Since we received news of Ueli Steck’s solo summit of Annapurna late last week the mountaineering community has been abuzz with anticipation as we all have waited for more details of the climb. The 8091 meter (26,545 meter) peak is one of the toughest and deadliest mountains in the world and it seemed unfathomable that someone could climb it alone and in alpine style.
But now, as Ueli and his partner Don Bowie make their way back to the village of Pokhara, the story of the climb is finally being told, and it is just as epic as we have all imagined.
Details of the climb have been posted on both Ueli’s website and on ExWeb. It seems that Ueli, Don and a few companions who were along to photograph the expedition set out last Wednesday, October 9. The weather was reportedly decent although high winds made things difficult. When they reached the Bergschrund, Don decided that the face was too difficult and demanding to ascend without ropes, so it was at that point that Ueli moved on alone. He would go light and fast, as is his nature, the rest of the way to the top.
As he went up, Ueli indicated that the high winds were blowing snow much of the way, but his climb to 6600 meters (21,653 ft) was relatively easy. He had hoped to camp there for a time so he could rest, eat and escape the winds for a bit, but he couldn’t find a place to make camp. Discouraged, he descended about 100 meters where he discovered a crevasse where he could put up his tent. It made the perfect shelter and he soon sat down to eat and drink as much as he could.
After the sun went down, the winds dropped off and the weather conditions improved greatly. Knowing that this was his chance, Ueli made a dash for the summit, moving quickly and easily up the face. At one point he stopped to take photographs of the headwall but ended up losing his camera and one of his down gloves. For the rest of the climb he would alternate his one remaining glove between his two hands in an effort to keep them both warm.
Things got harder as the Swiss climber neared the summit. The altitude made breathing more difficult and the final push along the summit ridge brought a lot of tension. Ueli says he just kept telling himself “Just fight, just fight,” over and over in an effort to will himself up the hill. It worked and he arrived at the summit at night, with a relatively calm wind and a billion stars shining overhead.
But the summit was just the halfway point and he knew he had to get down safely as well. Steck spent less than five minutes on the summit and turned back towards Advanced Base Camp as quickly as he could. The descent went well however and he sent a message to Don once he was safely in Camp 2. Ueli would later descend to ABC with his friends coming up to greet him with food and water and assist him down.
All told, the round trip journey took just 28 hours to complete along one of the most difficult and demanding routes in the Himalaya. Ueli used the infamous Lafaille Route, which was first pioneered back in 1992 by Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Pierre Beghin. Neither of those men were successful on that route and Beghin perished on the descend. Lafaille himself was thought dead too for a time but did manage to get himself off the mountain after suffering a four day ordeal on the descent.
It is difficult to convey just how impressive Ueli’s climb truly is. Annapurna is an incredibly difficult and dangerous mountain and yet Ueli treated it like it was one of the Alps in his backyard. If there was any question that he is the best high altitude mountaineer in the world today, it was probably answered with this amazing 28-hour, solo and alpine style ascent.
Reading Ueli’s account of the climb I was a bit concerned with the fact that he had lost his camera. Without summit photos the entire climb could be called into question and considering the magnitude of what was accomplished, rightly so. But Steck’s three companions say that they were able to watch him go up through a 1000mm spotting scope and followed his every move.
After he climbed to the summit in darkness, they team was able to spot tracks leading to the summit the following the morning. The account of the three witnesses should be enough to put to rest any dispute over whether or not he was successful in his summit bid. Elizabeth Hawley may have the final decision in that matter however and considering Ueli’s sterling reputation, I suspect he’ll be fine.
Congratulations to Ueli on another impressive performance in the mountains. What a stunning way to return to the Himalaya after the events that took place their in the spring. Hopefully we can put that situation behind us now, and Ueli will feel comfortable enough to continue climbing in the big mountains moving forward.