All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien



May 01, 2017

Ueli Steck: The Carpenter Who Climbed Mountains

Ueli Steck, who died in Nepal on April 30, was probably this generation’s greatest alpinist.


Nuno Rocha

A goal like the Everest-Lhotse Traverse via the Hornbein Route, while a major coup if successful, was not objectively dangerous in the same way as his speed solos in the Alps. But in the end, climbing is serious business, and even the best are subject to the whims of chance in the high mountains.

UPDATE: Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck was cremated in Nepal on Thursday, May 4, according to a press release from his family.  Steck’s wife Nicole and both of the couple’s parents attended a traditional Nepalese ceremony at Tengboche Monastery. The press release states, “The Family described the [ceremony] as solemn and impressive, sad and at the same time liberating.” The press release also offers further details of the circumstances surrounding Steck’s death. Though he initially intended to acclimatize on Everest on April 30, the night before “Ueli noted that the conditions [on] the Nuptse wall were ideal, which is why he decided in the evening to change his plan and to climb up to Nuptse the following day.” He began climbing on the 30th well before sunrise. “Ueli’s accident occurred [at] around 7600 meters at about 9.00 [a.m.] (local time),” the press release goes on. His body was retrieved by helicopter at an altitude of 6600 meters, meaning his fatal fall was approximately 1,000 meters in length. Despite this new information, exactly what happened up on Nuptse remains (and likely will continue to remain) unknown.
A portion of Steck’s ashes will be scattered in his home country of Switzerland. For those wishing to offer condolences or share stories of the inspiration Ueli provided to them, please visit: http://www.uelisteck.ch/en/rip

In a video of Ueli Steck setting the speed record on the Eiger North Face in 2008, soaring aerial footage captures the Swiss alpinist daggering up the final, steep snow-slope to the summit ridge. The musician Radical Face’s anthemic song “Welcome Home” combines with the jagged peaks to create a timeless, limitless moment. In those frames, Ueli is invincible.

It came as a shock to the entire climbing community when, on April 30, news spread that Ueli Steck had died in Nepal. He was in the Khumbu to attempt a bold new enchainment that would have linked Everest and Lhotse, via the unrepeated 1963 Hornbein Route on the former. Steck arrived in the region in early April to train and acclimatize with partner Tenji Sherpa.

On April 30, Steck was climbing alone on Nuptse (the third peak in the horseshoe after Everest and Lhotse) as part of his acclimatization regimen. Details are still fuzzy as to what precisely took place. On his blog, veteran Everest chronicler and climber Alan Arnette shared a report from Larry Daugherty, a member of Adventure Ascents’ 2017 Everest expedition: “Body found at the base of West Nuptse, climber apparently fell alone and unprotected. Initially, it was suspected to be Ueli based on clothing and apparently his acclimatization plan…then they confirmed with my team 10 minutes later it was in fact him.”

Steck’s body was recovered swiftly and airlifted to Lukla, the only airstrip in the Everest region, where it was flown to Kathmandu.

A representative for Steck told The Outdoor Journal that his family members were en route to Nepal and that it is their wish to have Ueli’s funeral there. Steck is survived by his wife Nicole. He was 40 years old.

The Outdoor Journal interviewed Steck about his Everest-Lhotse plans on April 4, just before he flew to Nepal. When asked about the serious nature of such a climb, he acknowledged that anything in the Himalayas carries with it different kind of seriousness: “Yea, I mean, you’re exposed… it’s 8,000 meters.”

But part of the shock felt by climbers around the world at Ueli’s death stems from his complete mastery on the type of terrain he was dealing with on Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. “For me, for example, I can move really comfortably in this kind of terrain. Coming down from 8,000 meterslet’s take the South Col—I know I can be in Camp 2 in one-and-a-half hours,” Steck said.  “And on this terrain, like the Hornbein, I can move up and down however I want without needing any technical equipment. It’s a skill I’ve worked on over 20 years. This terrain, which is serious climbing for other people, is basically like walking for me.”

Before leaving for Kathmandu, he told The Outdoor Journal, “I only do stuff I feel comfortable with, except a few climbs I’m not proud of. I know what it means to be up on Everest. I have a lot of respect for the mountain. But I’m not scared.”

Ueli Steck was born in Lagnau im Emmental, Switzerland in 1976. He began climbing at the age of 12, and first climbed the Eigerthe mountain with which he will forever be linkedat 18. He trained as a carpenter and began working in his home country, all the while pushing the level of his climbing. In an email to The Outdoor Journal from Tajikistan, Billi Bierling, mountaineering journalist and assistant to Himalayan archivist Miss Elizabeth Hawley, notes, “When you look at [Ueli’s] CV on his website, it says: ‘Profession: Trained Carpenter’ even before he lists all his incredible mountaineering achievements.” It was this down-to-earth “modesty” that Bierling admired in him.

Steck first gained acclaim for his solo ascents on the Eiger North Face. In 2007, he took the speed record under four hours for the first time in history.

