Articles - The Running Man: Ueli Steck
Ueli Steck on the summit ridge of the Eiger. Photo: Robert BÃ¶sch
Martin Gutmann - Posted on 31 Jan 2012
The last time Climber caught up with Swiss Alpine speed demon Ueli Steck he was fresh off unfathomably fast solo times on the three great Alpine North Faces. With a rich resume including hard and long free solos, speed climbs in Yosemite and fast ascents—many firsts—of some of the hardest routes in the Alps, Alaska and the Himalayas, Steck became a household name in 2008 with his 2 hours 47 minute record on the Eiger North Face. Asked back then in an interview with Climber what was next, Steck replied that he had a dream to climb an 8,000er in real solo fashion—an unknown route with no other expeditions in sight. This past April, Steck accomplished just that, cruising up the 2,500m South Face of Shishapangma (8,013m) in 10.5 hours.
I caught up with Steck recently while he was enjoying a vacation in the Swiss mountainous province of Graubünden. Taking a week off from climbing, Steck had decided to relax by learning a new hobby: paragliding. “What’s with the paragliding,” I asked. “Well, I needed something relaxing but entertaining to do while I take a break from climbing. This seemed like the ticket.” It turns out Steck was attacking this new hobby with the same obsession he brings to climbing, logging nearly 40 flights in a few days. Beyond his natural abilities as a climber, it is this obsession and his scientific approach to training that has made Steck into one of the best climbers in the world, with a row of super-human solo sprints up technical walls on his resume. I asked him how he prepared for his recent Himalaya trip.
(The Swiss machine Ueli Steck running along the summit ridge of the Eiger on his solo speed ascent in 2008. Photo: Robert Bösch)
“Basically, to train for above 8,000m mountaineering you have to do long training intervals while keeping a low pulse. Three or four hours of steep mountain jogging at a low frequency is the basic building block of my high altitude training.” Beyond these vague details, Steck will not go. His exact training routine remains a secret. Essentially what Steck has done, however, is to use the tools of professional endurance sports: cycling, marathon running, etc., and adopted them to mountaineering. He works closely with a team of training experts including mental coaches and dieticians and trains for months, sometimes years, for a specific type of ascent. While training for his speed records on the Alpine North Faces, Steck had a precise target weight that he had to be during the ascent weeks but which would not be sustainable for him to maintain much longer than a week. “It’s not like I eat only pills,” says Steck. “But I do have to target my eating towards my goal.”
Steck’s scientific training continues to put him ahead of the pack, a fact he likely wishes to maintain through his deliberate silence on the specifics of his method. When I last spoke with Steck in January of this year, I asked him if his record on the Eiger was safe. He told me that he was sure someone would break it and that for him it was important to already have moved on to something bigger and better by that point. Nonetheless, it came as a surprise to everyone, including Steck, that while he was in the midst of his Himalayan expedition just three months later, the young Swiss Dani Arnold broke the Eiger record with a new time of 2 hours 28 minutes. Arnold was hailed the following day by the Swiss mainstream press as the new Swiss king of climbing. Though Arnold is no slouch (he is well known locally in his home Canton of Uri for several fast solos of serious routes) such headlines are somewhat overblown and the record is not as amazing as it appears at first sight. This April saw some of the best—and fastest—conditions the Eiger North Face has been in for over a decade. Cold but sunny weather persisted for weeks, solidifying and hardening the snow and ice while preserving the rock in crisp dry condition. Whereas Steck had been breaking trail through waist-deep snow on the lower reaches of the mountain during his record ascent in 2008, Arnold found himself on a verifiable racetrack. Moreover, Steck free-climbed every section of the route, including the tricky and time-consuming Hinterstoisser Traverse, whereas Arnold utilised the fixed ropes. The two ascents simply cannot be compared. Nonetheless I asked Steck how he felt when he heard the news.
