STECK, FASTER THAN THE WIND
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.
Ueli Steck (arrow) below the headwall.