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Articles - “I need to suffer.” - The Climber Interview: Ueli Steck

Andy McCue - Posted on 12 Oct 2009

Ueli Steck isn’t one for relaxing and taking it easy. Not even on his honeymoon earlier this year, when he took his wife climbing to Yosemite with the promise of a romantic night hanging from a portaledge and almost pulled off an audacious onsight of the 41-pitch Golden Gate route on El Cap, only taking a fall after the main difficulties had been dispatched.

“The absolute speed ascents are finished. It is just too dangerous to do it again and again.”

Since then he has been out to the Greater Ranges, bagging a successful solo ascent of his first 8,000m peak, via the normal route up Gasherbrum II in Pakistan in July. It is a fairly easy peak (although it was done in unstable snow and high winds) but is merely part of Ueli’s training for his next project on Makalu. That project is - weather and conditions permitting - a solo of a more technical route up an 8,000m peak.

It’s a big departure from his headline-grabbing solo speed ascents in the Alps where he blazed up the North Faces of the Eiger, the Grand Jorasses and the Matterhorn in the time it would take most of us to get up a short multi-pitch rock route in North Wales or watch a DVD.

On the Matterhorn, where he did the classic Schmidt Route (1,100m) in a shade under two hours, that translates to an average speed of almost 10 vertical metres a minute up TD/ED terrain. But, says Ueli, those pure speed solos are now over.

“I try to push my limits but then once you reach your goal you have to stop. And stop means completely! I have many ideas for the Alps but for me the absolute speed ascents are finished. It is just too dangerous to do it again and again. It’s a high risk potential. But I still love to climb solo, it s just so efficient.

Many people would still consider a solo of a technical route on an 8,000m Himalayan peak to be pretty risky but he says “I still have this dream to climb an 8,000m peak solo. Like real solo.”

For Ueli, soloing is the purest form of climbing in the mountains and he recalls the situation he encountered on Gasherbrum.

“On one hand there were the commercial expeditions, on the other there were all these funny teams around. It was interesting to watch. Everyone was waiting until the Sherpas fixed the ropes and made tracks. Mostly I was alone on the mountain, sometimes together with the porters, who I had a really good relationship with. At first they did not understand that I will not need their ropes.

“I really was lucky, I was climbing the route to camp two before the high altitude porters fixed it. The same for the summit. I was climbing before everything is fixed. Afterwards I went up again with all the ropes. And I saw and felt the difference. I now know for myself that all these fixed lines make a huge difference. But on the other hand it’s your personal choice how you want to climb a mountain.”

Going light will be vital to success on Makalu. On Gasherbrum Ueli had a pack weighing in at just 4kg. For Makalu he’s aiming for 8kg, which will all fit in his 28 litre rucksack.

Ueli takes the same approach with food on the mountain, saying the body can just be kept topped up on sugar and caffeine for a couple of days. “During the push to Gasherbrum II I ate four energy gels and two bars, a half litre of the high calorie Peronin shake. For breakfast I had coffee and muesli with Katadyn dried yoghurt. During the day I was also taking caffeine to keep focused and use my body fat better,” he says.

Lightweight also applies to himself – for the Eiger he improved his time and broke the record by losing an extra 5kg in weight.

This fitness is achieved through meticulous preparation and training and he has worked with his friend and cross country skier Simon Trachsel over the years to fine tune programmes specific to his projects. In the winter when he was training for the Matterhorn speed ascent Ueli was training around 40 hours per week, mainly doing uphill running and some climbing.

“Since I’ve worked together with my friend Simon I have improved a lot,” he explains. “My basic training is rock climbing (also in the climbing wall) and running. But there is something you really have to understand. Endurance and muscle training (climbing) beat against each other. So when you focus on climbing then there is no hard endurance training. In reality, before El Cap I was climbing five to six days a week and doing just two 1.5 to 2 hours easy running. The period before the speed ascents I was running five to six days a week.”

Although Steck has hit the mainstream with his speed ascents he has an impressive CV that includes a 25 hour record soloing the Matterhorn’s Bonatti Route, a solo of Young Spiders on the North Face of the Eiger, new routes (soloed) on the north face of Cholatse and the east face of Tawoche.

As the El Cap attempt shows, Ueli’s pretty hand on rock too, climbing a lot in Leen and Gimmelwald close to his home where he can onsight F8a+ and redpoint F8b.

Although sponsorship obviously helps pay for the costs of his projects Ueli still has to work hard to make a living, with his main income earned on the lecture circuit. He did just under a hundred in 2008 and reckons he’ll have done at least 50 this year.

At the age of 33 Ueli says he’s still progressing year on year and getting stronger physically so has no plans to stop pushing himself just yet.

“I think I can keep going for another five years, we will see. After that maybe I have to change. I will keep climbing for sure but maybe I cannot push anymore that hard like the last couple of years. After I will see what I will do to pay my bills.”

One thing is for sure, he is unlikely to be sat around relaxing.

“I think I need to suffer. I need to work out. I cannot sit around and watching TV. I get nervous, and unhappy.”

Ueli Steck will be appearing at the Kendal Mountain Festival on 19-22 November 2009. The stellar line-up also includes Chris Sharma, Stefan Glowacz, Steve House, Thomas Hornbein, Andy Kirkpatrick, Dave Pickford and the premier of Alastair Lee’s Asgard Project film featuring Leo Houlding. For more information and tickets go to 

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