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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Athletes

Apr 06, 2017

Ueli Steck Heading Back to Everest with Big Plans

The “Swiss Machine” Ueli Steck is one of the world's best alpinists alive today.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

He has already climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen once and has many other Himalayan ascents to his name. Now, after a foiled 2013 bid, he will attempt perhaps the most ambitious, Himalayan climbing expedition ever: an alpine-style enchainment of Everest and Lhotse.

News Update: Ueli Steck has died in a fall on Nuptse face while training for the Everest push. Our community mourns his loss. Read The Outdoor Journal’s obituary of this generation’s greatest alpinist here

Ueli Steck is heading back to Everest! The Swiss alpinist and two-time Piolet D’or winner is headed back for unfinished business on the world’s tallest mountain and its neighbours. In 2013, Steck, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith hoped to make the first link-up of Everest (8,848 m) and Lhotse (8,516 m), and in the process complete the first repeat of Everest’s Hornbein Route. Those plans were derailed after their now infamous confrontation with Sherpa fixing ropes for the season’s commercial Everest expeditions. So now, four years later, Steck will try his hand once again on the Everest-Lhotse traverse.

“This Hornbein Route is a big story,” by itself, he says, even without the Lhotse link-up in the equation. “There’s lots of history there. It’s never been repeated. To be honest, even if we climb just the Hornbein and we’re too tired to get to Lhotse, I’ll be happy.” (The Hornbein Couloir—the route’s most prominent feature—“has been repeated starting in Tibet and going straight up,” Steck says, but the entire route has not seen a second ascent.)

steck-western-khumb-1His partner this go around is Tenji Sherpa, a young climber Steck calls part of “the new generation of Sherpa that really want to climb.” Tenji and Steck climbed Everest together in 2012 without supplemental oxygen, and have since then joined forces on the North Face of Cholatse (6,440 m), in the Himalaya, and on numerous objectives in the Alps, including the Eiger (3,970 m), the Jungfrau (4,158 m), and a tandem paraglide from the Jungfrau back to Interlaken. “He really enjoys climbing,” Steck says of Tenji. “It’s why we get along so well together.”

The traverse will take the two climbers on an unprecedented tour of Everest and Lhotse. The Hornbein Route, climbed in 1963 by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld during the first successful American expedition to Everest, starts by ascending to Camp 2. At that point, following the original route, Tenji and Steck will cut sharply left toward Everest’s left shoulder in a big traverse that will take them to the Hornbein Couloir. After exiting the Couloir, rejoining the West Ridge, and summiting Everest, the plan is then to “go down the South Col, make a traverse, and eventually meet up high with the normal Lhotse route.” From there, they’ll only need to climb several hundred meters upward to the summit of Lhotse, after which the pair will descend back down to Camp 2.

everest-lhotse-lineOr will they perhaps keep going? Talking with Steck via Skype, I mention that there are rumours that he might try to enchain a third mountain. “Where did you hear that?” he says, laughing. “The full ‘horseshoe’” of the cirque includes “the whole traverse, up to Nuptse,” Steck says. Full stop from the Swiss Machine. “Well?” I ask him, a hint of exasperation in my voice. “I have the permit for Nuptse,” he says with a chuckle. “So who knows? We may just do Nuptse to get acclimatised.” Despite his coyness, the unspoken is abundantly clear: If he and Tenji are feeling strong and have a weather window, the possibility exists that they’ll push on to Nuptse (7,861 m) after Lhotse.

The Everest-Lhotse traverse will be feat of endurance and commitment unrivaled in the world of high-altitude alpinism. “If you climb just Everest, it’s like running a marathon,” Stecks says. “But now we’ll be trying an ultramarathon.”  

The traverse doesn’t entail the same degree of risk as many of Steck’s more technically difficult ascents, but he’s perfectly happy about that.  “I’ve reached a point in my climbing where I realized if I keep moving in that direction”—of speed soloing things like the Eiger North Face—“I’ll kill myself,” Steck says.  Rather, the expedition will require the entire skillset that he has honed over a 20-year career.

everest-gipfel-2012-8

Tenji and Steck intend to move quickly, but not too quickly. While he feels confident they could climb from Camp 2 to Everest’s summit in a single-day push, he expects to spend at least one night bivvying on the Hornbein Route: “We have to be careful. We need to have energy to get up Lhotse. It doesn’t make sense to do one push to the Everest summit and then be too tired for Lhotse.”

