One of the downsides of being involved in the mountaineering community is that, as time progresses, the list of people killed in the mountains who you know personally or know-of inevitably grows.
Over the past decade or so it seems to have become an all-too-familiar occurrence: to awake to an April or May morning to the news overnight of death in the Himalayas, and more often than not, on Everest. Emails and messages on your phone, an initial sense of confusion, followed by an immediate trawling for more information to work out what has actually happened; then the inevitable call from a media outlet for a comment on the latest accident (for some reason I seem to have become one of the go-to-sources for any mountaineering commentary sought by the ABC here in Australia—why, I’m not so sure).
But despite the request early on Monday morning, I just didn’t have it in me to provide any comment on the death of Ueli Steck on the Everest massif 24 hours earlier.
Ueli was planning on a significant alpine style climb in Nepal with Tenji Sherpa: from Camp 2 in the Western Cwm, up over Everest’s Western Shoulder and into and then up the Hornbein Couloir, over Everest’s summit, and then a traverse across to Lhotse (and then, who knows, maybe even along that wild and convoluted ridge all the way down to Nuptse), all without bottled oxygen. It probably would have been the most significant contemporary achievement in the Himalayas.
I didn’t know Ueli personally—he was a notoriously private individual and when I tried to interview him for my Light and Fast book project he was in the middle of a 61 day odyssey to climb all 82 4,000m peaks in the Alps, and, not surprisingly, he wasn’t answering the phone—but knowing folk who know him directly, and having researched him and having used his accomplishments on the North Face of the Eiger as the primary metaphor to illustrate the potential of Light and Fast, I can’t but help but feel overwhelming gutted at his death.
As with any death in the mountains, there is always the immediate desire to know just what happened in those final moments, and to wonder what thoughts passed through their mind—in that split-second moment when they realise that they had slipped and were falling, or that the avalanche above was going to hit them directly—what exactly were they thinking of? Did they resist the inevitability? Or did they meet it with a momentary sigh of resignation and acceptance? Only they will ever know.
These are the questions that haunt me, regardless of whether it’s the loss of a close climbing friend or a climber who I’ve never met. I’m sure it’s the same for any folk who have a love of the mountains, and a love for those who venture into them.
Given Ueli’s death, and the importance of his magnificent progression of the Alpine Style ethos, I think it’s important that we acknowledge him and what he accomplished—and if you are reading this piece and are annoyed that it is not the usual lambasting of traditional organisational development approaches—I apologise.
In developing his extreme interpretation of Alpine Style, Ueli became quite familiar with the naysayers and the critics, those to whom Theodore Roosevelt’s referred to as those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. But ever the contrarian, he was not afraid to give the finger to The Establishment and its Guardians of the Ordered. He was not afraid to question the Status Quo and all of those who are too-heavily invested in its irrelevance.
Inevitably, there will be questions around Ueli’s approach in the mountains, an approach that many deemed to be overtly reckless. Some may even say that his death was only matter of when, not if.
But I think this would be missing the point.
Ueli was committed to a constant path of movement and progression and curiosity, and, ultimately, evolution. It is a path that more of us—dare I say it: all of us—can benefit from.
For any of you good folk out there are committed to the Light and Fast ethos—or indeed to any form of contrarianism that you know to be a path worth-your-while exploring—but perhaps finding yourself coming up against resistance to your attempts—then I say this to you:
And so here’s to Ueli Steck, a true contrarian, and a true pioneer.