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Inside the Swiss-watch world of alpinist Ueli Steck

Inside the Swiss-watch world of alpinist Ueli Steck

In 2007, after several attempts, Ueli Steck finally broke the speed record on the original route up the Eiger north face, climbing solo and belaying himself only for three short sections. No one was really surprised. It is Steck’s backyard mountain (he lives only 30 minutes away), and he had been progressively inching closer to the record, soloing the face for the first time in 2004, in 10 hours, and cutting that time nearly in half by 2006. The Eiger speed record dates back to Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler’s famous 10-hour sprint in 1969, and such hotly contested records are usually broken by a few minutes, or even seconds. Steck, however, slashed 46 minutes off the previous record, set by the Italian Christoph Hainz in 2003, with a new time of 3 hours 54 minutes.

Yet the most remarkable detail of this remarkable achievement came to light after the climb, when Steck visited the Swiss Federal Institute of Sports Magglingen to test his physical fitness. Their finding: Steck was out of shape!

Steck had trained harder for the Eiger climb than he ever had in his life, and harder than most professional climbers ever do. He concluded that he—and elite alpine climbers in general—were mere amateurs when it comes to training. World-class cyclists, swimmers, and runners enhanced their training with everything that modern science had to offer. Climbing was stuck in the Stone Age.

Instead of being discouraged, Steck took the Institute’s finding as inspiration: It proved there was immense untapped potential in his body. He decided to dedicate an entire year solely to preparing for another Eiger attempt. Employing a team of experts, including a dietician, fitness trainer, and mental coach, Steck fashioned a state-of-the-art regimen precisely targeted at the various demands of the route. At almost 1,800 vertical meters, the Eiger north face is nearly twice as high as Yosemite’s El Capitan, and, due to its meandering nature, the classic 1938 route involves over a mile and a half of climbing. The terrain is tricky and variable, with 5.8ish rock, often rotten or covered by snow, interrupted by short ice fields.

It has become cliché to write that this or that climber trains like an Olympic athlete, but in the following year, Steck actually did. Working with his experts, Steck devised a step-by-step plan to optimize his fitness and mental readiness. The team calculated that Steck would need to trim down to exactly 141 pounds during the ascent week—a weight optimal for a high performance but not sustainable for more than a few days. Climbing for pure pleasure had to be put on hold. For endurance training, Steck ran the equivalent of the north face’s vertical gain almost daily—always at a carefully calculated heart rate. When he climbed, it was carefully monitored and geared toward a precise training goal. Each step and each day was logged and analyzed, and the plan adjusted accordingly. Day after day, for a year.

As a Swiss youth, Steck grew up fascinated by the Eiger north face, visible in the distance from his childhood home. His initial climbing exploits, at around age 12, were modest outings with a friend and the friend’s father at a local crag. The only notable detail of this otherwise common beginning is that Steck never toproped— his very first climbing experience was on the sharp end. Gym climbing came next. Steck soon abandoned his other childhood hobbies and gained a spot on the junior national climbing team.

However, he recalls, “I quickly got bored of gym climbing,” and soon sport climbing took a back seat to the lure of the high peaks. At 17, Steck climbed his first alpine testpiece: the east pillar of the Scheideggwetterhorn, considered by many to be as daunting as its better-known neighbor, the Eiger. Looking up from the bottom of the 30-plus-pitch, 5.10ish, thoroughly committing alpine route, Steck recalls thinking, “Now this is a real mountain.” He and his equally novice partner, Markus Iff, dispatched the route without the usual bivy, returning to the Grindelwald train station just five minutes after the last train departed. A cold night outside the station did not discourage Steck and Iff from setting their sights at the logical next step: the Eiger.

 

Already a perfectionist in his planning and preparation, Steck trained for almost a year. He and Iff took early morning runs with full backpacks, pausing for ice-axe ascents of telephone poles. In 1995, shortly after Steck turned 18, they felt ready. Setting off in the early hours, the two made steady progress up the north face over the following two days—a pace that Steck recalls today with a mix of nostalgia and embarrassment. What is for many the ascent of a lifetime was just the beginning for Steck. Soon climbing occupied most of his time and thoughts.

