed, despite his superhuman climbing abilities, he was clearly very human.  Almost humble. Ueli openly talked about his hopes and fears, he was willing to discuss the negative effects some of his ascents had on him just as he celebrated the positive.  He was in control and yet had an endearing vulnerability.  He was, for just a couple of examples, demonstrably upset about the widely publicised arguments with some Sherpas that beset one of his earlier Everest trips and he talked with genuine distress about some of the tragedies that have occured amongst his climbing partners.  He was humble and his humbleness was endearing.

The other key quality I saw in Ueli was enthusiasm.  It was an endless passion for all kinds of vertical adventure and personal challenge.  In films he always had a smile as he quested upwards.  He was there for the good times he found in the mountains.  It was fun to watch Ueli just as much as it was a catalyst to keep our own adventure fires stoked.  

There are other examples of climbers with similar good judgement just as there are climbers and mountaineers happy to show their vulnerabilities.  They are always the ones that stick in my mind just as I can’t help shying away from those who come across as over confident or lacking that more human side.  There is a big risk that our sport comes across as elitist or exclusive and people like Ueli were instrumental in helping break down those barriers.  

For those reasons I was always drawn, as another example, to the writing and lecturing of Pete Boardman.  Pete lived local to my family home, and as a young mountaineer, I followed his incredible career with wide eyed admiration.  He wrote beautifully and yet with that same Ueli honesty and humanness.  It was a real skiIl and I remember when I heard news of his disappearance on Everest I felt I was losing a friend despite only having met him in person as an audience member at a couple of lecture events.

In many ways we now live in a different world to the one Boardman left in 1982.  Many of us now, to a greater or lesser extent, are slaves to the social media monster we need to keep feeding.  Climbers planning a big objective are often forced to generate the publicity they need by flaunting their objectives on media channels.  Ueli had a different view.  He was always keen, whenever possible, to do the main shouting about an ascent after it had been completed.  I remember hearing about his incredible ascent on the South Face of Annapurna only after he was safely back in base camp and he sent the news to the world.  I admired his ethic.

Sad as the loss of Ueli is, ultimately the world will keep turning.  He has left a void in the climbing world and yet it is very valid to say climbing is ultimately a pointless activity that offers no tangible benefit to human kind anyway.  But there is more too it than that.  Some climbers transcend their sporting sphere to influence in the wider world.  This is where I placed Ueli and I’ve come to realise it’s the main reason I have found myself pondering his loss so much.  He had a manner which would inspire and influence non climbers just as much as he’d likely push climbers to achieve their goals.  He had a way of being that connected others to the natural world no matter what their passion.  We need more Ueli’s.  We need to be more Ueli.  Ueli, you will be missed.

Posted by Paul