A shadow in the memory of Ueli Steck

Ueli Steck, with southern Annapurna in the background

Ueli Steck lost his life in 2017 in an unexplained and traumatic way: the fall of the best mountaineer of the 21st century in the Nuptse left a discipline orphaned that with him had taken giant leaps towards a future barely imagined. Steck, the Swiss machine, demonstrated that technical excellence combined with systematic aerobic training could take mountaineering to unimaginable heights. He also demonstrated exceptional humanity by risking his life so that Navarrese Iñaki Ochoa de Olza would not die alone in a tent 7,400 meters on the eastern ridge of Annapurna (8,091 m). And as if that gesture deserved more than the medals he refused, Annapurna gave him the opportunity to sign the most extraordinary ascent in memory since in 1990 Tomo Cesen declared that he had climbed the south face of Lhotse (8,516 m) alone.

In 2013, Steck finished the route started in 1992 by the French Pierre Béghin and Jean Christophe Lafaille on the south face of Annapurna: he did it alone, in alpine style and in a stratospheric time of 28 hours. Just two weeks later, two of the best French mountaineers in history repeated the Swiss track, spending 9 days! Stéphane Benoist led the ascent and his friend Yannick Graziani brought them both back to life by leading the terrible descent. Today, the former doubts that Ueli Steck was telling the truth when he claimed to have reached the top. Graziani is convinced that he lied.

Another Frenchman, Rodolphe Popier, presented in 2017 a rigorous study that collects the events of October 8 and 9, 2013 at Annapurna. Popier is not a newcomer in analyzing data related to ascents in the Himalayas. On the death of Miss Hawley, known as the Himalayan notary, the lady who questioned anyone who claimed to have ascended a peak looking for inconsistencies and lack of evidence before validating the alleged ascents, Popier and two colleagues took up the challenge of completing the Himalayan Database, an almanac of mountain range statistics. Between 2015 and 2017, based on the testimony of Steck himself, his expedition companions, images taken from base camp, satellite images and a historical compilation of ascent speeds in the Himalayas, Popier prepared a dossier which casts serious doubts on the veracity of Steck’s word.

For decades, the word of someone who claimed to have stepped on this or that peak alone was enough to believe him. If he provided photographic evidence or left something at the top that others found later, the matter was settled. Otherwise, the word given was considered sufficient. Today one can telephone from the top of a eight thousand, Take photos with your mobile, show that you have reached the highest point thanks to the GPS, the watch … The word of honor must be respected but it is not necessary to resort to it when it is so easy to demonstrate the facts.

Ueli Steck never provided images of his ascent: he claimed that a fresh pour of snow took the camera out of his hands. Sponsored by a GPS watch brand, it never showed track some or waypoint from the top. He never explained the silence of the technology he used.

On October 8, 2013 at 5:00 p.m., Steck took refuge in a crevasse at 6,900 meters, 100 meters below the 500-meter wall that constitutes the key section of the route to the top of Annapurna. From base camp he was seen and photographed as he entered the crevasse. He was only seen again early the next day as he descended from the same bivouac, but upon reaching base camp Steck claimed that he had climbed to the top at night, implying a mind-boggling journey of just 28 hours to one of the most feared walls. , difficult and committed of the Himalayas. Several members of the base camp stayed outside their tents at night trying to see the front light of the Swiss, but no one saw any light. Two Sherpas claim to have seen a light just below the summit, which is not actually seen from base camp: in Nepalese culture, lying for someone you are indebted to is not a discredit. Benoist and Graziani saw Steck’s bivouac but no trace of him above. Nor were there any footprints in the snow from base camp above the key wall of the route.

To explain the ease with which he climbed the 500 meters of the key section, the Swiss said he had found “exceptional conditions”, with a layer of ice covering the wall that allowed him to advance quickly. But the photos deny it, and the fact that just 15 days later the French couple took two and a half days to overcome the difficulty shows that the terrain on which Steck moved at night was mixed and highly technical. Despite this, Steck claimed to have invested 6h45 from his bivouac to the top and barely three hours back from the highest point to 6,900 meters, rappelling the 500 meters of the vertical wall. It took Benoist and Graziani two days to rappel that section, abandoning practically all their material. Steck did not abandon anything claiming that the ice was so good that he was able to rappel from ice bridges (known as abalakovs). Popier discovered that Steck referred three people to different numbers of abalakovs: 4, 8, 10.

Asked how he knew he had reached the top, the Swiss referred up to four different versions: thanks to his GPS watch; when it reached the edge; when reaching the second of the three main cornices of the ridge; and even a trace in a photo that did not show the top but a forehead to the east. But the most intriguing thing is that the Swiss was able to climb faster above 7,000 meters than below that altitude. What is the good version?

Popier showed great courage when he presented his work to those responsible for the Golden Ice Axes, the highest award in the world of mountaineering. “My intention is not to attack Steck or anyone, but to point out an evidence: speaking of professional mountaineers, it is not normal that irrefutable proof of their achievements is not required of them, or that they are required of the actors themselves or the institutions ”, he says. It proposes for the professional mountaineering ensemble something similar to what Miss Hawley achieved in the eight thousand: that there were no liars like the two Indians who they demonstrated He recently made his summit on Everest by positioning himself on it with Photoshop.

The truth is that Popier had doubts about Steck since 2013, when he found a photo of Steck on the south face of the Shisha Pangma, at 7,300 meters, taken during his fantastic ascent of 2011, when the Swiss climbed the wall in ten and a half hours . Popier was studying the speed of the best mountaineers in the Himalayas then, when Steck’s figures began to screech at him. From the base of the wall to 7,300 meters, he moved up easy snow slopes for him at an average of 147 meters / hour. From there, Steck claimed to have reached the top 2 hours and 25 minutes later and this after overcoming 300 meters of terrain “demanding with a section of collapsed rock to reach the ridge” and traversing a ridge of 1.5 km in length with “Snow at times down the ankle, knee and even the hips.” This means that he had to progress at between 300 and 350 vertical meters per hour, in unknown technical terrain, without an open track at almost 8,000 meters: doubling the speed of the simple part of the mountain in front of witnesses who followed him from the base camp .

In addition, Steck did not provide photographs (he said his camera froze) or data from his watch, or his GPS, or a description of the ridge that runs from the end of his route to the top. Why? Popier wonders. In 2015, he had an interview with Steck in Kathmandu: when asked how his acceleration on the top of the Shisha Pangma was possible, the Swiss was enraged. In the following exchanges for e-mail, Steck never cleared up the dark spots of his ascension. “Until 2015, I remember that to those who doubted the achievements of Ueli Steck, I answered that a world-class mountaineer had no reason to lie,” Popier ironically. No one can assure that the Swiss lied. But if he did, knowing what reasons were given for the deception would shed light on the intricacies of the human mind.

You can follow SPORTS in Facebook and Twitter, or sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter.

Leave a Reply