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Speed Soloing Is Climbing’s Deadliest Game—It Has One Living Player

Dani Arnold, the fastest alpinist still alive, and his high-stakes quest to smash speed-soloing records.


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Dani Arnold wasn’t quite what I had expected. I first met him in 2012 not long after he had sprinted up the North Face of the Eiger, smashing Ueli Steck’s 2008 record. Arnold and Steck were at the time playing what might have been the world’s most dangerous game—speed-soloing big alpine faces—and that there were only two participants, and now just one, is telling.

Arnold was not the sharply precise athlete I’d assumed from the photographs I’d seen; he was more like an energetic bear. For a while he sat at the table in his neat kitchen in Bürglen, Switzerland, answering my questions, but it soon became obvious that he didn’t really do chairs. He sprung up and marched around the room, fixing coffee and expressing himself with expansive good humor, arms in motion for emphasis, a little manic perhaps, almost uneasy.

There were, I thought, a couple of explanations for that. While Arnold was hardly unknown in 2011 before he broke Steck’s Eiger record by shaving off 19 minutes for a time of 2:28, his reputation had barely extended beyond the elite of German-speaking alpinism. His Eiger climb changed all that overnight. In the eyes of the public, here was a brash newcomer, come to steal the crown of an established star, Ueli Steck. During our visit, Arnold was still adjusting to the attention celebrity brings, complaining how his life had filled with business meetings.

Arnold in 2015 about to set the speed record for the Schmid route on the North Face of the Matterhorn. He would climb the wall in one hour 46 minutes, besting Ueli Steck’s time by 10 minutes. Photo: visualimpact.ch/Christian Gisi/mammut

The second reason was a little more awkward. During his Eiger ascent Arnold had clipped into the fixed rope on the infamous Hinterstoisser Traverse, a steep rock slab, and had used the rope to assist him across one of the route’s trickier bits. Aiding on the rope had drawn criticism from some of his peers, not least Steck, who had free-soloed this section during his speed-record ascent. Steck, however, had found deep snow plastered on the Hinterstoisser and he’d been able to kick steps across it, while Arnold encountered bare rock.

“You cannot compare my time with Dani’s, not at all,” Steck told me after Arnold’s climb. “If you run a hundred meters, if there is too much wind from behind, a record doesn’t count. A mountain is always different. I climbed the Hinterstoisser free; [Arnold] didn’t. I waited until the whole face was covered in snow; he didn’t .… ”

Having travelled across Europe to get an interview with Arnold, I didn’t want to ask about whether his Eiger time counted and have him kick me out before I got the story. Yet the Hinterstoisser hung around the kitchen like a bad smell until I finally mentioned it. Arnold moved uncomfortably in his chair. Up until that point, he’d struck me as good-natured, ebullient even, but not particularly reflective or thoughtful. Given the deeply serious alpine-speed-soloing game he was playing, where death was just one crampon skip away, that made me a little anxious for him. The conversation that followed changed my view.

“There was no chance to do [the Hinterstoisser] free,” he said. “In the conditions Ueli had—it’s not hard. But for me it was too dangerous.”

“Did it make you faster?”

“Of course, but it’s 30 meters or 40 meters [out of 1,500 meters of climbing]. I know it makes me faster, but only by three or four minutes.”

What surprised me a little was that soon after getting down from the Eiger, Arnold had called Steck to give him the news. Arnold said that it was important that Steck “was the first person I called.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He wasn’t happy. Of course, if you hear something like this then you won’t be. But I didn’t want him to read about it in the media first. You know, the media is forcing this competition. It’s a good story. But we’re climbers together, and it can get really dangerous, this competition. It can be a vicious circle.”

