After the ugly confrontation at Camp 2 on Mt. Everest last spring and the media onslaught that followed, Ueli Steck thought he might never go back to Nepal to climb. But the Swiss alpinist and speed soloist had already attempted Annapurna’s 8,000-foot south face twice before, and had nearly died on it in 2007. He had unfinished business.
Steck returned to Annapurna in the fall with Canadian Don Bowie. Their goal was to complete the line attempted by Pierre Béghin and Jean-Christophe Lafaille in 1992. Steck hadn’t planned to climb alone, but on October 8, as they launched up the wall, Bowie told his partner he didn’t have it in him to solo as much of the route as would be required. “It was a difficult moment for me,” Steck says. “I knew at that moment I just needed to leave, without too much talking and thinking.”
Steck thought he’d just probe farther up the wall for a couple of days, but he soon realized the face was in the “condition of the century.” The crux rock band above 23,000 feet was laced with runnels of perfect ice. Steck knew it was now or never.
What followed was one of the greatest climbs in Himalayan history. Alone, with the bare minimum of gear (see p. 75), and climbing mostly at night, Steck soloed to the top of the wall and on to Annapurna’s 26,545-foot summit. With only a single rope and a handful of pitons and ice screws, he could not rappel the enormous face—instead he had to exercise his seemingly supernatural skill and self-control to downclimb nearly the entire way. Twenty-eight hours after starting, he was back down safely.
As if to underscore what Steck had accomplished, two of France’s best alpinists started up essentially the same route on Annapurna a little more than a week later, and they took 10 days to complete the second ascent, narrowly escaping with their lives—one of them suffered severe frostbite. One later said the headwall Steck soloed had pitches as hard as M6. The ascent, he said, was “revolutionary.”
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Look for the full Golden Pitons feature story, including dozens more climbs and climbers, in our February issue (Climbing 322).