Over the next few years, he picked off increasingly harder alpine classics, often alone. In 1998, he soloed the Haston Colouir (TD+, 1,000m) on the Mönch, the Eiger’s immediate neighbor, and, in 2001, did the famed Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses in winter. These early years saw a few forays into the mountains beyond the Alps as well, most notably a new route on Pumori (7,164m) in Nepal in 2001 with Ueli Bühler, and the 2002 new route Blood From the Stone (5.9 A1 M7 AI6+, 1,600m) on Mt. Dickey, with Sean Easton, a climb now considered one of the great Alaskan first ascents of the decade.

Yet the Eiger, then as now, was Steck’s mountain. He has climbed almost all of the peak’s routes, and in 2001, with fellow Eiger local Stephan Siegrist, put up a proud testpiece right up the center of the face: The Young Spiders (5.11d A2 M7 WI6, 1,800m). When working on the route, the two would take the train to the viewing platform partway up the Jungfrau railway tunnel—which runs from Grindelwald straight through the bowels of the Eiger to a col nearby— wait until the tourists had snapped their pictures and reboarded the train, and then climb out through the window to regain their highpoint. Returning from working on a hard pitch one evening, the duo timed a rappel incorrectly and swooped through the window right in front of a bedazzled group of Japanese tourists—who perhaps thought the famous 1936 saga of Toni Kurtz was playing out right before their eyes.

Already becoming well-known in the climbing world, Steck really caught the public eye in 2004. After a free solo of Excalibur (5.10d, 10 pitches) on one of Switzerland’s most spectacular crags, the super-steep Wendenstöcke, Steck returned to re-solo the cruxes of this picturesque route while his friend and professional photographer Robert Bösch hovered nearby in a chartered helicopter. The awe-inspiring photos circulated widely in the mainstream press in Switzerland and made Ueli Steck a household name. Steck capitalized on his growing fame by adding big-name sponsors including a steel conglomerate, the Swiss version of Home Depot, Wenger (the makers of Swiss Army knives), a vitamin company, and an architectural fi rm—plus an array of outdoor companies including Scarpa, Petzl, Mountain Hardwear, Julbo, Leki, OutDry, Beal, Katadyn, and Suunto. “I have the freedom to do what I want,” he says. “My sponsors cover my day-to-day costs, but the real money is in speaking tours and books.” Though Switzerland is an expensive place to live, Steck is no doubt being somewhat modest about his income. Does he feel he is selling out with so many sponsors? “I want to live from climbing,” he says. “I don’t want to live in a pick-up truck.” The acquisition of his latest sponsor, Audi, assures that this won’t be the case.

Although we live only 20 minutes apart, frequent the same climbing gym, and despite the fact that he’s eager to get some publicity in the U.S., it takes us months to nail down a time for a serious chat. Something always seems to get in the way: a shoot for France’s primetime TV, attending the Swiss national sports awards ceremony (with tennis star Roger Federer and the like), and, of course, his unforgiving training routine. Finally, we arrange to talk before the opening show of his latest multi-media speaking tour.

On the train ride to Zurich, I read through a recent interview Steck gave with the NZZ, one of the German-speaking world’s largest and most respected papers. In the U.S., where mountaineering is regarded as an obscure, slightly reckless pursuit, few mainstream papers would feature a climber in the same way they’d cover a football player or boxer. Yet in the Alpine countries, where the sport is practiced widely, Steck is a genuine celebrity. When his wife suffered an accident a few months back, it was front-page news in Switzerland, even in the tabloids. People could be overheard on the trains talking about it.

The venue of Steck’s show reflects his star status: a large hall in downtown Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city. As a crew of sound and video technicians, vendors, and managers scuttles about making final preparations, Steck and I retreat to a cocktail table in the foyer of the auditorium.

The first thing I ask him about is his fame. “Yes,” he admits, “people do recognize me on the streets.” Is that weird? “Totally! One time, I was on my way through security at the airport at seven in the morning—I was totally groggy—and suddenly one of the security offi cials called out my name,” he says. “I thought I was in trouble.” But the security team simply wanted to wish him well on whatever mountain he was off to climb.

