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Find­ing suc­cess at 8000 me­tres on a tech­ni­cal alpine-style route is rare. The his­tory of alpine-style as­cents started at An­na­purna’s south face with Nils Bo­hi­gas and En­ric Lu­cas. They opened an au­da­cious route on the east face. Since then, many other at­tempts have taken place. By Claude Gar­dien.

In a 28 hour round trip, Ueli Steck fin­ished the job that was started in 1992 by Pierre Béghin and Jean- Christophe Lafaille. Al­though this route is dan­ger­ous due to the wide de­pres­sion / gully of this im­mense face, it was des­tined to be an alpine- style as­cent. A line of ice and mixed rock climb­ing is drawn across the head­wall which ob­structs the whole south face. The French climbers reached 7200 me­tres: Pierre fell to his death on the de­scent and Jean- Christophe made it down, in­jured and with no ma­te­rial, to end a mind-blow­ing jour­ney. All that was left to do was to make the fi­nal line to the sum­mit while stay­ing true to the style of the 1992 pi­o­neers. Ueli Steck had al­ready been to the south face twice. In 2007, he aban­doned his at­tempt as he was hurt in a rock fall.With Si­mon An­thamat­ten in 2008, he went off route to res­cue Iñaki Ochoa and Ho­ria Col­basanu who were stuck at 7200 me­tres on the east­ern arête. Iñaki had fallen vic­tim to edema and Ho­ria re­fused to go down. Ueli man­aged to con­vince Ho­ria to leave his com­pan­ion, while he stayed with Inaki. Ueli was at his side when Iñaki died in the storm, and his de­scent to join Si­mon was to be epic. This is the man who was at the foot of An­na­purna in au­tumn 2013. In spring, he had had a dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ence on Ever­est with an al­ter­ca­tion with a group of Sher­pas at 7000 me­tres. His party of three had to es­cape the moun­tain quickly and qui­etly to avoid be­ing at­tacked, and maybe lynched. For this An­na­purna ex­pe­di­tion, he teamed up with Cana­dian climber Don Bowie. 8th Oc­to­ber, 5.30am: Ueli and Don left the ad­vanced base camp. At the bergschrund, Don wasn’t com­fort­able with the as­cent where the climb needed to be un­roped to move fast. Ueli changed his plans, went back to his equip­ment which was stored at 6100 me­tres, took a tent but left his sleep­ing bag be­hind. He planned to climb up to 6600 me­tres to bivouac, and also to ob­serve the con­di­tions. The wind at the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber is a con­stant fea­ture at this al­ti­tude. He had to spend the night a lit­tle fur­ther down where he was shel­tered from a crevasse.The pre­vi­ous evening, the wind had

eased as the night came. Ueli hoped for the same phe­nom­e­non and bingo! The night came, and the wind died down. “It’s my chance”, he later ex­plained. He thought it pos­si­ble to move on at night: the as­cent line is al­most con­tin­u­ous thin snow and ice, he should be able to find it as they’d spent so long ob­serv­ing it. Sec­ond chance: the con­di­tions on the face were as they are once in a blue moon. “On this ter­rain, which is rarely ver­ti­cal, and in these con­di­tions, I can as­cend re­ally fast”, he ad­mit­ted. “The head­wall is less steep than I had imag­ined.” He also found it to be shorter than he’d orig­i­nally thought, and 17 and a half hours af­ter his first step he reached the sum­mit ridge – in the mid­dle of the night. His as­cent seemed to be flaw­less, but one in­ci­dent could have put an end to it all.While he was tak­ing a photo of the head­wall for ori­en­ta­tion pur­poses, a spin­drift avalanche hit him. He held on to his ice-axes, lost one down glove and his cam­era. He com­pleted the as­cent wear­ing only one glove, wear­ing it on the right hand then on the left… He re­turned to the ad­vanced base camp 28 hours af­ter hav­ing left it.The de­scent was made with a few rap­pels which were al­ways short. He had trained him­self to down climb freely, “when solo­ing, if you can down climb what you have climbed, you keep a mar­gin of se­cu­rity…” he ex­plained.

Photo by Patitucciphoto.

Ueli Steck (ar­row) be­low the head­wall.

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