2008 was a career-defining year for Steck. On February 13 of that year, he set a new, blisteringly fast speed record on the Eiger North Face, at 2 hours 47 minutes and 33 seconds. Then on April 24, Steck and climbing partner Simon Anthamatten, capped a three-day first ascent of the northwest face of Nepal’s Teng Kang Poche (6,487 m), a climb for which they were awarded the Piolet D’Or in 2009. Finally, as icing on the cake, from August 29 to 30, he left his mark in the Eiger’s history of hard, pure rock routes. Along with Stephan Siegrist, Steck made the first free ascent of Paciencia, a route that the two had cleaned and bolted in 2003. The climb became the hardest rock climb on the Eiger, ascending 23 pitches to the top of the wall, the hardest clocking in at 8a (5.13b).  

Steck acquired the nickname of “the Swiss Machine,” due to his extreme speed, diligent training and seeming perfection in the alpine. But according to Billi Bierling, also a friend of Steck’s, “Ueli NEVER liked the term ‘Swiss Machine.’ He was branded with it but never liked it.”

His achievements in the 2010s were just as noteworthy as he turned his attention more and more to the Himalayas. In 2011, he soloed Shishapangma (8,027 m) in just ten-and-a-half hours, and in 2012 he summited Everest for the first time (both without supplemental oxygen).

Then in 2013, he completed a climb for which he won his second Piolet D’Or: a solo, 28-hour round-trip first ascent of Annapurna’s South Face via the previously unfinished Lafaille Route.

His 2013 solo of Annapurna followed hot on the heels of a now infamous controversy on Everest between Steck, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith on one side, and Sherpa ice doctors fixing ropes on the other. Steck, Moro and Griffith had come to Everest with the goal of attempting the same Everest-Lhotse Traverse which Steck intended to attempt with Tenji Sherpa this season before his death. The exact circumstances of the debacle remain convoluted to this day, but the events revolved around the Western climbers moving above the Sherpa as they fixed ropes, and accidentally raining down ice on them; an exchange of words, including Nepalese slurs directed at the Sherpa; and a subsequent altercation at the climbers’ camp in which the Sherpa physically attacked them.

Following 2013’s extreme highs and lows represented by his Annapurna solo and the Everest altercation, Steck shifted focus back to his stomping grounds in the Alps for the next couple of years. In 2015, over the course of 62 days, Steck climbed every peak in the Alps over 4,000 meters high as part of his 82 Summits project.

But the Hornbein Route and the Everest-Lhotse Traverse remained firmly imprinted in Ueli’s mind. It took him two failed trips before he finally succeeded in climbing Annapurna’s South Face. Before he departed for his third, successful attempt on the face back in 2013, he was quoted in an article at swissinfo.ch as saying, “The South Face of Annapurna I is an old project. I have attempted it twice already and I guess you need patience if you want to climb hard routes on an 8000m-peak. Sometimes you have a lucky punch, but often you have to go back, and everything has to be right.” Having proven this idea to himself on Annapurna, and with the aesthetic, historic appeal of the Everest-Lhotse Traverse, it was only a matter of time before he decided to head back to the Khumbu for unfinished business.

But it was not meant to be this time around. Ueli’s aura of invincibility from the 2008 Eiger video was just thatan aura. Even the best are subject to the whims of chance in the high mountains. Ueli Steck’s passing has left an unfillable void in the greater ranges of the world. The mountains have never seen a climber quite like him, and they may not again for a long time to come.

Below are additional thoughts from Billi Bierling, shared exclusively with The Outdoor Journal:

“When I heard about this tragic accident on Sunday morning, I was in the midst of translating his latest book, which I have been working on for the past two months. Ueli and I were very excited when one of his books was finally going to be published in the English-speaking world as he always wanted to have an English version of one of his works. So I have lived and breathed Ueli for the past two months. I would like to share an excerpt from the Annapurna South Face chapter, which I re-read several times after I had heard about his accident. Maybe this section can help us understand where Ueli was coming from:

I was completely detached from the other world. There was nothing else but climbing. No goal, no future, no past. I was climbing in the here and now. One swing of the ice axe after the other; one step after the other. I only saw my ice axes and how they penetrated the snow and ice. My view narrowed and I had adopted some sort of tunnel vision. And here I was; in the middle of this gigantic face with very limited equipment. I felt light, but also extremely exposed. I knew that the tiniest mistake would mean certain death. However, I was not scared of making a mistake. I was still giving orders and controlling the person climbing the south face of Annapurna. It did not feel like me. If this person fell, it would not really concern me.


I remember when I once asked him how he could possibly NOT be scared when scaling such huge steep faces unroped, he responded: ‘Climbing is like walking the stairs. I never expect to slip and fall. Do you?’ And this is exactly how he viewed climbing – like walking the stairs. But unfortunately, on Sunday he slipped and fell, and it is a great loss for the climbing community, a great loss for his friends and family and of course a huge loss for his wife Nicole. My thoughts are with all of them and I will certainly remember Ueli as an amazing climber, a good friend and an inspiration for a lot of people. Despite his speed ascents he never lost his love and passion for the mountains.”




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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.



Jamie East

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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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