Steck is a seasoned interviewee. Once our initial chitchat gives way to serious questions, his tone becomes very matter-of-fact. He downplays his prodigious climbing skills. “I do my best,” he says. “It’s important to have fun.” On the other hand, he is quite proud of his fitness, which, he’s quick to point out, he has gained only through tenacious work. “Most professional runners train only 900 hours per year,” Steck explains. “I train 1,200.”

After a 45-minute chat, Ueli bids me farewell. Two hours later, he walks on stage in front of a jam-packed auditorium. The man on stage bears slim resemblance to the one I had just finished talking to. Wearing a tight, black, long-sleeve T-shirt and sporty jeans, Steck emerges from a dark corner of the stage to huge applause. In the spotlight, he exudes a kind of restrained vibrancy. He speaks confidently and calmly, not at all in a boasting manner but leaving the listener with little doubt that this man is very serious about his work. He appears much more relaxed talking to hundreds of people than he was talking to just me, and opens his show with a clever line: “People always ask me why I got into speed climbing,” he begins. “Well, you know, I recently got married, and once you get married, there are certain responsibilities, like being home for dinner on time. ‘Eiger? ... dinner?,’ I thought. That’s where I got the idea of speed climbing the Eiger.”

 

The joke is delivered with just the right blend of precision and improvisation. The show, like the man’s climbs, is choreographed to the finest details: the video sequences running on the big screen behind him, the constantly changing stage lighting. But in truth, Steck is a natural. He’s infatuated with the mountains and his jaunts in them. When Steck recounts his move-by-move experiences on the various faces of the Alps, his eagerness is reminiscent of a young boy regaling the family’s dinner guest with unending details of some naughty adventure. His show sells out almost every night.

While alpinism is his greatest strength, Steck is a true all-arounder and has put up M11 mixed routes, free soloed 5.13 and WI6, and sport climbed 5.14. He’s the kind of climber who shows up at an area and, without much talk or jockeying, dispenses with its hardest routes within the first hours of his visit, adapting quickly to the peculiar conditions of new surroundings. Visiting the Canadian Rockies with Simon Anthamatten in 2007, the two climbed a host of modern testpieces, including Riptide (VI WI7 R, 225m) and the second ascent of Polarity (VI WI 5+, 800m)—adding another 50 meters of climbing up the roofy seracs capping the original highpoint; they also put up a new route, Rocket Baby (M8+ WI5+ X, 7 pitches). Riding into Yosemite Valley in May 2009, new wife in tow, Steck nearly onsighted El Capitan’s Golden Gate (5.13b, 41 pitches), sending the numerous 5.12 and 5.13 pitches and falling only on the 5.11 crack off El Cap Spire, which was wet. It was the closest any climber has come to onsighting a modern El Cap free climb. On a Petzl trip to Scotland in February 2010, while his very strong teammates took a playful approach to the typically nasty conditions (a video of the trip shows one of them begging for a bail-out rope halfway up a pitch), Steck wasted no time dispatching one of the country’s hardest routes, The Secret (Scottish Grade X) on Ben Nevis, climbing the crux pitch in some 30 minutes and placing just three pieces.

Those who have roped up with Steck speak of his particular combination of ceaseless energy and unshakable nerves. “Everywhere except the cruxes he would cruise, seldom placing pro,” said Easton of their Alaska trip. “Ueli’s mantra was ‘up, up’—that’s what he would say if there was ever a moment of hesitation or inertia.”

Even Alex Honnold, known for his cool head, was impressed by Steck’s laissez faire when the pair attempted the speed record on the Nose of El Capitan in the spring of 2010. “He was way more willing to trust single-piece anchors or random fixed gear,” Honnold recalls. “I think the whole alpinism thing has dulled his sense of risk. It was as if all rock climbing was a fun, little pleasure cruise.”

“There are those who climb better than I do,” Steck told a reporter recently, “and there are those who have more endurance and are better suited for expeditions at extreme altitudes. My strength is yesterday standing on El Capitan and tomorrow on one of the highest summits.”