(Ueli Steck running in the Himalayas as part of the acclimation phase before his speed solo attempts at 8,000 metres. This mountain running is a core part of his training for these speed ascents. Photo: Robert Bösch)
“I knew someone would come along and beat my time. I have no problem with it, it’s good, I think it is cool that younger climbers are doing these things and learning about fast climbing. But time is somewhat irrelevant on these types of climbs, it depends so much on conditions. Most important is to learn this style of fast climbing, it’s what has given me a lot of confidence to sprint up big mountains. On Shishapangma, for example, I knew I could do it, even though there were only two days of nice weather.”
In fact, Steck was doing something bigger and better, as he had hoped, at the time his Eiger record was beaten. Three days before Arnold’s climb, Steck cruised up the giant South Face of Shishapagnma (8,027m), the world’s 14th highest mountain in 10.5 hours. This translates to roughly 220 meters of climbing per hour, a practically unheard of speed in the Himalayas, especially over highly technical terrain. After Shisapangma, Steck and his Canadian partner Don Bowie turned their sights to Cho Oyu (8,201m) which they summited a mere 18 days after Steck’s solo climb of Shishapagma. I asked Steck about this ascent, in particular the very conventional—albeit fast—approach he and Bowie took to the world’s fourth highest mountain. “There’s a photo of you on the summit with trekking poles...this is hardly a typical image of Ueli Steck, are you changing directions now, are you going for all of the 8,000ers?” I asked. “Not at all, I am not interested in doing all 8,000ers," Steck replied. "My main goal for the trip was Shishapangma. After that it was important for me to collect experience at altitude.“
(Ueli Steck acclimatising for his Himalaya speed ascents on the North Face of Cholatse (6,440m). Photo: Ueli Steck Collection)
After Cho Oyu, Steck and Bowie ventured up Mount Everest, getting within 100 meters before turning around in the face of freezing feet and worsening weather. Will he return to Everest? “I feel like with Everest, you have to have been up there once before you can consider a technical route on the mountain. That’s how I’ve always done things in my career, step-by-step. I may return and try a technical route on the mountain, we’ll have to wait and see.
”Though Steck has enjoyed plenty of spotlight and is now sponsored by a number of non-climbing companies, including Audi, his ascents have often been carried out alone. During his infamous free-solo of the relentlessly steep, 350-metre Excalibur Pillar (F6b) on the Wendenstöcke in Switzerland, Steck returned a few days after his stealth ascent to be photographed by his friend. The modus operandi for his Eiger records was the same, climbing alone and returning later to be filmed and photographed. His latest Himalaya trip broke from this trend, however, with a media team tailing him around. Freddie Wilkinson, fellow Mountain Hardwear athlete but better known for his writing, even climbed with Steck on some of the acclimation peaks, blogging away before and after each trip. The dedicated expedition website was, of course, regularly updated with short videos analysing Steck’s every move. I asked Steck what it was like for him as a habitually solitary climber to be suddenly surrounded by a team of journalists.
(Ueli Steck free-soloing the exposed 350-metre Excalibur Pillar (F6b), on the Wendenstöcke in Switzerland. Photo: Robert Bösch)
“This is not normally the way I want to climb. My sponsors invested a lot in me so obviously they wanted something to show. I had to make some compromises, even though I prefer climbing alone. On the acclimation ascents I had no problem catering towards their needs while meeting my own but once I was ready under Shishapagnma and the weather was good, I didn’t wait to see if the camera was rolling.”
Camera or no camera, Steck’s ascent made the news. Now we are all eagerly waiting to see what next season will bring.
UELI STECK'S 5 TRAINING TIPS
1. Train hard but smart.
2. You need to have a main goal, and to reach it you need to have some intermediate goals.
3. Make tests so you know if you have any progress in your training.
4. Just do what you like to do. If you don't like training on the bike find out what
you do like! Maybe running is easier.
5. Learn from other people and try to use it for your own system. But don't copy people's training. It will never work for you. You need to find your own system!
This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of Climber magazine