Just One Life
Steck and Anthamatten risk it all on a dangerous rescue attempt.
AROUND 9 P.M. on May 19, Ueli Steck, 31, and Simon Anthamatten, 24, shouldered their packs, and began climbing from a base
camp at 4,200 meters on the massive 3,000-meter South Face of Nepal’s Annapurna. The Swiss pair’s goal was not the 8,091-meter summit. Rather, they
were intent on rescuing a fellow climber, the ailing Spanish alpinist Iñaki Ochoa, 40, who was stranded at 7,400 meters in Camp 4.
Unspoken yet implicit was the trade-out: a rescue bid meant abandoning their own summit ambition. The team had already retreated from an attempt a week
prior. They were resting when Steck received a satellite-phone plea from Ochoa’s partner high on the mountain, Romanian climber Horia Colibasanu, who
reported that the Spaniard was in “critical” condition, having collapsed, vomiting, and fallen unconscious. Steck and Anthamatten began a rapid climb
to the stranded team. It was a no-brainer.
“When we received the distress call,” says Steck, “it was normal that we were going to help. If someone needs you, you go.” Steck adds, “We knew from that
moment, our expedition was over.”
Ochoa had suffered an apparent stroke after turning back 100 meters shy
of Annapurna’s summit. He and Colibasanu had gone down, while their third, Alexey Bolotov of Russia, continued to the top. Steck and Anthamatten faced
a complex situation, one MountEverest.net would call, “one of the most difficult rescue operations ever in the Himalayas.” The Swiss cached their high-altitude
climbing gear in a distant Advanced Base Camp.
“We had light shoes, Gore-Tex trousers, mountain jackets and finger gloves,” says Steck. “It was equipment for a 4,000-meter climb in summer—not
for the death zone.” Compounding the situation were avalanche-prone slopes and a race with Ochoa’s decaying health. It was 6 a.m. when the pair reached
6,200 meters. They paused to rest and allow the newly fallen snow to settle.
Wednesday morning, the pair battled chest-high snow, “freezing terribly in our summer-equipment,” says Steck. Around noon they reached the 6,800-meter
Camp 3. At 3 p.m. Bolotov arrived. Though unable to render assistance after his exhausting summit push, he exchanged his climbing boots and warm mittens
for Steck’s (they both wore size 45 boots) lighter gear, and reluctantly pushed downward.
Above, Ochoa’s condition deteriorated. A thousand meters below, Russian climber Denis Urubko and Canadian Don Bowie, laden with oxygen bottles and
extra medicine, followed the Swiss climbers’ steps. That evening, Anthamatten himself vomited due to the rapid and taxing sprint to reach Ochoa.
Steck—the only healthy and equipped climber in striking range of Camp 4—began his final push early Thursday morning. After 11 hours of exhausting
post-holing up sketchy avalanche terrain, he reached Ochoa.
Says Steck, “I called, ‘Inaki, it’s me!’ He recognized my voice, responding, ‘Ah, Ueli of the Swiss Team.’ He could hardly move.”
Steck was momentarily revolted for, “Everywhere was snow, vomit and urine. It smelled terrible.”
Ochoa gasped, “Ueli, thank you for coming.”
Steck administered Dexamethasone and water. Although Ochao vomited up all liquids, he appeared to improve. With Urubko and Bowie’s arrival below in Camp
3, the situation seemed to stabilize.
Steck recounts, “On Friday morning, Inaki asked for coffee. I thought, ‘Great, he is back to the important things.’ But then his health changed, his
breath going very fast and his eyes rolling. I started to [resuscitate] him, pump and [resuscitate]. But it was too late.”
Steck, exhausted, alone, poorly equipped and foodless, then began a perilous descent. “The weather was very bad, 50 centimeters of fresh snow,” he recalls.
“The conditions were very dangerous.”
Anthamatten, who anxiously waited below, simply says, “At this point the wheat separates from the chaff. Some would not have made it.”
To call Steck and Anthamatten’s rescue attempt selfless is to understate the obvious. Steck, a modest, yet extremely talented alpinist was hugely invested
in Annapurna’s summit—he’d failed a year prior after being struck by rockfall, surviving a 300-meter plummet that left him unconscious, helmet
shattered, and no recollection of the accident. The duo, earlier in their expedition, had climbed the oft-attempted North Face of Tengkampoche (6,500
meters; see Online News, rockandice.com). Earlier, Steck set a new speed record on the Eiger’s North Face, adding to a résumé replete with hard new
routes in the big mountains. Anthamatten, the 2008 Ice Climbing World Cup champion, is, according to Steck, “a very strong climber. He thinks the same
way as I do. And this is very important during an expedition.”
The handsome, warmhearted Ochoa was a veteran of 30 Himalayan expeditions. Having climbed all the 8,000-meter peaks except Kangchenjunga and Annapurna
(most in a fast style without supplemental oxygen), he was relatively unknown outside the tight-knit world of high-altitude climbing. Ochoa’s best
effort was perhaps his solo of Shishapangma via a new route in 2006. He once said, “Most of the general media does not understand what is worthy
of attention or not,” adding, “They cover only fatal accidents or Everest summiteers.”
On paper, Annapurna is the world’s deadliest peak, having claimed 56 lives—against slightly more than 100 successful summits—including that
of Anatoli Boukreev in 1997. Its South Face, one of the biggest in the world, was first climbed by Don Whillans and Dougal Haston on Christian Bonington’s
1970 British expedition.
On May 20, Steck was honored with the Eiger Award, bestowed at the Grindelwald Festival, in Switzerland, “for high performances in alpinism, which demonstrate
… the value and fascination of the mountains.”
Despite the accolades, he and Anthamatten are not heroes, claims Steck. He says, “You just have one life. I can go another 20 times to Annapurna if I want
to. But for this one life (Ochoa’s), you give everything. You do not hesitate to help.”