10/13/13 - Exciting details about Ueli Steck's incredible solo ascent of the 8,000-foot south face of Annapurna in Nepal are now available.
Steck soloed a new route on the face, completing the line attempted in 1992 by Pierre Beghin and Jean-Christophe Lafaille on the left side of the wall, between the 1970 British route and the 1981 Japanese route. The two French climbers had reached about 7,200 meters when Beghin fell and Lafaille had to down-climb the face with limited gear.
Steck summited 8,091-meter Annapurna in the middle of the night after one long day of climbing, and descended the same route via down-climbing and a few rappels. He returned to the foot of the wall just 28 hours after leaving.
The Swiss climber started up the route at 5:30 a.m. on October 8 with his plans a little up in the air. His Canadian partner, Don Bowie, had decided he wasn't up for the route that day, and Steck told Bowie, his friend Tenji Sherpa, and photographers Dan and Janie Patitucci and Jonah Matthewson that he might stop at Camp 1 at ca 6,100 meters to acclimatize. But the team sensed much more was on his mind. "I could see he was in a different mental place, more serious, focused to begin something so severe there are only a few on the planet who could even contemplate such a thing: to solo an 8,000-meter peak via a new line, with only a small pack, and without oxygen," Dan Patitucci wrote at his blog.
Steck picked up a stove and tent at Camp 1 and continued up to the base of the enormous rock band that girdles the middle of the wall, starting at around 7,000 meters. A rising wind was kicking up spindrift avalanches and obscuring visibility. In late afternoon, he put up his tent inside a crevasse about 100 meters below the headwall and decided to wait for better conditions. About an hour later, after sunset, the wind died and Steck continued climbing. According to an interview with Steck by Planet Mountain, he carried a 60m 6mm rope, a couple of ice screws and a handful of pitons, a V-threader, the tent and stove, a satellite phone, and a small assortment of food.
Steck followed runnels of ice and névé through stepped terrain on the crux headwall, allowing him to stay on route. He later told friend Jon Griffith that conditions were "one in a hundred years" on the face, making for quicker and more secure climbing than bare rock. Nonetheless, there were passages of thin ice and skiffs of snow over black ice, and Steck had to be constantly on his guard. While studying a photo of the face, he told Planet Mountain, a wave of spindrift hit him and he dropped one of his down mittens and his camera. He had to continue through the cold night wearing only gloves, alternating the warmer mitten on each hand. After topping the face, he continued to the summit after midnight, and then returned to the top of the route and began down-climbing.
At first light, Steck was spotted just below his crevasse bivouac under the headwall. At advanced base camp, Bowie received a message from Steck saying he'd stopped at the cave to eat some food and rehydrate after a "long night climbing." By midday he was back on the glacier with his friends.
"I didn't ask what grade," said Griffith, who spoke with Steck, still in Nepal, by phone on Sunday. "I think on a climb like that it misses the whole point to demote it to a question of grade. The difficulty with this sort of ascent is being 'on it' for 28 hours."
Steck, of course, is no stranger to hard and fast alpine soloing. In addition to setting speed records on the north faces of the Eiger, Matterhorn, and Grandes Jorasses, he soloed the south face of Shishapangma (8,013 meters) in just 10.5 hours in 2011.
But Annapurna was clearly a new level. From Pokhara, Nepal, Steck told Griffith: "I think I finally found my high-altitude limit. If I climb anything harder than that, I think I will kill myself. To climb something technical in a cool style like that is what I wanted to do."
Be sure to visit the Patitucci Photo blog for superb photos of Steck before and after the ascent.
Dates of ascent: October 8-9, 2013