In 2013, Arnold and David Lama raced up the 5,000-foot headwall on Moose’s Tooth in Alaska in just 48 hours with one bivy, producing Bird of Prey (5.10a M7+ 90° A2)—some of the difficult 60-meter pitches were devoid of pro. Photo: David Lama/Mammut

Driving back to the airport after the interview, I wondered about that. Had Arnold really not considered what the media might do with his new record? And what would he do next? There’s an expectation when climbers achieve something startling that they do something even bigger soon afterwards. When Reinhold Messner made the first oxygenless ascent of Everest in 1978 with Peter Habeler, he returned and made the first solo of the peak, and after that raised the bar again by becoming the first person to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks.

Had Arnold been drawn deeply into that same vortex? Balancing a burgeoning career against self-preservation isn’t easy; it takes a shrewd understanding of your own limitations and a clear view of what you’re in it for. Public attention and interest from sponsors can unbalance that equation. At one point, Arnold said he’d go back on the Eiger—“If someone does it faster, or if people are criticizing me.” I wondered if he really understood what he was getting into, or if he simply knew the right words to say.

Last year I was back in Arnold’s kitchen, where he was still prowling around, fixing more coffee, pushing biscuits under my nose and being expansive. He was about to turn 36; there were more lines around his eyes and a soul patch under his lip, but he otherwise seemed pretty much as I had left him. The kitchen was just as tidy as it had been eight years earlier. Bürglen is famous as the birthplace of William Tell, a legendary figure in the foundation of Switzerland’s supremely well-organized federation, a freedom-loving rebel who was handy with a crossbow and strong in the mountains. The little town is full of Arnolds, more than 200 of them, and although it’s on the periphery of Swiss alpinism, it’s only half an hour’s drive to the granite peaks of Salbitschijen.

One Arnold I didn’t meet that day was Dani’s wife, Denise, who was teaching in the village school. The daughter of a mountain guide, she is, says Arnold, a “calm woman who gives me strength”; he credits her with giving him the motivation to develop his communication skills, quite something given his antipathy for sitting still. “I was always lucky in having the right people to teach me the important things,” he says. Denise is also a capable climber, and they’ve done a great deal together. “She loves the mountains as much as I do,” says Arnold.

I sensed that Denise had been Arnold’s anchor during his early years as a guide, when he was still establishing himself. During our first meeting, in 2012, Ueli Steck had been at the height of his fame, making as much for a lecture about the Eiger as Arnold was for guiding it. Now Steck was gone, killed while soloing on Nuptse in 2017. “The public [is] more aware of climbing now,” Arnold says wryly, “and this is part of Ueli’s influence. He did a good job for me. I could take advantage of that.”

In 2015, Steck took back his Eiger record, beating Arnold’s time of 2:28 by six minutes. Steck did this despite having claimed he was done with Eiger records. “I got a really good offer to beat [my own] time from a television station,” he’d told me, without revealing exactly how much.

Everyone is entitled to change their minds, and I can only speculate why Steck changed his. Arnold insists he’s done with Eiger speed ascents, too. “No, it’s over,” he told me. “Partly out of respect for Ueli. He’s not here now. But being focused all the time on being the fastest? You know, the young generation [is] coming. I don’t want to be hung up on it. There are too many other things to do.”

Standing on his porch, Arnold looked up toward the mountains, now sunk in clouds heavy with snow, to where a small gondola disappeared into the white murk. It’s the gondola he used to ride to school in winter when the roads became impassable, dropping quietly from his childhood home in the hamlet of Biel ob Bürglen at 1,700 meters to Bürglen where he now lives, a town far removed from the famous climbing centers of Zermatt and Grindelwald.

The North Face of the Cima Grande, centerpiece of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, in the Italian Dolomites, with the Comici (5.11c), free-soloed in just 46 minutes 30 seconds by Arnold in 2019—another record. Photo: Dani Arnold Collection

Arnold’s father, Fredy, is a gamekeeper, out in all weathers keeping an eye on the deer population for local hunters. “He likes green,” Arnold says. “He doesn’t like ice and rock. He wants to be in the forest.” Fredy’s wife, Monika, looked after their three boys—Dani, the eldest, and Mario and Matthias—as they grew. Dani recalls an idyllic childhood spent outdoors building dens in the forest or helping out friends living on farms in nearby Älpeli, cutting hay and making cheese. “As a teenager, it was great to be always on the go, learning new things, discovering new areas. Back then everything just happened that way, but I have the feeling that I appreciated it far too little,” he says.

