Ueli Steck: "The Swiss Machine" talks to Advendure

Από 15 Φεβ 2013
O Ueli Steck στην Grandes Jorasses O Ueli Steck στην Grandes Jorasses © Jonathan Griffit

It’s really hard to define Ueli Steck from an athletic perspective. How would one describe him? As an amazingly fast alpinist or as an extremely risky mountain runner? Some call him “heretic” as he denies to compromise with the strict norms of traditional climbing, as he climbs higher and faster. When someone watches Ueli Steck climbing the Eiger in the classic, epic and inspiring video, one dares not believe his eyes. He seems so elegant, experienced, focused and easily loaded on the way to the summit, as that was his daily journey home. But the most incredible thing in the process is the breathtaking speed with which the man climbs, with an abyss under his legs.

Seven hours and four minutes were just enough for Ueli Steck to climb the three famous north faces of the Alps: Eiger, Matterhorn and Grandes Jorasses, faces which he climbed solo and of course in record time. His current vision is to transfer the idea of the Alps trilogy to the Himalayas. Gasherbrum II (8.035 meters), Makalu (8.463 meters), Shisha Pangma (8.027 meters), Cho Oyu (8.201 meters) and Everest (8.848 meters) have brought this man to his limits and let him get over them. Thanks to rigorous training and his strong will, he fast-climbed all of them - some on technical routes - without supplemental oxygen and again…solo!

 

So, the first question remains. The sure thing is that he is a top athlete and a mountain man equally, which aligns his life to his projects on the mountains. He is very consistent, he continuously trains his climbing and endurance skills, both structured, carefully and with precision. He has a strict training program which he works with his coach and physiotherapist. With his nutritionist, he controls his weight and the corresponding proportion of protein and carbohydrates in his diet. Depending on whether an expedition or climbing is pending, he adjusts his training in accordance with his goal. So, the nickname with which he is very well known is the most appropriate to describe him … the “Swiss Machine”.

 

Advendure.net discussed with this incredible athlete some very interesting stuff!

 

[Advendure]: I remember a very interesting statement that you made before a few months at Rock & Ice magazine: “Can you imagine what I could do if I had the physique of Kilian Jornet?” Taking into consideration this statement, and the speed climbing progress so far, do you believe that the next generation of speed climbers will come from the world of endurance and mountain-ultra athletes or from the world of climbing and mountaineering? Is it easier for a mountain-ultra runner with significant endurance skills to learn the technical aspects of climbing or for the mountaineering athlete with huge climbing experience to obtain the physical high level of speed and endurance that is needed for a climbing record performance?

"...it's all about moving fast enough..."[Ueli Steck]: It takes much longer and a stronger effort is needed to train the physical aspects of endurance than training my technical skills. I believe I have more to give on that and I have not reached my limits. That’s why I think there is more potential on that aspect. So, to answer your question, if a top mountain runner obtains the appropriate technical skills and the mental strength that is required (don’t forget, we are talking about climbing…) then he can stand out in the speed climbing scene.

 

[Advendure]: Your training consists of both running and climbing. Is your training program, and the percentage between those two activities, strictly depends on your goals for each year? I mean, do you differentiate the percentages between running and climbing according to the type of climbing effort that you have as a target (e.g. mountain summits like Everest compared to speedy and highly technical climbs like Eiger or Matterhorn faces)?

[Ueli Steck]: Of course I work a lot more on my endurance skills. Clearly, I have a technical climbing background; the world of alpinism is where I’m coming from. To climb the Eiger I don t really need to train my technical skills anymore. I can climb 8b with a very low amount of climbing training. So that’s why I really focus on running and endurance.

 

[Advendure]: What is the training procedure in order to manage the lack of oxygen during the final stations of high summits (e.g. at 8.000 meters) speed climbs? Your speed climbing efforts with minimal equipment and onf course without oxygen support and probably without intermediate camps require extreme endurance levels. It’s very interesting to see how you’re working for addressing this issue. Is the high altitude mountain running the most significant factor for solving this problem?

[Ueli Steck]: Clearly my high levels of endurance get me through such difficult conditions. So, trail and mountain running is for me the most efficient training one can do to achieve these levels of endurance. But it also has a big impact on your body. Since I am already 36 years old I have to be very careful!

 

Ueli Steck in Matterhorn[Advendure]: Your nickname is “The Swiss Machine”, which indicates your high level of accuracy during the execution of your speed climbing efforts. Ultra running and climbing have in common the loneliness during training and performances, but accuracy is only a climbing property because the risk of an accident due to a false move is very high compared to running. How do you mentally manage this issue during the effort? Also, do you adjust the effort level during the climb (not always 100%), in order to avoid an accident?