They’ll also travel with frighteningly few supplies. They’ll have a sleeping bag weighing around 400 grams, but no tent. “Rest for a couple hours, and then keep moving,” Steck explains—that’s the name of the game.

Whether or not he and Tenji Sherpa are successful remains to be seen for at least another month. After flying out of Switzerland on April 8, Steck will meet up with Tenji and the two will make their way to the mountains. Then the acclimatisation and waiting games begin.

ueli_steck17EN0049

Both climbers have already been preparing for months—Steck even joined Tenji in the Khumbu in February, where they did a bunch of altitude training, logging 240 kilometers and 16,000 vertical meters in just 13 days—but they will continue training their bodies over the coming weeks, trying to reach peak fitness around May 20. Prior to mid-May the weather is usually too cold to attempt Everest. But after that, weather permitting, it’s open season.

Check back with The Outdoor Journal for updates on Ueli and Tenji’s expedition as well as other news from the 2017 Everest season!

For a talk with Ueli after he climbed 82 four-thousanders, alpine style, spread over Italy, Switzerland and France in 62 days, head here.

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Adventure Travel

Jul 11, 2018

The Mountain Monks of Montserrat – Exploring History, Legends, and Great Climbing

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief, recounts a climbing trip to Montserrat in 2009, where he followed in the footsteps of the mountain monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey.

A small boy scrambled up the rough rocks, yanking at tough brown shrubs and grabbing the pebbled conglomerate of the rocky Catalan spires. His sure-footed goats had already reached a large clear ledge above. He gasped with the effort and tried not to look down. It was late afternoon and he had to gather his flock and drive them homewards soon. He mantled up to level ground and looked around. There they were, near a large, dark-mouthed cave. He yelled at them, the stupid creatures. He spoke only Catalan, a language native to these wild, mountainous parts between France and Spain. And then, the woman emerged.

She was dark and luminous. She was haloed by light, a strange sort of energy exuding from her, illuminating the entrance to the cave. He felt something touch him, a sort of blessedness. And then he fainted.
So was born the legend of the black Madonna.
Fast forward three hundred years. A large monastery and church stand on that ledge, surrounded by thousand-foot high spires of rock. There are two ways to the monastery – a winding mountain road, or a cable car. Today, like most days, the road is closed due to rockfall. The cable car has limited running hours – and we barely catch the last one up, with the lone operator holding it for us.
Montserrat – Jagged Mountain in English  – is a four-thousand-foot high plateau composed of reddish pebbly sedimentary rock needles that reach up into the sky, with holds that seem like they’ll pop out the moment you pull on them. Pinnacles emerge from the jumbled matrix, cliffs, and aretes that soar over the surrounding countryside.

More than a thousand routes spider the mountain. There are barely enough climbers here. When I was there, it seemed possible to spend a whole day climbing thousand foot classics without ever meeting another party – in near-perfect temps, even in February, the month of my first trip here. This is the warm, beating heart of Catalan mountaineering.

It was a warm late February day, and we had been completely alone so far. The only other people we’d seen was a small group of climbers hiking ahead of us on the trail before they disappeared into the brush as we detoured towards the base of our route. Even though we were barely a 40-minute drive from Barcelona, it felt like wilderness climbing. The overgrown brush covered everything. It is an incredible sensation, to know that there is real adventure all around us, so close to established urban centres. There are ibex and wild boars in the forests in and around the mountain, and we walk carefully to not disturb the peace and natural beauty of this place.

The base of the route appears suddenly from the green brush. Vegetation ends and rock begins. The sensation is familiar and reassuring. The first part is not-yet-vertical, but real climbing nonetheless. I like to lead first pitches, since I haven’t yet had the time to feel scared and I can bluster my way through, while the ground seems reassuringly close – which in reality makes no difference to any real or perceived danger, of course. The route is mostly bolted or marked with old pitons, there is little scope for natural protection.

