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10/13/13 – This story has been updated with many new details. Read the new account here.
10/10/13 – “Summit, alone, South Face.” Ueli Steck sent this text message from 8,091-meter Annapurna in Nepal at about 2 a.m. local time this morning. Nothing more is known yet about Steck’s climb. But those four words express a landmark ascent in Himalayan climbing.
After two previous attempts, in 2007 and 2008, Steck has succeeded in soloing the 2,500-meter (8,200-foot) south face of Annapurna, one of the biggest, steepest, and most historic Himalayan wallls. The Swiss climber was joined by Canadian Don Bowie for acclimatization trips up the face, and they climbed together to at least 6,100 meters.
The solo ascent and Steck’s text were first reported at Planet Mountain. British climber Jon Griffith, a close friend of Steck’s, confirmed the ascent after contacting Steck’s base camp today. No more is known at this point about Steck’s line of ascent, time on the face, or descent route.
Steck has tried the south face twice before. In 2007, his attempt ended when he was hit by rockfall low on the face and fell about 1,000 feet to the foot of the wall. In 2008, he and Simon Anthamatten abandoned their attempt on the route in a bid to save the life of Spanish climber Iñaki Ochoa de Olza, elsewhere on the mountain. Both of these attempts were in the spring pre-monsoon season, and Steck hoped that the colder, drier post-monsoon season might provide better conditions on the face.
The south face of Annapurna was first climbed in 1970 by a mostly British expedition, using big-wall tactics to overcome previously unheard-of difficulties on a Hiamalyan 8,000-meter peak. Since then, at least three other routes have been completed on the main south face, as well as several routes to the summit of Roc Noir, a subsidiary peak on the far right side of the face.
In 1992, French climbers Pierre Beghin and Jean-Christophe Lafaille nearly completed an independent route, but Beghin fell to his death and Lafaille was forced to downclimb much of the wall alone, one of the great epics of Himalayan climbing history. This was the line Steck was attempting in 2007 when he fell off. That same year, the Slovenian climber Tomaz Humar soloed a route up Roc Noir and continued up the east ridge to Annapurna East (8,047m). But until now no one had soloed a route on the main south face.