[Ueli Steck]: I never give my 100% during the tecnical sections on a speed climb. I  am not crazy. This is the time that you have to play smart. Sure, there are times that you can go on your limits. But if you are moving all the time on your limits, sooner or later you realize that you have gone too far and you gonna die!

 

[Advendure]: According to your opinion, what was your greatest achievement so far? On the other hand, is there any particular moment during your efforts that you felt real danger, or fear of loosing control?

[Ueli Steck]: I am not a fan of superlative in every aspect of my life. There is no such thing as the greatest achievement. Every climb is just a part of a big puzzle. It’s hard to tell. But there are not many people that can claim to have free climbed El Capitan (even twice) or climbed  Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen or the Eiger North Face under 3 hours ... Although, I could use the word ‘wildest’ to describe the solo, on sight speed ascent on Grandes Jorasses (free climbing) and also Shisha Pangma. These climbs were one way ticket!

 

[Advendure]: Speed climbing its not about competition with other athletes like running, but it’s a far more internal process for the athlete, that has to do with overcoming yourself and the challenge of doing something that no one has ever done before. So, what is the real prize for you? When you come back home after a great speed record what is the internal procedure that push you to try something harder next time? What remains as the “real prize” after the effort?

[Ueli Steck]: There is no real prize. It’s just nice to have dreams in your life and push yourself hard to try to make them become a reality.

 

[Advendure]: Do you think that the new frontier and challenge for mountaineering is the alpine style speed climbing over 8.000 meters summits by using routes with very high technical difficulty? There is a rumor that your 2013 goals have to do with Nepal, so we’re wondering if they are related with such a big challenge.

[Ueli Steck]: I think that the speed ascents on normal routes are not challenging any more. That’s just not what I am looking for. I also think that speed climbing Mt Everest on normal route on is just marketing. There are big challenges up there, challenges where efficiency really matters.  It’s not about reaching the summit, let’s say, in 16 or 16.30 hours. It’s about how you reach the summit. We know you cannot recover above 8000 meters, the so-called Death Zone. So, regardless the project you will try, it's all about moving fast enough...

 

[Advendure]: Nowadays we see a trend in both climbing and mountain running (through Fastest Known Times efforts - FKTs), which brings these two different sports - in features but not in philosophy - towards the same direction. Do you believe that there might be a common future for them in the next decades? Is there any possibility to see in the future organized FKTs in major mountains with fixed ropes or something like that, for a pack of 10-20 experienced climbers-runners? This sounds a bit fiction but you might have already thought about it during your speed ascents in the Alps!

Grandes Jorasses...[Ueli Steck]: This is not really the way we should go. Running up fixed ropes is a step back in alpinism.

 

[Advendure]: Tell us about some mountain personalities from the past that might have influenced you and how.

[Ueli Steck]: Walter Bonatti is one of my biggest heroes. But also Reinhold Messner is very inspirational to me. He was always looking for new ideas to push his limits!

 

[Advendure]: What about commercial mountaineering? Has any person on this planet to snap themselves of the summit of Everest? Given that Nepal and surrounding countries need desperately money from fees, do you believe that there is any hope in the future for stopping this mesh or we lost any hope for this and Everest will remain in history as a human vanity monument?

[Ueli Steck]: You know, I would like to focus on the good aspects of “commercial  mountaineering”. There are many Nepali people making good business with Mt. Everest and a lot of people are occupied, guiding western people to the summits. But also, we should tell the truth. Climbing Everest with oxygen, fixed ropes and a handful of Sherpa’s carrying all your staff, is not outstanding mountaineering. If we want to be honest, we cannot accept that climbing Everest with oxygen is a real challenge! You avoid the thin air with less oxygen, so you really eliminate the difficulties of this mountain. Everest is not a tecnical mountain. In most of the route for the summit you need trekking poles. The challenge is actually the game with low oxygen. So the oxygen gives to any average climber the possibility to reach somehow the summit.  But it’s those people that bring business to Nepal and keep things moving. So we have to say that’s OK!

 

 

 



Questions: D. Troupis, L. Rigos
Prologue - Editing: T. Tsogkarakis
Photos: © Jonathan Griffit

Τάκης Τσογκαράκης

Η αγάπη του για το βουνό ξεκινάει πολλά χρόνια πίσω με τις πρώτες αναβάσεις στην αγαπημένη του Πάρνηθα και μετέπειτα με την σχολή Ορειβασίας του ΕΟΣ Αχαρνών. Το 2007 έτρεξε τον πρώτο του αγώνα ορεινού τρεξίματος και από τότε ονειρεύεται "όλο και ψηλότερα, όλο και μακρύτερα". Ελπίζει να το κάνει για πολλά χρόνια ακόμα...

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