Like many Swiss children, Dani learned to ski early, but his passion for climbing took longer. He tried rock climbing as a young teenager with the national Jugend und Sport program, but he couldn’t yet connect it with the deep love of the mountains that his childhood had engendered. That restless enthusiasm didn’t yet encompass the more technical aspects of climbing. Fredy and Monika weren’t enthusiastic about their sons climbing, but as Dani’s passion for climbing mountains grew, Fredy got in touch with an old guiding friend to make sure his sons were properly trained.

The Cima Grande Solo

If I’d wondered whether Arnold would keep pushing the speed-solo game, I got an answer in September 2019 when he free-soloed Emilio Comici’s 1933 route on the Cima Grande, the most famous climb in the Dolomites, powering up 1,500 feet of vertical limestone in just 46:30, bettering the previous record of 1:05 claimed by Steck in 2010, an ascent Arnold is clearly skeptical about. When the Swiss newspaper Le Temps asked Arnold whether taking on Steck’s record was a way of keeping their rivalry alive following his compatriot’s untimely death, Arnold slipped past the question: “Ueli’s ascent was very poorly documented, which is why we haven’t talked much about it. As for any competition, in my opinion, it never really existed. Ueli Steck was first and foremost a role model. I didn’t see him as a competitor. Neither did he, I think.”

But with me, Arnold is more direct. “I always had this one hour five minutes from Ueli. I’m sure it’s not true,” he says. It’s hard to make out the truth a dcade after the fact, partly because the Comici never featured much in Steck’s career narrative. The route is split in two halves, with the difficult climbing, from low-down to the end of the ninth pitch, sustained at around 5.11. A French team that Steck passed above the route’s hard pitches put a short clip on YouTube that offers a few clues. You see Steck a little uncertain of the route, and there’s a good-natured back-and-forth with the climber holding the camera before Steck disappears around an arête. Steck is carrying some rope and a few carabiners, with his approach shoes hanging off his harness. The Frenchman pans down to reveal the dizzying gulf at his feet, then back to the ropeless Steck, a perspective that makes your stomach flip. When he admires Steck’s couilles, his cojones, you can only agree. But like so much in Steck’s life, the footage is only a glimpse of something, and someone, that remains elusive.

Arnold soloed the Comici, and then re-climbed sections of it for the cameras, an experience he found unnerving. The pitch in the photo is about 5.10c. “It’s the last pitch of this slightly overhanging terrain,” says Arnold. “Very exposed, and I saw directly down between my feet in the stonefield.” Photo: Franz Hinerbrandner

The contrast with Dani Arnold’s climb couldn’t be starker. In addition to Arnold’s GPS watch, which tracked his progress, a camera was fixed at the foot of the route to take a photo every five seconds. “It’s important,” he says, “because such a record is easily questioned. Everyone’s first instinct is to consider the success of such a challenge as suspect.” He doesn’t have to add why. A drone operator filmed the actual solo, and then Arnold did the route again, mostly solo, for a film crew—for media and sponsors. “When I started as a pro,” he says, “I never told anyone when I was about to do something, and afterwards they’d say to me, ‘Please, next time, tell us a bit beforehand. That would help.’ I was lucky on the Eiger North Face because I didn’t have good proof. But now whenever I do something I have two or three ways of proving what I’m claiming. Those days of just saying, ‘Hey, I did this,’ are over.”

