What We Can Learn About Life, Death, and Adventure from Ueli Steck

3 lessons from one of the world’s fastest mountaineers

Ueli Steck is known for his speed. In just 80 days, he bagged 82 peaks—all of which measured over 13,000 feet tall—in the Alps of France, Switzerland, and Italy. Throughout his mountaineering career, he’s racked up a list of speed records including the Matterhorn’s north face in 2009 and the north face of the Eiger in 2007 and again in 2008. He’s summited Everest without oxygen and Pakistan’s 25,362-foot-high Gasherbrum II.

This month, Steck toured the U.S. with the American Alpine Club, where he spoke about speed records, climbing without oxygen, and his 82 Summits Challenge. I met with him before the presentation to ask him about his accomplishments and glean some words of wisdom from the “Swiss Machine.”

A Route’s Difficulty Doesn’t Necessarily Determine Its Risk

It’s all about knowing your boundaries, according to Steck. He believes that risk is determined by two factors: your skillset and your mental state during your climb. While Steck tries only to approach projects he feels 100-percent confident he can summit safely, that’s still not a guarantee. Even if you’re physically and technically ready for an ascent, if you’re not focused, your risk skyrockets. “You can do a really easy climb and die,” he says. “If I run up the Flatirons here, that’s very easy for me. But if I take it too easy, then that becomes very dangerous.”

So, You Need to Know When to Bail

Steck is no stranger to death. Earlier this year, he discovered the bodies of legendary alpinists Alex Lowe and David Bridges, who disappeared 16 years earlier in an avalanche in the Himalayas. He also recently lost climbing partner Martijn Seuren, who died from a fall in 2015 while accompanying Steck on portions of his 82 Summits Challenge. “When you’re in your 20s you think ‘nothing will ever happen to me,'” he says. “And then you see people die around you and you realize you’re in the same boat.” 

Steck views death in the mountains as a grim reminder of what’s important. It’s easy to get caught up in achieving summiting goals—especially, Steck says, with the media following your expeditions—but when the risk is too high, it’s time to turn back. And it’s even good to bail sometimes. “It’s never a failure not to summit,” says Steck. “It’s a failure to lose fingers and toes. It’s a failure to die on the mountain.”

And Enjoy Every Moment

Photo Courtesy of Ueli Steck

Even though Steck’s career is based on breaking records and bagging dangerous peaks, he doesn’t like to dwell on his past accomplishments. For him, the most important climb is the one he happens to be working on at the moment, whether that means ascending Everest or climbing Boulder’s Third Flatiron. “It’s important to have the ability to enjoy simple things,” says Steck. “If you’re only happy when you break a speed record or have a big project, then you’re never really happy.”

Speed records are constantly increasing. What was considered fast five years ago, says Steck, is nothing compared to today’s fastest times. So for Steck, it’s better to stay present, enjoy nature, and push his own limits to see how far, high, and fast he can go. “Humans need a challenge and a little risk. We don’t have that anymore in our daily lives,” says Steck. “Sometimes it’s good to have cold fingers, be in a storm, and freeze a little bit. Afterward, you feel alive.”

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