Speed Climber Ueli Steck: Man Vs. Altitude

In 2011, alpinist Ueli Steck set out to complete “Project: Himalaya”—a personal, multi-mountain, six-month expedition to scale some of the world’s highest peaks. We look back at Steck’s training preparation to sprint up 8,000-meter peaks.

THE GATHERING STORM

In light of Ueli Steck’s untimely passing, we look back at Freddie Wilkerson’s account of Steck’s 2011 training regimen as he prepared to complete his personal passion, “Project Himalaya.”

On April 17, 2011, Swiss climber Ueli Steck soloed the south face of Tibet's 8,027-meter Shisha Pangma, the 14th highest mountain in the world, in a jaw-dropping ten-and-a-half hours. The news may have taken the adventure world by storm, but Shisha Pangma is, in fact, only one stage of a multi-mountain, six-month odyssey Steck has dubbed “Project: Himalaya.”

In late February, Steck travelled to Kathmandu to begin this mega-expedition. I joined him for phase one: a month of acclimatisation and warm-up climbs in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal. The following photos document his final preparations for Shisha Pangma.

Here, Steck is seen on the south-west ridge of Cholatse.

—Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

A NEW BREED OF MOUNTAIN ATHLETE

By applying a scientific, Olympic-caliber approach to training and fitness for alpinism’s most iconic challenges, Steck is redefined what it means to be a mountain athlete in the 21st century. Among other achievements, he’s free-climbed several routes up the sheer face of Yosemite’s El Capitan and won the Piolet d’Or for his 2009 first ascent of the north face of Tengkampoche in Nepal. But his signature discipline is the riskiest of them all: alpine speed climbing, or sprinting up in a matter of hours technical mountain faces that might take a traditional team several days to complete.

For Project: Himalaya, he logged 1,200 hours of endurance training in the mountains above his hometown of Ringgenburg (a suburb of Interlaken) over the course of 2010, mainly trail running and nordic skiing—that’s four hours a day, six days a week, for a year. His hardest days peaked with punishing timed runs up the Eiger—a vertical gain of 10,000 feet.

—Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

THE ALTITUDE GAME

Regardless of how hard he trained at home, Steck knew he would also need to spend many weeks acclimatising his body in the Himalaya before he attempted his first 8,000-meter summit, scheduled for mid-April. We chose the Khumbu Valley, one of Nepal’s most popular regions, because of the variety of accessible peaks and the legendary Sherpa hospitality available in the area’s teahouses. Over the course of three weeks, we spent several nights sleeping on Lobouche East Peak (pictured here), before tackling the more challenging north face of Cholatse. On rest days, Ueli would go for a casual run up Kala Pattar, a popular trekking route that is nearly 19,000 feet above sea level.

—Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

SPRINTING UP GIANTS

Speed climbing in the Himalaya sometimes resembles the sport of long-distance trail running more than it does traditional forms of ascent. The ultimate achievement for Steck would be to summit a mountain in an “alpine-style push.” Loosely translated, this means a successful climb done in a single, continuous effort from bottom to top, without the use of any pre-placed ropes or camps, Sherpa support, or bottled oxygen. In its purest expression, you wouldn’t even stop to sleep. In order to move as fast as possible, Steck strips down his clothing and equipment to the absolute minimum—he even has a special sleeping bag with no zipper to save weight. Here, he's climbing fast—with one ski pole, one ice ax, and no rope—up easy terrain toward the top of Lobouche East.

—Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

ALPINE GOURMET

You learn a lot about someone when you share a small tent with them. Unlike legions of “dirtbag” climbers who foster scruffiness as a badge of authenticity, Steck tries to maintain an air of continental civility, even at the highest bivouacs. On Lobouche, he cooked pancakes for breakfast, washed down with plenty of cups of steaming espresso from a stainless steel machine he insisted on carrying up the mountain.

—Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

SIREN OF EVEREST

The main objective of Steck’s pre-Shisha training expedition was the north face of Cholatse (pictured). At a modest 6,440 meters (21,000 feet), it’s relatively small compared to the 8,000-meter giants. But what it lacks in altitude it more than makes up for in steepness and solitude—the perfect venue to test one’s mental and physical reserves before going above 8,000 meters alone. Just a dozen miles up the valley, Mount Everest is adorned with miles of fixed rope and gets climbed hundreds of times each year. Cholatse, by comparison, is clean of any permanent route and may see one or two ascents per season. —Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

INTO THE STEEPS

Ueli Steck is in his element while racing up a pitch of near-vertical terrain on day one of our ascent of the north face of Cholatse. When I snapped this photo, we had already soloed a thousand feet of perfect alpine ice, or neve—work-hardened snow the consistency of Styrofoam that's known for providing exceptional solid placements for ice axes and crampons. As the terrain steepened and the neve thinned, however, I told Steck I would prefer to rope up. Thankfully, he obliged. —Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

SHELTER FROM THE STORM

More than two-thirds of the way up Cholatse, the weather deteriorated into a fierce afternoon snow squall. Runnels of spindrift avalanches began to pour down the face around us, and it became imperative to seek some kind of shelter. After reaching an improbable snow fluting, we carved this semi-protected cave, where we spent the night. “That was the worst weather I have ever seen in the Khumbu,” Steck later told me of the climb. —Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

DESCENDING CHOLATSE

We reached the top of Cholatse at 1 p.m. the next day, but getting to the summit is only the halfway point of any climb. Here, Steck down-climbs steep snow leading toward our descent route, the south-west ridge, as the weather begins to deteriorate yet again. We reached the Gokyo Valley with daylight to spare, having completed an approximately 37-hour traverse of the mountain.

Three weeks after our climb, Steck's methodical preparations paid off big time on Shisha Pangma. His ascent was one of the fastest recorded ascents of an 8,000-meter peak, ever. “I felt great,” he wrote me, “no headache and not totally fatigued.” —Freddie Wilkinson
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDDIE WILKINSON

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