Ueli Steck: After the Smoke has Cleared (Editorial)

About Ueli, and a few lines from Inaki

I heard a story once, about American fighter pilots in Vietnam, and how they reacted when one of their mates was shot down. Apparently, they trashed the poor victim to pieces. He had done this wrong, that completely backwards, always sloppy, he was.

Once done, they raised a beer for him.

Why this behavior? To learn from mistakes that had been made. And to handle fear. If the killed soldier was accomplished, they themselves – no matter how skilled – were at risk of dying. So they put him down to build themselves up, and find the courage to go back out there.

Now imagine if they were asked to make public statements. The official tune would probably be a lot different.

Today, in social media, everybody is a public figure. And a political animal.

This week I’ve read climbers’ quotes, articles and headlines about Ueli Steck. Two things struck me.

First, we lose good climbers in Himalaya all the time. Why Ueli all of a sudden in mainstream media everywhere, they hardly wrote about him while he was alive?

Second, reading the climbers’ opinions, I wasn’t sure they all meant what they said. Some even sounded like hypocrites.

When a person dies we should show respect. Remember the good things. It would be easier though, if descriptions were a bit leveled.

It’s hard to watch: Like children in need of perfect heroes, reporters – interns mostly – write up some people far beyond what’s there. With so much gun powder spent, others – some of the best – get ignored and forgotten. A few are made to play the villain; pictured as if they were the devil himself rising from hell. God only knows what sets off the frenzies, good or bad.

Who was Ueli to me, then? He was fast, yes. But more, he was out there climbing without the guides and infrastructure that has become the norm these days.

Independent climbers have become a rarity. People miss them.

He was also one to push limits. In a world increasingly obsessed by safety, this is an important example. Without risk, there is no progress and without progress, there is no need for humanity in the big scheme of things.

I don’t think he was reckless, as some suggest, you don’t survive what he did being stupid. He may have lost touch with reality after a while, or he was stressed out, or it was just a plain accident. But he was never a daredevil. He knew what he was doing.

Here is though what worried me in the articles and comments about Ueli: The blatant celebration of purity, superiority and strength. The return of, what we used to call in base camps, the “Climbing Jugend.”

The Jugends celebrate ability and summits but little else. The ideals changed for a while but lately I’ve noticed a comeback of crass.

Mountaineers don’t even question why they are not allowed in Tibet. (Kudos to Messner for at least bringing up the issue this spring.) Most alarmingly the mentality manifests in mates left to die on the slopes because they should not have been there in the first place (they were weak) and, “it’s really hard to do something up there.”

It is difficult to rescue people on high altitude. It does get impossible though, if you don’t even try.

Not to mention discourage others wanting to give it a shot. Ueli was involved in such a controversy on Shishapangma. I was surprised it never went beyond German climbing media.

The flip side: Ueli was the last man with Inaki Ochoa, a climber he wanted to save. The rescue attempt – involving a lot of great mountaineers in the end – was unsuccessful, but a wonderful story for posterity because people tried. That’s all we need to do, and value alongside success.

Inaki was a special guy. The proud Basque always spoke his mind, damn everyone else. He stood up a film team from National Geographic, because he felt they made him carry gear up and down Everest while making stars out of “the lazy Americans” in the expedition. F-off he told them and left.

Some time later, the Discovery Channel made a big hero of commercial expedition leader Russell Brice. He was the guide who told his 40 clients to step past a dying fellow trying to climb the peak on his own. Before the young man passed, the team sherpa even interviewed him on camera.

Brice would watch his clients in binoculars from BC, deciding who could go on and who could not. Like unthinking robots, they did as they were told. Russell was against independent climbers. Said they made the mountain unsafe. We thought the real reason was they shrank his wallet.

Inaki was unswayed by celebs, popularity and crowds. “I’d never climb with a guy like that, never,” he said about Brice in an interview with us, predicting the “Death of Everest” in another chat.

The same Everest where commercially-minded Sherpa viciously attacked Ueli Steck and his self-sufficiently climbing mates a few years later.

Perhaps because his dad was a martial arts sensei, Inaki was a sucker for fair play. He spoke again and again openly about people increasingly lying about their accomplishments. Unsure if he had touched the real summit on Lhotse himself, he went back and climbed it again, not once – but twice.

Climbers are really good at documenting their routes, but not always their summits. Ueli Steck was facing criticism from the community for his lack of proof for some of his claims. Perhaps he felt that his achievements were his personal business, not theirs.

Unfortunately this attitude plays perfectly in the hands of real crooks. So I welcome the effort to weed out lies. I only wish that Piolet d’Or went all the way.

Do we have proof for each of Messner’s 14 summits? Or just Liz’s word for them? She is an icon but not a climber and she has favorites.

And why no photo of Edmund Hillary on the top of Everest? I taught illiterate Sherpa handle wifi gear high up on those slopes before people knew how to put it in their office; why couldn’t Tenzing be trusted to click the camera?

I’m not saying they lied. Just let’s be fair. No holy cows. But keep at it. Truth matters.

So here’s to you, Ueli. The human Swiss machine. Above all, you were a fighter.

Cheers to that.

Editor’s note: A fast climber himself, Inaki Ochoa speed climbed Dhaulagiri for now mostly forgotten pioneer speed climber Anatoli Boukreev (who, incidentally, used to climb Everest in sneakers).

Ochoa figured speed is a very safe way to climb if you can do it, limiting exposure on the peaks. “I never heard of a climber who had an accident while he was trying a speed ascent on an 8,000-er,” he told us. But, he added, “to climb in that style requires dedication, commitment and a lot of training beforehand. And if you really want the summit by all means you will not use it, because the chances of running out of gasoline close to the top are quite high.”


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