Ueli Steck’s latest project was maybe the most ambitious undertaking of his long climbing career. The 40-year-old Swissman was preparing to summit Mt. Everest via the treacherous West Ridge, then traverse south along the Nepal-China border and reach the peak of Lhotse, the fourth tallest mountain in the world. Steck was planning on doing so without supplemental oxygen, but he died in a climbing accident over the weekend. The famed alpinist was acclimating to the thin Himalayan air by climbing Nuptse (which is to the southwest across the Western Cwm of Everest) and he reportedly fell 3,280 feet to his death yesterday afternoon). His is the first death of the Everest climbing season.
Steck started climbing professionally 22 years ago when he was just 18. He’s climbed some of the world’s most imposing and remote peaks, but he is chiefly famous for his speed records. In the 2000s, Steck obliterated previously held records for ascents up the Matterhorn, the Grandes Jorasses, and the Eiger. To make it up such steep peaks so quickly, Steck always packed light and climbed unassisted. This is the man who, after all, free soloed a notoriously hard route on El Capitan with almost no prior knowledge of the route:
He’d practiced climbing steep cliffs using only the thinnest of holds, with no rope or partner to catch a mistake. His gear was minimal and precise: an ice screw, four carabiners, a quickdraw, and a hundred feet of cord, which he could use to rappel down if things really got grim.
Two years ago, Steck climbed all 82 of the 4,000+ meter peaks in the Alps in just 62 days. He earned the 2009 Piolet D’Or, mountain climbing’s highest honor, after he became the first person to summit the north face of Teng Kang Poche. Steck won the award again five years later after he pioneered another historic summit, the south face of Annapurna. Steck had tried to climb the south face in 2007, and he nearly died after a rockfall knocked him down some 1,000 feet. In 2016, he was in the process of climbing Shishapangma, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, when he found the bodies of famed American climbers Alex Lowe and David Bridges, who died in an avalanche in 1999.
Steck first summited Everest in 2012 and he did so without oxygen. He actually tried to complete the Everest-Lhotse traverse in 2013, but he had to turn back after getting into a brawl with a group of sherpas. Accounts of what happened on the mountain differ, but Steck and a small group of Western climbers passed a team of sherpas who were repairing a set of safety ropes. Steck’s group defied an order to keep the mountain clear while repairs were underway, and the two groups got into a fight which forced Steck’s group to leave the mountain.
He said he’d considered never coming back to Everest after the fight, but he returned this year with his partner Tenji Sherpa. Sherpa was tending to a frostbitten hand when Steck made his fatal last climb. The precise circumstances of Steck’s death are unknown, but he was found by six rescuers yesterday. His body will be buried in Nepal following a traditional Buddhist funeral.