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Editor's Pick

Oct 20, 2015

Exclusive: Interview with speed climber Ueli Steck

Swiss mountaineer and speed climber Ueli Steck climbed 82 four-thousanders alpine style, spread over Italy, Switzerland and France in 62 days, between 11th June and 11th August 2015.

WRITTEN BY

Shail Desai

In the interview below, he talks about his motivation, the highs and lows of his journey.

It wasn’t like the 82 Summits project Ueli undertook on June 11 2015 was a new one – these were 82 of the 4,000-metre summits in the Alps, and Steck hoped to conquer them in a single push, without the use of motorised vehicles. It was all about the journey. There were highs and lows along the way, but Steck took it in his stride, and after achieving his goal in a little over two months, finally took time off to focus on his next project – ascending Nuptse (7.861m) in the Himalaya.

 

At Piz Bernina (4,048.6 m) Pontresina, Switzerland
At Piz Bernina (4,048.6 m) Pontresina, Switzerland

 

Though best known for his exploits in the Himalaya which include a 28-hour, solo ascent of Annapurna’s South Face (8,091m) in 2013, and summiting Shishapangma (8,027m) in 10.5 hours in 2011, the project tested the resolve of the man christened the Swiss Machine nonetheless. As he cools his heels in his home town of Ringgenberg, Switzerland, Steck reflects on the ’82 Summits’ project.

Where was the first time you thought of this project and why did you decide to pursue it?

Though the idea is quite old, I was very inspired by it. The first to accomplish it were Patrick Berhault and Philippe Magnin in 2004. The French team started on March 1 and on summit 67, Berhault fell and died on Täschhorn. The Slovenian Miha Valic first achieved the feat in a single push, without the use of any motorised vehicle, in 102 days in 2007. In 2008, Italians Franco Nicotine and Diego Giovannini finished it in 60 days.

Daniel Mader was in charge of logistics. What were the challenges your team faced planning this project?

It was nothing special. We just ensured we had all the equipment and got started to see how it would all work out. We tried to find a logical route from east to south and then got going.

Describe a typical day for you, once the project started.

There was no typical day – that was the cool thing about the project. Most of the days were spent climbing. I always tried to fill up the day – if I came down a mountain by noon, I usually started cycling to proceed to the next hut.

How did other mountaineers you met along the way react to your presence?

There was a lot of positive feedback on the way from the people I met. A lot of people were aware of the project and knew were I was at that moment.

Was it more difficult to climb a mountain or getting from one mountain to the other?

Cycling is not really dangerous. So I guess climbing mountains is more serious!

What was that one moment that you thought was the hardest?

You face some difficulty everyday, that is what makes climbing interesting. Basically I just had fun moving each day – it was great.

Sometimes I was a little tired but that was it.

Ueli in Chamonix
Ueli in Chamonix

Did you think at any point that you will not make it? And was there a moment when you realised that you will make it?

In the beginning, you don’t know if it’s going to work. You need a lot of good weather to climb a project like this, so I was not sure. After I finished the Mont Blanc massif (the highest summit on the list at 4,810m, I was pretty sure I was going to make it.

From where did you draw inspiration?

I had no problem in staying motivated. I was totally driven during the project. Daniel and I are a great team, it just flows. Then again, I climbed with so many people; it results in so many different inspirations.

Your partner Michi Wohlleben injured himself in a paragliding accident while descending from the Schreckhorn Hut, and soon dropped out. Was there a change in plan after that?

Of course I missed my partner. So I had to change the project. I needed some time to find people who would come along and climb with me, and finally it fell into place.

Another partner, Martijn Seuren, fell to his death while attempting the Aiguille de Rochefort in the Mont Blanc massif. How difficult was it to continue?

I needed some time to sort things out.

Tell us how your day panned out when you were going for the final summit.

I started running in the morning from Ailefroide. It was dark. I came to a point where there were signboards for Glacier Blanc and Glacier Noir. I was sure the arrow directed towards the left for Glacier Blanc. I kept running for another couple of hours until I could see the mountain. But it was strange as it did not look like the mountain I wanted to go up. I was sure the sign was this way, so I kept running. When I reached the end of the valley, I knew I was wrong. So I checked Google maps, only to realise I was on the wrong side of the mountain and turned around. It’s almost impossible to miss the trail! But I did. I simply laughed it off and continued running. I kept telling myself it was a great detour, so at least, it was a good training day.

At Mont Blanc du Tacul Teufelsgrat
At Mont Blanc du Tacul Teufelsgrat

You missed the record set by Franco Nicolini and Diego Giovannini by a couple of days. How important was this mark for you and your thoughts on getting so close?