In February 2008, after a year of dedicated training, Steck set off again for the Eiger—his 23rd time up the face. He packed a rope, but did not use it. A video depicting the ascent—re-created some time later and now a YouTube sensation— shows Steck running up the Eiger’s snowfields. The result: a time of 2 hours 47 minutes—over an hour faster than his 2007 record. Everyone, including Steck, was stunned. Asked if he still wants to improve his record time on the Eiger, he responded, “No, this chapter is closed. Someone will beat my time, for sure, and the important thing for me is to already have moved on to something bigger.”

Steck next broke the speed records on the north faces of the Matterhorn and Grandes Jorasses, which, with the Eiger, form the Alps’ famed “North Face Trilogy.” These have been undertaken in numerous record-breaking fashions, including Christophe Profi t’s 1985 enchainment of all three in under 24 hours (using a helicopter to shuttle from one face to the next). Steck upped the ante on the Grandes Jorasses by going for the record on a route he had never climbed. In December 2008, he onsighted the Colton-MacIntyre (M6 WI6, 1,200m, just right of the Walker Spur) in an unfathomable 2:21. A month later, Steck blazed up the Matterhorn north face in 1:56, also a record.

Now 34, Steck is focusing his attention on the Himalaya. During a dozen trips to the range in the past decade, he has used his Alps-honed skills to zoom up steep faces by unexplored routes, with a partner or alone. In 2005, he soloed the diffi cult north face of Cholatse and the east face of Tawoche, and in 2007, Pumori’s west face. He has summited the 8,000-meter peaks Makalu and Gasherbrum II. In 2008, with Anthamatten, he did the first ascent of the extremely technical, 2,000-meter-high north face of Tengkampoche in Nepal.


The last route was a warm-up for the south face of Annapurna, a route that became somewhat of an obsession. The mountain is the least-climbed of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, as well as the deadliest. The colossal south face, a mile wide and 3,000 meters high, was first climbed in 1970 by a giant expedition led by Christian Bonington. In 2007, Steck mounted an attempt at a direct route on the massive face, following the line from which Christophe Lafaille was forced to descend alone, with no rope, after his partner fell to his death in 1992. Steck began up the same route—solo— only to be struck on the head by falling rock. Knocked unconscious, he fell some 200 meters, landing on a sloping snowfi eld. Miraculously, he survived.

One year later, Steck returned with Anthamatten to mount another attempt. This bid ended when the pair abandoned their climb to rescue a party in trouble high on the mountain’s east ridge. Two climbers were saved, but the Basque climber Iñaki Ochoa de Olza died despite Steck’s 20-hour attempt to nurse and revive him at the team’s 7,400-meter camp. “I’m done with Annapurna,” Steck tells me toward the end of my interview, saying the mountain “gives me a funny feeling.” He evades the “What’s next?” question during our interview, but the answer is obvious to anyone who has studied his trajectory: major sprints on the highest peaks in the world—the types of ascents that will take the sport to the next level. Steck has refined his training routines, honed his speed-climbing skills on his backyard mountain, and onsighted a row of daunting faces. As this article went to press in late March, he was on his way to base camp for his next target: a new route on the south face of Shishapangma.

Though, at 8,013 meters, Shishapangma is the lowest of the world’s 8,000ers, it was the last to be climbed. Like Annapurna, it has a daunting south face, some 2,500 meters tall. Steck’s goal is an untouched and continuously steep pillar that leads directly to the summit. And though he had planned to attempt this route with a superstar of Himalayan climbing, Simone Moro, the Italian had to cancel his plans after completing the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II in early February. At press time, it was unclear if Steck would be climbing alone or with a partner.

Either way, climbing fast and light over unexplored, technically challenging, objectively dangerous terrain in the Himalaya is at the riskiest outer edge of alpinism. Steck acknowledges the danger, but he believes his speed and fitness give him an edge that others have lacked. After all, it’s what he’s trained to do.

Martin Gutmann, too, gazes at the Eiger during his morning runs, but manages to keep his dreams modest.

