When Ueli Steck free-soloed the 750-foot Excalibur Pillar (5.10d) near the Susten Pass in Switzerland, his real problems began at the end. He arrived at the top of the relentlessly steep route only to find that mice had chewed through his stashed rope and harness. Steck tied the remnants of the rope together and embarked on a descent “much hairier than the ascent,” with several mid-rappel knot-passing maneuvers.
The first thing that popped into his mind upon seeing the shredded ropes was, “How the hell am I going to get down? It totally threw me for a loop. You know, we Swiss like to plan for everything, and this was not something I had planned for.”
Most recently, Steck returned from climbing a new route on the North Face of Gasherbrum II East (25,499 feet), in one of the most significant ascents of the Karakoram season. (The face had not been attempted since 1998, when high winds turned back a multinational team led by Daniel Mazur.) Steck says relatively little about the climb, apparently not wishing to steal thunder from his teammates. He concedes that his main goal was to gain high-altitude experience for a future project.
This small, compact man looks like he would be the last person picked for a game of football, yet the mild, innocent façade hides a climbing monster. At 30, the Swiss-born Steck has amassed one of the most impressive alpine résumés of his generation.
Over five days in January, Steck soloed the Young Spiders (5.11d A2 WI6 M7) on the Eiger North Face, a route he and Stephan Siegrist established in 2001. Two months later he completed a 25-hour solo of the Bonatti Route on the North Face of the Matterhorn.
Last year, he soloed new routes on the north face of Cholatse (21,129 feet) and the east face of Tawoche (21,341 feet) in Nepal, a venture he called the Khumbu Express. These ascents earned him a nomination for the prestigious Piolet d’Or award.
In 2002, when Steck and Sean Easton put up a new route on the east face of Mount Dickey (A1 M7+ WI6 X), Easton called his partner “the most talented alpine climber I have yet tied into a rope with.”
A carpenter by training, Steck is now a full-time climber and makes his home in Böningen, near Interlaken, in the shadow of the Eiger North Face. He is quick to admit, however, that he is rarely at home. Although he has a girlfriend, neither he nor she divulges any personal details to the media, largely to keep her from having to justify what could be considered his reckless ascents.
Steck was interviewed packing for his next project, a trip to Patagonia with a corps of up-and-coming Swiss climbers. His next big solo plan will remain a secret, but otherwise, between sips of espresso and thoughtful pauses, he answered every question with calm humor.
We hear you’re addicted to espresso. Is that true?
Addicted? [Looks as if he’s being accused of a crime.] Well, I do love coffee and I drink it constantly. It’s a social thing. After a good day of climbing with friends you’ve just got to sit down and talk about it over an espresso … or two.
What does your mother think about this free-soloing business?
Well, she doesn’t have to know about everything I do … although I had to tell her about the Excalibur climb once I got back or she would have found out about it on the news. My parents would probably prefer that I didn’t do it, but they know that I’m well-prepared. At the time I did the Excalibur, I was climbing 8b [5.13d] at the crag.
What are your thoughts on the Piolet d’Or award and your nomination?
It was a great feeling to be nominated. All the other nominees are first-class climbers. But it is difficult to determine who is the best mountaineer of the year. Such a thing doesn’t exist. How can you compare an ascent in Patagonia with a climb on an 8000er, a solo-climb with a rope team? But the public wants a winner—so we have to provide one.
You normally climb alone. What was it like to climb with a large team on Gasherbrum II East?
We had a great time. It was really the first time that I climbed with such a large group. The team was awesome. Yet for me climbing with such a large group is not quite real climbing. I joined this team to gain some more experience at high altitudes. It was an important step for my upcoming project.
What do you do on days when you’re not climbing?
Give interviews. [laughs] No, seriously, being a professional climber, I have very little time left for climbing. There’s always some paperwork to take care of and so on.
You’re said to be quite skilled with a sewing machine. What’s that all about?
Skilled? I don’t know about that. If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself—and I’m picky about how I want my jackets and gear.
You’ve traveled a lot. Which part of the world has the best beer?
Oh, that’s an easy one: Weissbier in Germany!
Where do you want to be in 20 years?
Still climbing hard and doing things I love. Still in the mountains. The worst is when you fear Mondays and can’t wait for Fridays. I don’t want that now and I don’t want it in 20 years.