While spontaneity is a hallmark of Arnold’s character, for the purposes of his career he’s learned to temper it. The Cima Grande solo involved so much more than the climb itself. “It was important not to have too many people around,” he says on his Bürglen porch, “people on ropes nearby filming. I don’t like it.” So when he finally committed to the project, he knew he would not only have to climb the route beforehand a couple of times to learn it, he’d have to do it again afterward, mostly ropeless, for the film crew, with the added psychological pressure of clipping into and off the rope as directed. “That changes your head completely,” he says, “and that’s super-bad.” The resulting film, which captures the Cima Grande’s jaw-dropping exposure, cuts between drone footage of the actual solo and Arnold’s repeat for the cameras, but he’s open about how all that was done.

Unlike Steck, Arnold took nothing but his chalk bag and a helmet. (“I know, it seems absurd. If you fall, you don’t need the helmet, but there’s the risk of small rocks [falling] from above.”) There were climbers on the route, so Arnold waited until they had cleared the hard initial pitches so he wouldn’t have to go around them on untraveled rock, a harrowing prospect on the Cima Grande’s famously loose limestone. He did overtake a Scottish ropeteam higher up who held up a phone camera as he fired past. (“Those Scottish guys, so funny,” says Arnold. “They were so nice. I asked them, ‘Please don’t use this footage,’ and they didn’t. They sent me pictures afterwards.”)

This encounter sticks in his memory, but the route itself made little impression against the imposing wall of concentration he had constructed for the three-quarters of an hour he was climbing. Maintaining that concentration was, he says, a “matter of rhythm,” his movements balanced against his breathing. As he told Le Temps, “I put myself in a particular state [of mind] that I have learned to recognize and work with from years of experience. I know now the ideal pace for my body to align itself.” Experience, he often says, is his life insurance. By the time he got on the wall, his previous experience on the route let him mentally fix the pace he’d need to achieve a sub-one-hour ascent. How he arrived at that benchmark is revealing. Although Arnold remains skeptical about Steck’s record, he was determined “to be faster than this one hour five minutes, otherwise I won’t tell anyone.”

The Schmid route, North Face of the Matterhorn, which Arnold climbed in 1:46 in 2015.Photo: Rainer Eder

As it happened, he crushed that particular target, but he was surprised at the split times for the more technical lower pitches and the easier upper portion. Says Arnold, “It was super-interesting to study the [time] graph because they’re pretty equal. I was a bit faster on the upper section, but not that much. One thing I learned from the Eiger is that Ueli Steck and Kilian Jornet are strong endurance guys, who run super fast. They are fast on snowfields and easier terrain, but they lose time in my opinion on the technical stuff. I’m the opposite. I don’t train endurance. I don’t run. But I wouldn’t say I lost time in the upper part; I would say that I was fast on the technical part.”

It was a good thing he had smashed Steck’s benchmark because when news broke of his formidably quick time, Arnold discovered that the South Tyrolean veteran Christoph Hainz had claimed a time of 48 minutes in 2014. “I called him,” Arnold says, “but he told me he [stopped his time] on the Ringband [the terrace below the summit],” then he added, a little testily, “This was not written in the articles.” Hainz reckoned it would have taken him another six to 10 minutes to reach the summit from the Ringband, giving him an overall time of 54 to 58 minutes. In the film of his ascent, Arnold is seen running along the terrace, before completing the final section of climbing to the top in eight minutes 30 seconds. It’s fair to say the record is soundly Arnold’s.

At 6b+/5.11c and made of the sort of fractured rock that you worry might let you down, the Comici is an impressive solo. Dead vertical most of the way, and at times overhanging, and with that yawning gulf chipping at your self-control, the route is what the French call engagé: It demands things of you. And that’s before you cast off the rope. Add in the complexities of climbing on average 8.5 minutes per 300 feet, while remaining in control and focused on each hold, and Arnold’s achievement grows in dimension.

