The Sharp End

Posted on: July 1, 2006

Twenty-nine-year-old alpine phenomenon Ueli Steck lives in sight of his inspiration. Above his home in Bonigen, Switzerland, rise the north faces of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, a trilogy he enchained in 2004 in twenty-five hours with Stefan Siegrist. His adventures on the north face of the Eiger extend to The Young Spider, which he created with Siegrist in 2004, and which he returned to solo in January 2006. He has also established Blood from the Stone on Alaska's Mt. Dickey (with Sean Easton); attempted the north face of Jannu twice; and soloed new routes on Cholatse and Tawoche. We caught up with him in mid-March, a few days after he made a twenty-five-hour solo ascent of the Matterhorn's Bonatti Route.

Ueli Steck on his solo ascent of The Young Spider (VI 7a WI6 M7, 900m), the route on the north face of the Eiger he established in July 2005 with Stefan Siegrist. On his January 2006 solo climb, heavy snow forced him to finish via the Original Route, but not before he had spent six days on The Young Spider and climbed all of its cruxes. [Photo] Robert Boesch

Tell us about your first climbing experiences. At age twelve, I began my first lead: the Kleine Nadel, a little tower in central Switzerland. The limestone had good holds, but it was entirely vertical—and its fifteen meters contained only two pitons. I was petrified, but I liked feeling alone with the rock. Making a body rappel off the one-square-meter summit into the void was truly scary. From below the spire, my Dad kept telling me it wasn't very high—just stand up and start rappelling! To him it was no big deal, but he was safe on the ground. The next time was much easier; it's the unknown that frightens us. I kept at it, usually leading, since my Dad was my most-frequent belayer and he didn't climb at all. That he wasn't a very dynamic belayer may be the basis for my strong head.

What is your most memorable climb? The Eiger. It's the best face in the world: 1800 meters of climbing and only a thirty-minute approach. My first time on the north face (via the Original Route), when we reached the top, Markus Iff and I were both thinking, "Wow, now we're real climbers!" For us to have climbed it well and quickly meant that it was not at our limits. We knew then that more adventures lay ahead of us.

What was your worst climbing moment? On the first ascent of The Young Spider, I was alone on the Ice Pitch. The ice was too thin for screws, so I just kept climbing, but when I reached the end of the rope, I still hadn't found any good pro. No problem, I thought: I have a power drill with me. Yet after I hauled up the drill from the lower anchor, I discovered it had gotten wet. It wouldn't work at all. Since I couldn't make a rap anchor, I had to down climb the whole thing, very slowly, using the holes I'd made on the way up.

Tell us about the Bonatti Route. I'd always loved the stories behind the route: how Walter Bonatti, one of the greatest alpine climbers in history, made its first ascent, alone, in winter; and how Catherine Destivelle repeated it, also as a winter solo, but with only three bivies, one of which was on the summit. It was on my list to do the third solo ascent. I brought food for three bivies and a lot of gear. Yet although I found the route difficult, my years of drytooling helped me move quickly and safely. I felt comfortable free soloing several 5.10 pitches, and I only self-belayed one pitch. It made me happy to realize how fast this route could be climbed—I think it could be done in a day.

Describe your philosophy. I used to spend a lot of time trying to understand why we're here on this planet, but it seems our only purpose is to destroy it—and that doesn't make sense. So I stopped thinking about such big questions. Now I just climb. In the mountains, everything becomes simple: shelter, water, food. I make my own choices, and even when they're wrong, they're still my own. I know that it doesn't alter the world, but it changes me a lot when I finish a project. In such moments, I am purely happy.

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