After climbing 222,651 vertical feet, cycling 326 miles, and notching another 275 miles on foot in just more than a month, Ueli Steck, a 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, enjoyed an easy morning on last Tuesday at a campground outside of Sion, Switzerland. The 38-year-old Swiss mountaineer, best known for his daring, fast-and-light solo ascents of the world’s most challenging mountains, was 48 mountains deep into his latest project: climbing up, down, and between all 82 of Europe’s 4,000-meter peaks and doing so in 80 days, propelled only by foot, bike, paraglider, or skis. If he successfully completes the project, named #82Summits, Steck will have cycled 600 miles and climbed over 300,000-vertical-feet—the equivalent of summitting Everest from base camp 26 times—in less than three months.
The #82Summits project, which Steck kicked off on June 11 with an ascent of Switzerland’s 13,284-foot Piz Bernina, the most easterly of the Alps’ 4,000-meter peaks, is an altogether different animal than Steck’s last big coup, his October 2013 solo ascent of Annapurna’s south face, which earned him a 2014 Piolet d’Or, mountaineering’s top prize. But in many ways, #82Summits was born of it. The feat on Annapurna pushed Steck to the outer limits of his ability and was “a once- in-a-lifetime climb,” he says. It toed the line between life and death, and he knows he was lucky to come home alive. “That was really playing on the edge, like 50-50. I’m the only person who knows how much risk I took and you can’t explain it to people,” he says.
After Annapurna, there were few, if any, projects that could rival what he had accomplished on that mountain, and the feat forced Steck to re-evaluate his approach to climbing and what success truly means in a sport fraught with danger. “These last years, I pushed so much on the edge. There’s a dead end, you know? You end up killing yourself,” says Steck. “Look at all the good French climbers from the 80s; they’re all dead except Christophe Profit, because one day he decided, ‘I’m out of that game.’ That’s why he’s still alive. It’s the same for me. You have to find another way.”
So Steck dreamed up #82Summits, what he sees as the next step in his career. “For me, it’s almost 20 years that I have been doing this, moving on the edge. You have to progress and for me this is progressing,” he says. Now that he knows the outer reaches of his technical ability, evolving for Steck means testing what his body is capable of. “I’m really getting into the endurance stuff, so there’s some new challenges there,” he says. “My challenge for this project is to try and move almost everyday. It’s interesting to see if my body is able to do that for such a long period of time.”
And move he does. In order to bag the 82 peaks, which span Italy, Switzerland, and France, by August 29, his self-imposed deadline, Steck spends his days in constant motion. He rises between 2 and 4 a.m. and moves for 8 to 14 hours a day. During one epic push in late June, he picked off the 18 peaks of the Monte Rosa massif in a single day, a feat that usually takes three to five. The next morning, he ran 12 miles to the Matterhorn, stopped for a quick coffee at the Hornli hut, and then bagged Switzerland’s most famous peak by noon. His last rest day, of which there have only been three, was over three weeks ago, when he was forced to lay low due to bad weather in the Bernese Oberland.
In typical Steck style, he travels light, carrying only a 10 liter-pack and, at times, a 40-meter rope. “Heavy backpacks aren’t healthy,” he says with a grin. His friend Dani Mader drives a support van with supplies, gear, and Steck’s bike. After his partner Michi Wollheben, a 25-year-old professional climber from Germany, pulled out of the #82Summits project on June 23rd due to a paragliding injury, Steck has continued on solo, climbing with friends, his wife, and at times alone.
While #82Summtis may seem, at the surface, like a low-risk project, Steck cautions that it’s just that sort of mindset that inspires complacency and courts disaster. “You think it’s not a lot of risk, but it is a lot of risk,” says Steck, who is quick to mention that the pioneering French climber Patrick Berhault died in 2004 while attempting the same link up. “What’s really difficult is that you think it’s just easy peaks, and that’s when it gets super dangerous. In easy terrain, you might lose your respect for the situation. That’s exactly the moment when something happens.” Maintaining his focus has been one of the greatest challenges of the endeavor.
Steck is on track to complete the project by August 29. On Wednesday, day 35 of #82Summits, he climbed the Grand Combin, his 49th mountain, and his last peak in Switzerland, before hopping on his bike and pedaling 44 miles to Chamonix, France, where he will tackle Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain at 15,771 feet. Once Steck wraps up #82Summits, he hopes to run the Mont Blanc Ultra Marathon, a punishing 106-mile race with 32, 800 feet of elevation gain, before bee-lining it to Monaco with Mader for a taste of sea and sand. In September, he will head to Tibet to climb a line on Nuptse called Moonlight Sonata, which was first completed by Valery Barbanov and Yuri Koleshenko in 2003, but he will do it in his trademark fast-and-light style. “It’s a good challenge to climb a route like that in alpine style—just to show that its now possible to climb these peaks which were once done in expedition style in alpine style.” (Whereas expedition-style uses multiple, stocked camps, fixed ropes, and porters, alpine style is a self-sufficient approach in which one climbs with all the gear, supplies, and equipment needed and usually in one continuous push.)
As Steck faces the twilight of his career, he still has goals and dreams, but they are different than they once were. Where he was once willing to die for a line; he no longer is. “My big goal is not to go back to this Annapurna level. If you do, you’re not going to survive.” He will continue to climb, but looks forward to new opportunities, including developing products. “I will never stop climbing, I love it too much, but it will play a different part in my life than it has the last 20 years,” he says. “I am almost 40 years old. It’s time for new challenges.”