Arnold onsight-soloing Beta Blocker Super, a 1,000-foot WI 7 on the Breitwangfluh above Kanderstag, Switzerland, on Christmas Eve, 2017. He raced up the line in a jaw-dropping 63 minutes. Photo: Valentin Luthiger/Mammut

The North Faces

Glance at the history of the outlandish, wildly steep, and wholly compelling Tre Cime di Lavaredo—the Cima Grande and its companion peaks the Cima Picolla and Cima Ovest—and you’ll quickly find ascents on par with or even greater than Arnold’s. There’s Emilio Comici’s solo of his own masterpiece in 1937, four years after the first ascent, in an astonishing three hours 45 minutes, widely regarded as the greatest solo before WWII—although, given that Comici pulled on pegs, not wholly comparable. Or the Belgian Claude Barbier—“il divino Claudio” as Italian climbers called him—who one sunny August day in 1961 climbed five classic routes on the Tre Cime massif: Cassin’s route on the Cima Ovest, the Comici, the Preuss route on Cima Piccolissima, the Dülfer on Punta di Frida, and finally the Innerkofler on Cima Piccola, in total around a vertical mile of ascent in eight hours 40 minutes.

Most startling of all, though, was Alex Huber’s famous solo of the Cima Grande’s Brandler-Hasse in 2002, 18 pitches long, with crux pitches in the middle of 7a/5.11d and 7a+/5.12a. If the footage of Arnold soloing the Comici is bracing, then that of Huber on that vast, overhanging wall is almost unwatchable.

Arnold hadn't done the Carlesso's 5.12 crux free before his solo—during a. previous roped ascent, afraid he'd fall, he had used a point of aid.

For Arnold, the Comici was all about speed. “Ach, I’m not a good rock climber,” he said in Bürglen, waving a hand dismissively. “But I wanted to do a hard rock climb fast.” He was being a little disingenuous. Among the highlights of his career is his solo of the Carlesso on the south face of Torre Trieste, part of the Civetta group east of the Tre Cime. The Carlesso is 25 pitches, even longer than the Brandler-Hasse, and though first climbed in 1934 by Raffaele Carlesso and Bortolo Sandri, the route has some seriously steep ground and a notorious slab pitch at two-thirds height that goes free at 7a+/5.12a. For most parties the Carlesso is a long day with an irksome descent that sees many benighted. As a solo, it’s staggering. What’s even more remarkable is that Arnold hadn’t done the crux free before his solo—during previous roped ascents, the first with his wife, Denise, he hadn’t trusted the gear to hold a fall and preferred to use a point of aid rather than risk slipping off. “I’m not sure I would do this again,” he wrote afterwards on his essentially onsight solo of the 5.12 crux. “I must have had incredible confidence that day.”

Although Alex Huber and other cognescenti of the Dolomites understood what Arnold had done, it didn’t cut through to the mainstream. A lot more climbers have been on the Comici, or thought seriously of climbing it; many more mountain lovers know of it and the route’s famous history. And it is, of course, one of the classic six north faces made famous by Gaston Rébuffat’s classic book Starlight and Storms. The Comici is the fourth speed record Arnold currently holds on those six faces. In 2015, he broke another Steck record, climbing the Matterhorn’s Schmid route in one hour 46 minutes. In 2016, the year of the Carlesso, he also zoomed up the 2,400-foot Cassin route on the Piz Badile in 52 minutes. In 2018, he added the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses in a blistering two hours four minutes. Toss in his earlier Eiger climb, and Arnold has at some point held the record on five of the six famous North Faces.

When you examine Arnold’s astonishing achievements and the media coverage they’ve inspired, it seems inarguable that he modelled his career on that of Steck. But when I put that to him, Arnold quietly demurred. “No,” he said, without a trace of annoyance, “not really. I can accept that people think this. [We soloed] the same routes. But if you look a bit deeper in my climbing career, the things that really matter to me are good achievements. I don’t go completely in this direction of speed.”