This project is very weather-based. So I was never after setting a new record. Each summer is different and each time it will be something new. So there is no point in comparing two feats. Otherwise I would not climb with my wife or some friends.

It was more important for me to have the experience. I had so many great climbs during the project; each day was a pleasure. I tried to find as many different challenges as possible during the project.

With Andreas Steindl, we climbed 18 peaks in one day. With (wife) Nicole, I had a nice relaxed climb up the Finsteraarhorn. I had the chance to climb with Andreas Wälchli, an old friend of mine. He is a mountain guide and we haven’t climbed together in years!

Then, I also had challenges on some solo climbs like the Brouillard ridge. And I would not miss out on the climb up Arrete de Diable with Daniel Robert Bösch and Ueli Bühler – though it took forever to climb it, this was just old friends having a good day out together!

What did you do the night you nailed your target?

We had pizzas and went to bed. The next day, we left for Ceuse to go rock climbing. Climbing in Ceuse was how me and Dani (Daniel Mader) celebrated the project.

Ueli at Rimpfischorn with wife Nicole
Ueli at Rimpfischorn with wife Nicole

How do you compare this project to climbing a Himalayan peak?

It’s different. Here I was moving almost everyday. It’s not about sitting in a basecamp and waiting for good weather and conditions. I did 1,17,489 vertical metres in these two month and covered 1,772 Km.

On an expedition, you never move that much. Normally after an expedition, I feel very unfit. Now I feel very strong.

Would you undertake this project again?

Why not, though I would prefer another idea as well. But definitely the idea of doing long traverses like the ’82 Summits’ project is something I want to do more!

Images : Ueli Steck

About the author: Shail Desai is a writer based out of Mumbai, India. His ideal pursuits involve chasing untold stories, running and writing. You can reach him at shail84@gmail.com

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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2018

Become the Bear! Tackling Middle Aged Life the Bear Grylls Way.

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal.

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WRITTEN BY

Jamie East

You can subscribe here.

Bear Grylls is probably one of the most famous adventure celebrities in the world. Aside from all his adventures, Bear also shares his survival skills with anyone ready to pay for it. One such chap was our middle-aged writer Jamie East, who usually preferred watching other people take risks from the safe distance of his television. Until he decided to go out there himself and get dirty.

Well, there’s something liberating about jumping into a freezing, fast-flowing river with all your clothes on. It’s the kind of thing that, as a child, you told yourself you’d do all the time once you were big enough and your parents couldn’t tell you off. Yet staying on the precipice at age 39, all I can think of is, “Is this jumper dry-clean only?”

This is what life does to you. It sucks the adventure from you quicker than a Dyson in a bag of sawdust. Before you know it, you’d rather sleep than live, drive than hike, sink into the sofa than swim.

I suppose this could be classified as bare survival. You exist but don’t live, and I’ve decided enough is enough. What would the 12-year-old Jamie, who got sent home from school for falling down a ravine he thought he could clear in one leap, say to me if he could see the 39-year-old me? “Man up!” probably. “Your clothes are stupid?” most definitely.

Bear Grylls is the man we all aspire to be. Hard as nails on a mountain ledge, soft as grease at home with his kids. The fire in his heart burns brighter than Krypton being destroyed, and he’s harder than a 60-foot working model of optimus Prime made from diamonds. He also embraces the outlook on life we all wish we had time for had those damned IsAs, smart phones and creamy pasta sauces not gotten in the way. Thankfully for those of us with a terminal case of lazy-itis, we can see how the other half live over at the Bear Grylls survival Academy from the bleak Scottish Highlands or the luscious surrey forests in England. Run by Grylls and his team of ex-paratroopers, the survival Academy is an ideal introduction into a world of skills and endurance we think we’ll never need. Be honest; how many of us truly believe that there will come a time when we will be skewering a rat for dinner or navigating a 23,000-acre highland with only the stars to help? But these are skills that used to be second nature to us humans. If there weren’t people like Grylls to show us the way, there are a lot of people around the world who wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale of the time their car broke down in the Australian outback, or when they had to make a snow cave that provided those few vital hours of warmth on a mountaintop. Whether we like it or not, the knowledge could prove life-saving.

A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.
A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.