Climbing slowly, we reached halfway up. I was belaying my partner Gilles, a Franco-Australian climber I had met some years ago in India. The route is considered the area’s classic and most popular climb – the 5.10a+, 11-pitch, 1033 foot (315m) Aresta Ribas. The Aresta – “arete” – first climbed by a certain Ribas in 1979, is the prominent spur of rock on the sunnier, south-facing side of the mountain – perfect for a winter climb. Despite its ranking, there is literally no-one else on the climb. For comparison, a 3-star multi-pitch classic like this one nearly anywhere in the United States or even in the French Alps would literally have a queue of climbing parties on it.

Suddenly, an old man in a blue sweater appeared to my right, climbing in what looked like sneakers. As I watched, their party of three appeared one after the other, traversing to our belay station, moving much faster than us. The leader was a younger man, the only one who spoke English. That was how I met Josep Castellnou, a local who told me stories of this amazing history of Montserrat. Josep, a vet from a nearby town, also managed rocktopo.com – a climbing site extolling the virtues of the natural park of Montserrat, with downloadable guides for each part of the mountain. [Ed: unfortunately the site is no longer online, but some topos are still available elsewhere].

“You are visiting here?” said Josep, casually while on lead. I was well secured in my belay anchors.
“Yes”, I replied, shielding my eyes from the sun while paying out rope to Gilles.

“Good!” he said, smiling. “But you will not know how to find the trail down. We will wait for you!” he exclaimed, before setting off again.

Their party was doing a route just adjacent to ours, and flying on it. I cherished such encounters in the mountains – in every way a normal social interaction, but between two strangers clinging spider-like to a vertiginous mountain wall. These meetings sometimes lead to lifelong friendships, and one can meet again decades later with the same sense of warmth and gratitude.

The climbing was unexpectedly difficult. The holds were rounded cobblestones emerging from a matrix of hard sediment, requiring you to balance your toes on rounded surfaces, with no real edges. I needed to think about footwork before making each move, which meant our progress was very slow. The route was series of spires stacked one upon the other. An immense panorama behind us gave me a massive sense of exposure, a feeling of stomach-churning, calf-tightening vertigo that kicks in when you can only see the air above, below and behind you. Eagles rode rising thermals, balancing motionless with outstretched wings on waves of invisible air. They nested on the cliff walls, and climbers were under strict instructions to leave certain areas and routes alone in this protected Park Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat.

A young fresh faced Editor-in-Chief, Apoorva Prasad

The climbing took nearly the whole day. We reached the top as the sun began to set. Gilles and I quickly began to coil the ropes and switch out our rock climbing shoes for hiking footwear – wearing rock shoes the whole day is an incredibly painful experience, for those who haven’t yet tried it. Josep and his party were patiently waiting for us at the top, just beyond and below the ‘summit’ of the arete. I was warmly surprised, they must have reached at least an hour before us. They smiled and greeted us again, and rather quickly now, given the fading light, led us towards climber’s left, towards whatever path there was. Within some minutes it became clear to me that we would have never found it on our own, especially in the dark. The trail down was a complex, hours-long scramble over water-worn rock and incredibly dense brush, and not really a proper ‘trail’. If we hadn’t run into Josep’s party, we’d have probably spent the entire night cautiously hunting for the way down, having heard enough stories of climbing parties lost on descents upon being cliffed out, or going over an edge in the haze of fatigue, in darkness.

A little while later Josep pointed out a cave.
“You see these caves? Monks used to live here and meditate. Now climbers use them. They spend the year just living here and climbing”.
So medieval Benedictine monks had faded away, replaced in this new age by climbers, similarly meditating on paths to salvation amongst spires reaching up to the sky. Who were these 21st century rock-climbing monks? I was eager to find out, but tracking these unknown climbing hermits, seekers after greater truths… was not going to be easy or feasible.
The sun had already set below the horizon, we were hiking down in the twilight, and could barely see the trail. Yet I paused to look inside the cave. It was a small nook in the rook, just enough to serve as a passable campsite sheltered from the rain, to lay a sleeping bag on the uneven ground, a mendicant’s bowl on a rock ledge, perhaps a worn book. For a second, I closed my eyes and imagined that life. Then I heard the group outside, patiently waiting for us to follow that hidden trail, and I stepped back into the fading winter light.

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