Whether one is a casual mountaineer or climber, or a veteran outdoor enthusiast, chances are you’ve heard of Ueli Steck, or as he is generally known, “the Swiss Machine”. With two Piolet d’Or Awards, innumerable fastest known ascent times, and the recent accolade from National Geographic in 2015 as one of their “Adventurers of the Year”, Ueli Steck has a list of honors and accomplishments that most people can only dream of. Recently, in an interval between climbing trips, Ueli was touring the United States in connection with the American Alpine Club’s 2016 National Athlete Tour, which was presented by Alpina Watches. During the tour’s stop in San Diego, I was fortunate to sit down for a few minutes with Ueli during his day and quickly learned that being a professional alpinist calls for busy days both in the backcountry and in urban settings. Prior to chatting with me, Ueli had arrived in San Diego late the prior night before from his previous tour destination, and had spent the day climbing, getting his hair cut, eating tacos at San Diego’s well-known Lucha Libre, and of course preparing for his nightly presentation and the next stop on the tour. Despite his hectic schedule, we were able to have a relaxed conversation about mountaineering and travel, and where he sees the sport going over the next couple of years.
Last Adventurer: Welcome to San Diego – how’s the city treated you in your short time here?
Ueli Steck: It’s been a rush, but it’s nice to sit here outside – in the sun (Laughs) (It was a cool and somewhat cloudy day when the interview occurred). I really enjoyed the gym – Mesa Rim – I’ve seen a lot of the gyms around the U.S., and I have to say that it was probably the nicest one I’ve climbed in the States.
Last Adventurer: Obviously, growing up as a climber in Switzerland, the Alps will always be the pre-eminent mountain range for you; but when you do come to North America – either on a speaking tour like this one, or on vacation, where’s a spot that you haven’t been that you’d like to visit, or spots that you like to revisit?
Ueli Steck: Really tough. On the one hand, you want to say Yosemite because – so many reasons. On the other, it’s always crowded – tough to find a spot and stay. I have to say Indian Creek. It’s just so out there – you can just camp out there and be alone – and it’s got that desert, and that crack climbing that we just don’t really have in Europe. America though – great for road trips. Best for road trips, just getting out in the expanses.
Last Adventurer: In connection with this tour, talking about your ascents of the 82 Summits in the Alps, and some of the climbing you did in the Himalayas, you’ve mentioned that you’ve gotten back to “efficiently climbing” mountains. What does that mean?
Ueli Steck: Well, just being in mountain shape, always, of course, which is a state of physical – and mental being. Being prepared to be out in the mountains all day; to accomplish things. I’ve been in the Himalayas, as you mentioned, and it’s really different and special being at that 7,000 meter elevation to 8,000 meter elevation, being a traditional alpinist; focusing on alpinism; also relying my tested skills in climbing. Really, just utilizing – and developing all of your skills for the climb.
Last Adventurer: Along those lines, I have a question I crowd sourced from social media. One of my friends who’s an alpinist attended your presentation in Seattle on this tour, and she was curious after hearing about all of the things in your presentation what would be a “bad day” or “challenging day” for you in the mountains?
Ueli Steck: Of course, death. You never want to see that on any trip, small or large – so yeah – death. It’s an unfortunate risk in alpinism, and one you always want to avoid. But really aside from that – one – well – one wants to stay in that zone where one’s being challenged – but not overly challenged. The same thing for lesser difficulties. One doesn’t want it too easy – but not too hard either. You want to be in that zone where there’s a mixture of challenge – where you’re excited for it, but not overly pushing one’s limits to an extreme level where one feels at danger. For me, now, I want to be in that spot when I’m in the mountains where I have that challenge, but within a realm of acceptable risk and where I can be safe, and yet see and do what I want outside. Bad days would fall into an area of really, not planning how one approaches things properly.
Last Adventurer: Finally, last year, in November, you went up the Eiger, a peak that you have great familiarity with, and the fastest known ascent time on the Heckmair Route with Kilian Jornet, who many people consider to be one of the fastest – if not the fastest men in the world. What was that like? Competitive? Collegial?
Ueli Steck: (Laughs) Well you know, alpinism, it’s one of those things that – it’s competitive. You know – people like you and I might not see it that way – but its competitive. It’s a strange thing to be – competitive about – because if you think about it – it’s hard – outside of fastest known times – to be competitive about – because there’s so much that goes into it; conditions, weather; training; individual skill – but yet people are. I try and not think about that so much; but that’s how people can be. Kilian, you know; he’s a great guy; and we had talked before about doing something like this, and he comes at things from such a different perspective than me – the ultrarunning perspective – where there’s a definite competitive aspect – and definite winners and losers – after all, only one person can win a race, you know?
But when we got together for the project all of that goes behind, because it’s really – any day in the mountains – is more collegial. We set out early; and sure, in the early going, he was talking, and I was thinking that I need to breathe, but later on as we covered sections when it was more climbing – which is my forte, I could do more talking than him, you know. (Laughs) But really, Kilian is an amazing guy, and I have nothing but appreciation for him, and what he’s been able to accomplish in many ways, and where he’s taking the sport and other sports. Being with him that day was really, in many ways inspirational because you get to talk about sport, and you see where you came from, and where he’s coming from, and what you can do better, and it makes you want to try and do new things, which is always amazing. Really, that day was spectacular; as any day in the mountains should be.
At this point, as Ueli had to move on to fulfilling his duties for the presentation, the interview ended. After leaving San Diego, Ueli had two more spots on his tour, in Salt Lake City, and Boulder; and upon the conclusion of the tour, he will be once again heading on a new expedition.
Thanks again to Ueli Steck, and the American Alpine Club for setting aside the time for the interview in what was a busy day for all parties.