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The Academy offers several options tailored to your needs. You can opt for a 24-hour experience in Surrey either alone or with a family member older than 10. Although only 10 minutes from the motorway, such is the Surrey countryside that you could be in Montana for all you’d know. The dense forest makes for a real wilderness experience. The deep rivers you’ll be crossing, the rabbits you’ll be gutting, the trees you’ll be stripping to make shelter, and the ravines you’ll be shimmying across really do give you a feeling of being alive. A 20-minute run is considered a “big thing” in my house, so spending days in the real outdoors felt invigorating. I felt alive!

I’m not an all-rounder though. I found some of the requisite skills completely beyond me, navigating by starlight was one. My brain is just not wired to untangle that kind of data.

I used to think I could point out the north star in a heartbeat. Nope. The north star isn’t the brightest one. Nuts.

“The North Star is, in fact, the one perpendicular to blah de blah de blah babble babble wibble waffle.” That’s how that sentence sounded coming from the instructor’s mouth: just a stream of nonsense about ploughs and bears. It doesn’t look like a plough. If it looked like a plough, I’m pretty sure even I could find it. But it doesn’t. It looks like a slightly wavy line of stars that is buried among 200 billion other stars. It makes finding a needle in a haystack look like finding an elephant in an eggcup, so if I’m stuck anywhere in the world (and I mean anywhere: La Rinconanda, the Kerguelen Islands or just past the BP garage near my house) without Google maps or a TomTom, you may as well kiss this writer’s sorry ass goodbye, because I’ll wither away in a puddle of my own dehydrated tears.

Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.
Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.

But there are things that must have been festering in my subconscious all these years, like a coiled snake ready to unleash, on an unsuspecting world. For instance, I could light a fire that is neither at the end of a cigarette nor underneath a pile of half-frozen burgers. I mean a real fire created by nothing but flint and dried bark. It’s a panic-inducing task, and I’m not ashamed to say it took me nearly 40 minutes. As my instructor, Scott, told me, it’s all in the timing. Put on too much too soon and you’re buggered. Too little too late and, yup, you’re buggered.

Instructions for making a fire without matches or anything a sane human would have within arm’s reach
You need the slightest feathers of bark piled up like Candyfoss. You need your spark. Mine was from the flint on my Rambo knife. The very second that spark takes hold of one of your bark feathers, blow very gently. If all goes well, that will turn into a largish smoldering lump of smoke. If it doesn’t, go back to the beginning. You now need to start throwing on more feathers of bark, a fraction larger than the one before, before moving onto dried-out twigs no thicker than a hair on a baby’s ear. Eight hours later, you have a fire that could singe your eyebrows from 183 m. Well done!
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse - a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse – a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.

So, if ever I do go missing near the BP garage by my house, just look for the massive fire right next to the petrol station. Well, I may need to think that through a bit more.

The Scottish Highlands course that is offered is similar to this, apart from a few key points. It goes on for five days and takes place in one of the most remote places in Britain. It’ll probably pour down with ice-cold rain for the entire trip, and you’ll have to eat rat and cross a river in your underpants. Apart from that, exactly the same.

Spending time with this team baked common sense into my brain. The lessons easily transform into mundane, everyday life. The buzz phrase of the trip is “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.” out in the highlands, this means, “If you don’t prepare well, you will likely starve and die.” At home, this translates to, “Use a tape measure, or your shelf won’t be even.” The sentiment is still the same. Don’t judge me.

You should know what you’re getting into, of course. This is a Bear Grylls branded experience, after all (and all the equipment says as much). You won’t be expected to drink your own body fluids, squeeze drops of moisture out of elephant dung, or decapitate a rattlesnake with the sole of your boot, but you will feel as though you could if you were the last man on Earth. I did eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river, set traps and eat rabbit I skinned with my own bare hands. And do you know what?

I’ve never felt more alive or more connected with the world I selfishly pillage on a daily basis. I’m not alone, either.

People the world over have sought out the Grylls way of life. Upon his return to the US, my fellow survivor Caleb said “my hands are shredded, my nose is stuffed, my throat is raspy and my body is tanked, but I am alive now more than ever. It was everything I hoped for: an empowering learning experience.

Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.
Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. After the aching had subsided, and the clothes were washed, the niggling feeling that I was approximately 3 percent more of a man than I was before I began, just wouldn’t leave me. It still hasn’t.

I didn’t imagine that sleeping rough, eating worms and swimming in rivers could possibly have this much of an effect on my psyche, but it really has. I’m not saying I could rescue someone hanging off a cliff, or survive in the jungle for more than a couple of hours. But if you get the chance, breathe in the air, sharpen that stick and venture out into the big, wide world. Just remember to take a compass with you. I swear those stars are out to get you.

Photos by Discovery Channel, Jamie East & The Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

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