On the second ascent, in 2016, of Dave MacLeod’s desperate mixed route Anubis (Scottish winter XII), Ben Nevis, Scotland. This was the first route to receive the grade, and even today there are only two routes rated XII. Protection is all natural gear. Making the redpoint on his fourth attempt, Arnold climbed Anubis without fanfare—his ascent largely went unnoticed. “Dani’s ascent was truly extraordinary,” says Simon Richardson, the leading commentator on Scottish winter climbing. “It’s a shame we were not aware of it at the time to give it the attention it deserved.” Photo: Menk Rufibach/Mammut

Dani Arnold’s early success came not as an alpinist, but as a giant-slalom snowboarder. By his early twenties he was on the national squad and competing for one of two places on the team for the Turin Olympics, in 2006, but missed out. (Switzerland won three of six gold medals, the others being scooped by the United States.) “That was a good reason to stop,” he says. “By then I was more interested in going to the mountains. I was in a good position, but I wouldn’t have stayed in snowboarding. The worst thing was summer training on the glacier. I didn’t like being on snow in the summer. I liked that I could climb all the time and, of course, you’re not in a team. I prefer having my own challenges. In climbing, I can make my own decisions, take responsibility for myself.”

As a climber, he first made his mark in early January 2009 with onsights of the hard mixed routes Flying Circus and Mach 3, M10 and M9+, respectively, both the work of the German alpinist Robert Jasper; a few days later, Arnold ticked the spectacular M10 Come on Baby in Brunnital, just up the road from Bürglen. That autumn he was climbing in Sichuan, China, and the following August made the first winter ascent of Torre Egger, in Patagonia, a 22-hour push to the summit ice mushroom followed by a miserable bivouac in bitter temperatures. Arnold’s partners in Patagonia were the German climber and photographer Thomas Senf and fellow Swiss climber Stephan Siegrist, 12 years older than Arnold and well known to the Swiss public for his role in an epic television special on the North Face of the Eiger in 1999. Siegrist had also teamed up with Ueli Steck to make a nine-hour roped ascent of the Eiger in 2004, as part of a longer enchainment. Siegrist was a fully fledged professional mountaineer and, as Arnold put it, “I was not that far behind him,” when they climbed Torre Egger.

After school, Arnold had trained as a mechanic and in parallel as a mountain guide. He was working as a mechanic when he went to Torre Egger. “There was never a plan to live from mountaineering,” he says. “It was just that one thing led to another.”

Arnold's 27-minute solo of a 1,000-foot WI 6 was so over the top that planetmountain.com hardly knew how to report the climb.

After Torre Egger, however, as Arnold moved through his mid-20s, he began getting serious about climbing. “You have to take proper decisions at some point,” he says. “You have to do something for your future, your direction.” The Eiger, that public arena of the extreme, seemed the obvious place to start. Arnold had already made a lightning-fast roped ascent of the Heckmair route in 2008. Then, on February 13 of that year, Steck shattered his own Eiger solo record by climbing it in two hours 48 minutes, and the team roped record also fell, first to the Swiss pair of Simon Anthamatten and Roger Schäli in six hours 50 minutes, then to Arnold and Stephan Schuoss, a fellow guide also from Uri, who clipped 40 minutes off that time. But could Arnold solo it faster than Steck?

Learning to Be a Pro

In retrospect, one can see Arnold has the shatterproof focus and remorseless pace required for this kind of work. But there was nothing inevitable about it. In some ways, he is remarkably unfocused. He himself admits he has a short attention span, and his rage for life has at times, you sense, gotten in the way of a properly formulated plan.

The first intimation that he could handle the pressure of speed-soloing came on the west ridge of the Salbitschjen, a granite peak up-valley from his home. To those who know it, the west ridge is one of the Alps’ finest outings, 35 pitches or so at 5.9 on peerless granite. Crossing its towers requires a lot of rappelling, and any ropeteam coming in under 10 hours is doing well. Arnold raced along it, rigging the rappels as he went, in one hour 36 minutes. “Only looking back,” he says, “did I understand that it was important to do the Salbit before the Eiger North Face because most people had never heard of me and questioned my performance on the Eiger.”

