Reviews | How Ueli Steck met mountaineering’s oldest companion: the tragedy

Like many of his more traditional sports counterparts, Steck has had his share of controversial moments. After climbing Everest in 2012 without supplemental oxygen, he returned in 2013 with a more ambitious plan, to climb both Everest and a nearby peak, Lhotse, in a single push. While ascending, Steck, Italian mountaineer Simone Moro and photographer Jon Griffith passed a group of Sherpas who were fixing ropes low on Mount Everest. In doing so, the trio violated an agreement held by Sherpas and Western guides on the mountain that no one would climb until the ropes were in place. Steck and his team had no use for the safety of a fixed rope; they just wanted to sprint. In the ensuing confrontation, Moro hurling an insult at the Sherpas in Nepali did not help.

When the climbers returned to camp, they found themselves challenged by angry Sherpas who shouted insults and threw rocks at their tent. Fearing for their lives, Steck, Moro, and Griffith descended the mountain and abandoned their attempt. It’s hard not to assume that Steck’s elite stature encouraged the hostile exchange: a clash between the old and new worlds of mountaineering.

The second miss of Steck’s career also happened in the Himalayas. In 2007, he attempted a mountain called Annapurna, whose deadly south face had become something of a holy grail for talented climbers, combining sheer technical difficulty with high altitude. The face had claimed the lives of several pioneers of Steck’s peculiar and dangerous game of “fast and light” mountaineering.

Brilliant British mountaineer Alex MacIntyre was hit by a single rock fall and killed there in 1982. In 1992, French mountaineer Pierre Béghin died, leaving his partner Jean-Christophe Lafaille to descend face alone in a harrowing ordeal of several days. During the process, Lafaille was also hit by a falling rock, which broke his arm. Steck attempted the south face in 2007, but was also hit by a rockfall and lost consciousness. “Only luck,” he wrote in Alpinist magazine, “saved me from dying.” In October 2013, he returned alone, completing the route started by Lafaille and Béghin, in 28 hours round trip.

But doubts swirled around his ascent of Annapurna. Why didn’t Steck, for whom the camera watch and the altimeter watch were constant companions, better document his ascent? He claimed a small avalanche ripped the camera off and his altimeter watch broke. Ultimately, he brushed off the criticism, letting his actions on successive peaks speak for him.

Repeating routes as quickly as possible or linking several summits are specific commitments. If you keep getting away with it, there’s little to no negative feedback. You either have a 100% success rate or zero. Those who live to old age are usually the soloists who have stopped climbing on their own.

Steck was killed before attempting to connect Everest and Lhotse in a marathon – his goal from the interrupted 2013 expedition. In the end, speed and training weren’t enough. Steck will be remembered as the mountaineer who ushered mountaineering into its final modern era. But his death is a reminder that those at the forefront are still subject to mountaineering’s oldest companion: tragedy.