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According to The New York Times, the Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck, 40, known for his fast, bold, solo ascents in the Alps, Himalayas, and elsewhere, died on Sunday April 30 on Nuptse during an acclimatization run for the Lhotse Traverse, his goal for this trip to the Everest region. The pilot who extracted his body to ferry it to Kathmandu was quoted by the Times as saying it was “windy” on Sunday, the day Steck fell. Steck was known as “the Swiss Machine” for his superhumanly fast ascents of hard alpine climbs, including the 1938 route on the North Face of the Eiger in 2:22:50, in 2015.
“It’s kind of a natural game kind of like what we do in the Alps,” Steck said in his Everest-Lhotse Project video. Taking principles he refined on Europe’s tallest mountains—including his August 2016 5 hour, 30 minute ascent of Mont Blanc—to the Himalaya, Steck’s goal was, with his climbing partner Tenji Sherpa, to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen via the unrepeated Hornbein Colouir/West Ridge, descend from the Summit to the South Col, traverse over Lhotse’s summit, and then return to basecamp—the so-called Lhotse Traverse, all of which remains at or above 8,000 meters once past that milestone on Everest. Every part had been climbed once, but the linkup had never been completed. In February, Steck had trained extensively in the Khumbu Valley in preparation for the goal. He’d returned to the Everest region this time with Tenji Sherpa, with whom Steck summited Everest in 2012 without oxygen.
On Wednesday, a few days before he died, Steck posted an Instagram photo saying, “Good day yesterday from basecamp up to Lhotse Face and back. It’s just a nice place to play here. So much fun. Winds are still super strong. Tomorrow I might go for a run down the Valley.”
Steck was born in the town of Langnau im Emmental, near the Swiss capital of Bern, in October 1976, and began climbing when he was 12. He won the Piolet D’or, mountaineering’s highest honor, in 2009 and 2014, and was known, among his many accomplishments, for his speed solos of the North Face Trilogy (Eiger: 2:22:50, 2015; Matterhorn: 1:56, 2009; Grandes Jorasses: 2:21, 2008) as well as his speed solo of the south face of Shishapangma (8,027 meters), reaching the summit in only 10.5 hours for a 20-hour roundtrip. In 2013, Steck soloed the massive south face of Annapurna (8,091 meters) in a 28-hour roundtrip push, to make the first ascent of a line attempted but not completed in 1992 by Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Pierre Beghin, the latter of whom died in a fall at 7,100 meters when an anchor failed. Steck was also an accomplished rock climber, with the first ascent of the Eiger nordwand’s most difficult route, Pacienca (5.13b, 23 pitches), with Stefan Siegrist in 2008. In 2009, Steck fell only once on an onsight bid on the free big wall Golden Gate (VI 5.13b) on El Capitan: He slipped on the 5.11 crack off El Cap Spire while on his honeymoon with his wife, Nicole, because the crack was wet.
“I tried to find a nice picture from climbing last summer,” Alex Honnold wrote on an Instagram post, “but this is the best I had—his back, running downhill. Seems fitting for the fastest alpinist I’ve ever known.” In the spring of 2010, the pair attempted to break the speed record on the Nose of El Capitan, at the time held by Dean Potter and Sean Leary, but came up short.
Steck is survived by his wife, Nicole.