Unlike Steck, who had a rigorous training program, Arnold is not hugely attentive to working out. (“Of course, I train,” he says, as though training were some necessary chore. “But I never had a plan. I never think about what I eat. If I’m rock climbing, I try to lose a bit of weight. But mixed and ice climbing,” he says with a shrug, “I don’t have to train that much to be fast.”) It’s only with a project in mind, especially a rock-climbing project, that he’ll hit the gym.

For his 2011 race up the Eiger, he prepared his mind, visualizing each section of difficult climbing and how he would approach it. He acknowledges the anxieties he struggled with before embarking, and how he had gone up to Kleine Scheidegg with his gear a few months earlier and then turned around because he didn’t feel right. Two weeks before his solo, he had guided the route and knew what kind of condition it was in. Once he committed to the solo, though, he discovered he could push everything to one side and retain a vice-like grip on the job at hand. (He views this ability as “an innate or genetic gift.”) The face was busy with climbers, and while that may have given him some sense of security, it also required him to climb around the parties. High on the face he met his fellow guide Simon Anthamatten with a client. “We didn’t stop to chat. We said hello and shook hands then I went on,” says Arnold.

Arnold’s relative obscurity at the time gave free license to those critics who spotted the flaws in his masterpiece, such as the use of the fixed rope on the Hinterstoisser. Arnold, meanwhile, acknowledges there was something haphazard about his solo. He hadn’t looked at his watch until he got to the top so was surprised at how fast he’d climbed: “It was the first time I’d done something like that, and it was more or less luck that I knocked 20 minutes off the record.”

Despite its imperfections, that Eiger climb changed a great deal for Arnold. “I stopped working as a mechanic and turned my hobby into a profession,” he says. Yet there was still much to learn, and for the next few years he continued on his freewheeling way: With David Lama he climbed a hard new direct line on the East Face of Moose’s Tooth in the early season of 2013, and that August joined Stephan Siegrist again in Patagonia, with Thomas Huber and Matias Villavicencio, to make a rare winter ascent of Cerro Torre. Early the following year he soloed—in just 27 minutes—the stupendous 1,000-foot WI 6 Crack Baby on the Breitwangfluh in Switzerland, first climbed in 1993 by Xavier Bongard and Michael Gruber. Arnold’s Crack Baby solo was so over the top that the website Planetmountain hardly knew how to report the climb, sitting on the news for a while because, as they wrote, “We didn’t know, and perhaps even now still don’t know, what this solo … really means. For Arnold, and for anyone else.”

Arnold’s ascents did earn him the respect of his peers, but they were not the types of climbs to resonate with the wider public. Arnold began to realize that to maintain the momentum he’d earned on the Eiger, he’d have to pay more attention to the professional bit of being a pro climber. For inspiration, he says, he looked to Alex Huber. Says Arnold, “For a long period in my professional climbing life, I had some projects, but was never super-focused. I thought I could live a normal life and just go for a big thing occasionally. Then I realized that for a project, [Huber] is planning for two months. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s crazy, I couldn’t do anything for two months. I have to work. I have to do other things.’ So I found a ‘middle way’. ”

His solution was to offer his sponsors an eye-catching event at regular intervals, on a prominent objective, while getting on with his life in between.

His solution was to offer his sponsors an eye-catching event at regular intervals, on a prominent objective, while getting on with his life in between. He’s proved remarkably good at this, learning his lessons from the Eiger and being thorough in his preparations, both for the route and its media impact. He tells me at length about his preparation for the Grandes Jorasses, how he timed the climb so that none of the nine other teams on the Walker Spur would be on the route’s crux 200-foot crack as he came through because “then my ascent is over. I can’t pass them.” Arnold is also open about how the film of his ascent was constructed—for instance, how he reached the summit before a helicopter arrived to take planned aerial shots, and so had to downclimb the top two pitches before climbing back up for the cameras.

It’s fair to say he takes all this seriously and not at all seriously. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” he says. “But it’s not all about times and difficulties. It’s also about how you live the sport. I still work as a mountain guide. I don’t have to do it in terms of money. I just love to be outside. I love to be with different people in the mountains. I never thought about how much better I could be if I quit guiding and trained the whole time.”

