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Athletes

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.

WRITTEN BY

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 31, 2018

Kayaking’s Elite Return to India at the Malabar River Festival

During the week of July 18th to 22nd, the Malabar River Festival returned to Kerala, India with one of the biggest cash prizes in whitewater kayaking in the world.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

A $20,000 purse attracted some of the world’s best kayakers to the region for an epic week battling it out on some of India’s best whitewater.

The kayaking events at Malabar River Festival were held on the Kuttiyadi River, Chalippuzha River, and the Iruvajippuzha River, in South India on the Malabar Coast. The festival was founded and organized by Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera of GoodWave Adventures, the first whitewater kayaking school in South India.

Photo: Akash Sharma

“Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there”

One of the goals of the festival is to promote whitewater kayaking in the state of Kerala and encourage locals to get into the sport. One of the event organizers, Vaijayanthi Bhat, feels that the festival plays a large part in promoting the sport within the community.  “The kayak community is building up through the Malabar Festival. Quite a few people are picking up kayaking… It starts with people watching the event and getting curious.  GoodWave Adventures are teaching the locals.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

Vaijayanthi is not lying when she says the kayak community is starting to build up.  In addition to the pro category, this year’s Malabar Festival hosted an intermediate competition specifically designed for local kayakers. The intermediate competition saw a huge turnout of 22 competitors in the men’s category and 9 competitors in the women’s category. Even the professional kayakers who traveled across the world to compete at the festival were impressed with the talent shown by the local kayakers. Mike Dawson of New Zealand, and the winner of the men’s pro competition had nothing but good things to say about the local kayakers. “I have so much respect for the local kayakers. I was stoked to see huge improvements from these guys since I met them in 2015. It was cool to see them ripping up the rivers and also just trying to hang out and ask as many questions about how to improve their paddling. It was awesome to watch them racing and making it through the rounds. Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

 

“It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake”

Vaijayanthi says the festival has future goals of being named a world championship.  In order to do this, they have to attract world class kayakers to the event.  With names like Dane Jackson, Nouria Newman, Nicole Mansfield, Mike Dawson, and Gerd Serrasolses coming out for the pro competition, it already seems like they are doing a good job of working toward that goal! The pro competition was composed of four different kayaking events- boatercross, freestyle, slalom, and a superfinal race down a technical rapid. “The Finals of the extreme racing held on the Malabar Express was the favourite event for me. It was an epic rapid to race down. 90 seconds of continuous whitewater with a decent flow. It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake.” says Dawson.

Photo: Akash Sharma

The impressive amount of prize money wasn’t the only thing that lured these big name kayakers to Kerala for the festival. Many of the kayakers have stayed in South India after the event ended to explore the rivers in the region. With numerous unexplored jungle rivers, the possibilities for exploratory kayaking are seemingly endless. Dawson knows the exploratory nature of the region well.  “I’ve been to the Malabar River Fest in 2015. I loved it then, and that’s why I’ve been so keen to come back. Kerala is an amazing region for kayaking. In the rainy season there is so much water, and because the state has tons of mountains close to the sea it means that there’s a lot of exploring and sections that are around. It’s a unique kind of paddling, with the rivers taking you through some really jungly inaccessible terrain. Looking forward to coming back to Kerala and also exploring the other regions of India in the future.”

 

For more information on the festival, visit: http://www.malabarfest.com/

Subscribe here: https://www.outdoorjournal.com/in/subscribe/

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