 

Train Like Ueli

Whether it’s free-climbing El Cap or sprinting up Alpine north faces, Ueli Steck credits all his success to his training. He follows a state-of-the-art, scientific program... but what exactly that program is, he doesn’t want you to know. “There are some secrets in life,” he emailed in his best Swiss English. “I don’t talk about the mental training and all details.” All our editorial sleuthing and cajoling didn’t produce many details beyond the following sample entries from Steck’s training calendar, which cover weeks in which he was training for four kinds of fitness: Alpine endurance, the Himalaya, general endurance, and Yosemite climbing.


Considering he climbs 5.14, Steck does only a modest amount of gym or rock training: a couple of four-hour sessions per week plus climbing with his wife on his “rest days.” He’s quite serious about the mental aspect, logging about three hours per week of autogenic training (Google it), including both relaxation and concentration exercises. His runs—usually involving massive climbs in the mountains around his home near Interlaken, Switzerland—are meticulously calibrated with a heart-rate monitor and stopwatch, details he did not share beyond cryptic notes about “intensity.” So, without giving away too many secrets, here’s how Ueli trains.

FOCUS: ALPINE ENDURANCE (PRE-EIGER RECORD)

MONDAY
1 hour running–Intensity 2 / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour stabilization (core) training / slideshow

TUESDAY
2 hours running–Intensity 2 / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour mental training / slideshow

WEDNESDAY
4 hours climbing in the gym / 2 hours running–Intensity 1 / 1/2 hour stretching / slideshow

THURSDAY
4 hours climbing in the gym / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour mental training / slideshow

FRIDAY
1.5 hours running–Intensity 1 / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour mental training / slideshow

SATURDAY
3.5 hours running–Intensity 4 / 1 hour stretching / slideshow

SUNDAY (REST DAY)
Climbing with my wife 4 hours / 1 hour stretching

FOCUS: YOSEMITE CLIMBING (2010, WEEK 17)

MONDAY
Run: 12 kilometers/1,000 meters gain–Intensity 2

TUESDAY
Climbing outdoors: 3 pitches of 5.13d, 2 of 5.13a, 1 of 5.11d / 1 hour weight training / 1 hour stretching

WEDNESDAY
Climbing outdoors: 4 pitches of 5.14a, 2 of 5.13a / Run: easy 12 kilometers/800 meters gain–Intensity 1

THURSDAY
Run: Eiger Lauper Route, running and climbing from Grindelwald, 20 kilometers/3,075 meters gain–Intensity 3

FRIDAY (REST DAY)

SATURDAY
Climbing in the gym: 4 pitches of 5.13b, 3 of 5.12d, 5 of 5.12b, 6 of 5.11d / 1 hour weight training / 1 hour stretching

SUNDAY
Run: 18 kilometers/1,700 meters gain–Intensity 2

FOCUS: GENERAL ENDURANCE (2010, WEEK 33)

MONDAY (REST DAY)

TUESDAY
3-run series, total 27 kilometers/ 5,100 meters gain–Intensity 3 / 1 hour stretching

WEDNESDAY
Climbing gym: 3 pitches of 5.13b, 4 of 5.13a, 6 of 5.12c, 4 of 5.11d / 1 hour stretching

THURSDAY
Climbing gym: 3 pitches 5.13b, 5 of 5.13a, 6 of 5.12b, 6 of 5.11d / 1 hour stretching

FRIDAY
3-run series, total 27 kilometers/ 5,100 meters gain–Intensity 3 / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour mental training

SATURDAY
Climbing outdoors: 2 pitches 5.13d, 1 of 5.12c, 3 of 5.11d

SUNDAY (REST DAY)
Drive to Dolomites

FOCUS: HIMALAYA (2011, WEEK 2)

MONDAY
1 hour running–Intensity 2 / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour stabilization training / slideshow

TUESDAY
2 hours running—Intensity 2 / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour mental training / slideshow

WEDNESDAY
4 hours climbing in the gym / 2 hours running–Intensity 1 / 1/2 hour stretching / slideshow

THURSDAY
4 hours climbing in the gym / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour mental training / slideshow

FRIDAY (REST DAY)
1.5 hours running–Intensity 1 / 1 hour stretching / 1 hour mental training / slideshow

SATURDAY
3.5 hours running–Intensity 4 / 1 hour stretching / slideshow

SUNDAY (REST DAY)
Climbing with my wife 4 hours / 1 hour stretching

 



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