The Two Percent

Arnold takes pride in his speed ascents and is happy to acknowledge that he likes being recognized. He’s not averse to media-friendly stunts, like being filmed at dinner, to cut with footage of him racing up the Eiger. But he is clear-eyed about what climbing means to him and where his heart lies. “You’re on television, in the media, 98 percent of your audience aren’t climbers. You can tell them what you want. Two percent know what these things mean. The money is with the 98 percent, but the two per cent is much more important. They are the ones who understand the details of your ascent. If these people think you are doing good stuff, then you win.” Then, he adds quietly, “I think Ueli forgot about the two per cent.”

While he clearly takes satisfaction in his speed ascents, the pure pleasure comes more from ascents that don't resonate with the public.

So where does Dani Arnold find his self-respect? While he clearly takes satisfaction in his speed ascents, the pure pleasure comes more from ascents that don’t resonate with the public: the direct up the Zmutt Nose, a first ascent on the Matterhorn that he climbed with Thomas Senf and Alex Huber in 2017 (“All those guys from Zermatt, they fly in helicopters all the time past that route, and it’s so funny because we’re the ones who did it.”); another direttissima on the northeast face of the Gross Günhorn, Exile on Main Street, a major new line that’s both difficult at M7/6b+ and in a part of the Bernese Oberland many assumed was climbed out long ago. But the route he mentions most often in interviews is the second ascent of the desperately difficult mixed route Anubis on Ben Nevis, Dave MacLeod’s summer E8 rock route that MacLeod then climbed in winter 2010 to give the first Scottish winter XII. (There are still only two of them.) Regarded as way ahead of its time, the route is ferociously steep and all on trad gear. Arnold travelled twice to Scotland, in January and March 2016, getting the redpoint on his fourth attempt.

Simon Richardson, the leading commentator on Scottish winter climbing, believes Arnold didn’t get proper credit for his repeat. Arnold had flown in and out before anyone realized what he’d done, and when the news did filter back, the online British climbing media couldn’t get access to images of Arnold’s climb. “I think Dani’s ascent was truly extraordinary,” Richardson says. “It’s a shame we were not aware of it at the time to give it the attention it deserved.”

That question of what to do next doesn’t get any easier for Arnold as time passes. The future preoccupies him as we talk, especially when we discuss the younger climbers now coming through. (“They will be so much fitter than me,” he says.) He mentions a former climbing partner, now in his 40s, struggling to stay relevant to his sponsors, each project a little more forced than the last. He’s also mindful of the friends he has lost in recent years, particularly David Lama and Hansjörg Auer, who perished with Jess Roskelly on Howse Peak in April 2019.

These and other losses have coincided with a growing sense that the time is now right for a family. Arnold makes clear the scale of Denise’s support in his wild ride of a climbing career and understands that if one phase of his life is ending, then another will take its place. “We would like to have kids,” he says. “Now would be cool. We’re ready. Life will change. That’s good. I’m ready for that. I’ve done enough.”

When I drove away from my first interview with Dani Arnold in 2012, I felt there was a strong chance it would be my last, because he would feel pressured into soloing bigger, more dangerous climbs, and that rarely ends well. Last year as I left his house, I felt much lighter. Of course, fate always has a trick up its sleeve.

As we stood on his porch watching the sky brew snow, we talked about the new health crisis fermenting across the border in Italy. Very soon our lives swerved in new directions, partly because of COVID-19, but in more personal ways, too. A long interruption through my own ill health meant my article was put on hold. When finally I was able to come back to it, I logged on to Instagram to see what astonishing new thing Dani Arnold had done. And the first photo I saw was a black-and-white image of three hands, a man’s, a woman’s—and a child’s.

Ed Douglas is a frequent contributor to Climbing, Rock and Ice, and The Guardian. His latest book is Himalaya: A Human History.