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Steck scales new heights with Eiger Award 2008

OF all the mountains, in all the ranges across the world, few have provoked the myriad of feelings that the north face of the Eiger has.

All at once, terrifying, magnificent and inspirational, the Eigernordwand is as steeply enriched with history as it is with limestone and it is this history that has time and again lent mountaineers to show tenacity, courage and unlimited self-confidence every time they step foot on it.

In doing so, prepared as they are to take that extra step, they motivate us and encourage us, forcing us by their own deeds to take a more introspective look on life than we ever normally would.

Whether or not the mountaineers themselves acknowledge this would vary from one to another as generally speaking they are a modest and reticent band when it comes to talking about their achievements in life, preferring instead to let the mountains tell their story.

When the Eiger Award for 2008 was announced in Grindelwald at the end of May it was no different a scenario as the recipient, Ueli Steck, looked as if sprinting up the north face of the Eiger was a doddle in comparison to standing on a podium in front of his peers.

Swiss born Steck (31) has been appropriately recognised not only for a solo ascent of the north face of the Eiger (which saw him register an incredible speed record for the notoriously difficult vertical face), but for his mountaineering in general, his personality and of course his courageous attempt to rescue stricken Spanish climber Iñaki Ochoa on Annapurna just 10 days before.

Modest in the extreme Steck described his climb to Ochoa (along with fellow Swiss alpinist Simon Anthamatten) as 'just something you do'.

“If you were walking down the street and you saw someone who needed help you would give it to them.”

Hardly an apt comparison for the two climbers not only immediately headed up the storm ravaged Annapurna face to 7,400m but did so ill-equipped, as they had already stored their gear for their own attempt while waiting for the weather to show some signs of kindness.

Steck receives his award from Adolf Ogi  Photo Jo Adams
Steck receives his award from Adolf Ogi
Photo Jo Adams

“We couldn't climb up and get all our gear, come back down and then go again, it would have been impossible. So we climbed in regular boots, ones you would use for a summer climb in the Alps.” Steck said.

“We left base camp and got as far as 6,900m but when we got there because we didn't have the right climbing boots on Simon had to stay put. I was only able to go on because the Russian climber Alexi Bolotov came down from the summit and he swapped boots with me. Luckily they were a size 45, if they had of been 42 it would have been Simon who went on alone.”

Were any thoughts given to the dangerous circumstances?

“We took every care up there. It was no more or no less dangerous than at any other time. We went high and we went fast but we still took every possible care.”

Prior to the rescue attempt, which threw Steck's name into the worldwide media, he was starting to gain a somewhat unfair reputation as a 'mad' climber for his speed records and his solo ascents.

“There were some people who were saying I was mad, crazy, for setting speed records and doing so many solo ascents but it's really good to know that there are some people out there who understand what Alpinism is all about.

“To win the Eiger Award is great, but like reaching a summit for the first time, it hasn't really sunk in yet.”

The Eigernordwand solo speed record was previously held by Christoph Hainz when in 2003 he climbed it in 04:30.00, but then Steck came along in 2007 and registered 03:45.00.

Not content with that he returned in February 2008 and proceeded to shake the life out of his own time by registering a mind blowing 2:47:33.

"It's a very special mountain to me, I've climbed it so many times and while I would never lose respect for the mountain, to me it is my playground." said Steck.

“The Heckmair route is no less difficult now than it was in 1938 (first ascent).

“What has changed is the equipment we use and the skills of the individual mountaineers, the dangers are still the same. When I first climbed the north face I took two 250m ropes to make sure I could get back down if I needed to.

Steck with the Eiger looking down
Steck with the Eiger looking down
Photo by Jo Adams

“Now I take a 35m rope and I know that that is sufficient for me to descend if I need to. That's a change in me though; the mountain hasn't changed at all.”

Steck first stepped onto a mountain at the age of 12 and has never looked back.

Along with Stephan Siegrist he opened the 'Young Spider' (1800m M7/Wi6; 7a/A2) route on the Eiger in 2001 and later becoming the first to climb it solo in 2006.

Well known for his extreme alpine style, meaning no fixed ropes or supplemental oxygen, Steck also has other numerous solo first ascents to his name including Cholatse North Face 6440m, Tawoche East Face 6505m and Mount Dickey, Alaska, first ascent (1700m M7+/Ai6 5.9/A1) to mention just a few.

“I prefer the alpine style of climbing. To me that is real mountaineering, it is the biggest challenge.”

A noted solo climber there are times when Steck is more than happy to climb with a partner and he and Anthamatten completed a first ascent of the 6,500m high Tengkampoche in May.

“Simon is a very strong climber and after we had climbed together in Canada I knew he was the one I wanted as my partner for Annapurna.

“We make a good team, we speak the same language and he's pretty smart.

“He hasn't got any 8000ms yet so he leaves all the decisions on the mountain to me. If I say we do something he doesn't argue he accepts and so we work well together. He has to be able to trust me but I also have to be able to trust him, it works both ways.”

“We get on really well together and even when sitting around in base camp for one, two weeks at a time waiting for the right weather window, we got along fine.

“Well apart from the breakfast table! I like to lounge back and relax and Simon hates that, he thinks we should sit upright at the table. He gets very annoyed about that, but that's the only thing!

“Relationships are very important in climbing and you need to take that with you when you climb. If you can't get along with someone on the ground it is going to be so much worse on a wall.”

Steck will now take time out to recover from his arduous Himalayan trip and right now he has no plans for any big expeditions.

“I am not giving up on the south face of Annapurna, we will get back there one day, but there's no rush, it's not going anywhere. Now I rest, recover and let my body get over the last few weeks. Simon and I will definitely climb again together but I will also solo as well.

“I love the aspect of being alone on a mountain. When you are up at 6,000m and there is no way of going down you are totally alone and I feel very, very small then.

“But that gives you a total respect for the mountain. It opens up your senses, there's no feeling like it, it is so intense. Then when you go back down into the valley it leaves. So, we keep going, we keep looking for more challenges in the mountains.

“If I didn't climb I would find something else that I would follow with the same passion. I want to live life no matter what.”

As Eiger Live 2008 draws to a close and the sun slowly disappears from view, the Eiger looks benignly down into the Grindelwald valley.

Notwithstanding its history, it can clearly be seen that despite its height of just 3970m (compared to the likes of Everest 8848m and K2 8611m); this mountain, in its own unfathomable way, stands tallest.

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