Ueli Steck, a charismatic Swiss mountaineer famous for speed ascents of some of the tallest and most difficult mountains around the world—feats of mind-blowing endurance that earned him the nickname “Swiss Machine”—was killed on Sunday while acclimatizing in the Everest region of Nepal. He was 40 years old.
A spokesperson for Steck’s family confirmed his death on his website:
“Ueli Steck was killed while trying to climb Mount Everest and the Lhotse. His family has learned of his death today. The exact circumstances are currently unknown. The family is infinitely sad and asks the media builders to refrain from speculation about the circumstances of his death due to respect for Ueli.”
Steck’s remains were reportedly discovered near the base of West Nuptse, a 7,800-meter peak standing to the west of the Everest massif. Climbing alone, Steck was reportedly acclimatizing on Nuptse when the accident took place. This acclimatization run was in preparation for Steck’s ultimate goal: a traverse of both Everest (8,850 meters) and Lhotse (8,516 meters) in a single push, while taking an ambitious route to the summit of Everest—the infamous West Ridge, unrepeated since its first ascent in 1963. He was also planning to climb without using supplemental oxygen.
Steck had been training for the “Everest-Lhotse Project,” as he called it, for years. His face lit up with excitement and awesome wonder every time he described it. It was this unbridled enthusiasm for climbing, combined with his inhuman endurance, that so greatly inspired both core climbers and armchair mountaineers around the world. It also earned him recognition as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2015.
“Ueli transcended simple inspiration,” says Cory Richards, a National Geographic photographer who is currently in Tibet, acclimatizing for his own ascent of Everest. “What he gave to our community was matched only by the tracks he left in the mountains. For me, the space he leaves is one that can’t be filled. Simply admired and revered.”
Steck’s death is the first fatality of the 2017 Everest season, a period that lasts from March to May. Upwards of 1,000 Everest-bound climbers are reportedly in the region this year, a record in and of itself. That Steck, who was considered perhaps the best mountaineer in the world at this time, died on a standard acclimatization run speaks to the inherent risks of mountaineering in the Himalaya.
“Everest is and always will be dangerous,” says Richards. “Tragic as it is when we lose people, it’s important that we remember that the very reason we go to the high mountains is to approach that edge. Doing so amplifies what it means to live.”
Perhaps Steck’s most impressive achievement was his solo 28-hour-roundtrip speed ascent of 8,061-meter Annapurna in 2013, a feat that earned him a Piolet d’Or award, mountaineering’s highest honor. Steck tackled the South Face, an intimidating 10,000-foot vertical wall of ice and crumbling rock. In 2007, Steck nearly lost his life attempting the South Face when rockfall knocked him 300 meters down the mountain. Miraculously, he survived with only minor injuries.
Steck was raised in the idyllic town of Langnau, in the Emmental region, and spent his youth playing hockey with his two older brothers. He discovered climbing at age 12 when some friends of his father, a coppersmith, took him to some local crags. He promptly traded the hockey rink for the climbing gym, and was soon competing on the Swiss junior climbing team. Steck was always a gifted rock climber, capable of climbing at a high level. In fact, in 2009, for his honeymoon, he free climbed “Golden Gate,” a 3,000-foot 5.13a on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California, with his wife. Steck’s near “onsight” turned heads earned him respect among the typically unfazed Yosemite denizens.
Steck’s real passion, however, was for the mountains—moving light and fast and covering as much terrain in a single push as possible. He trained for his biggest Himalayan ascents by running and soloing in the European Alps. One of his favorite outings was to speed climb the infamous Eiger Nordwand (“North Face”), an historic feature first climbed over four epic days in 1938. Steck first soloed the Nordwand when he was 28 years old, taking just 10 hours. Over the years, he continued to improve his time, ultimately racing, in 2015, to the Eiger summit in just 2 hours 22 minutes and 50 seconds—a standing record.
Steck’s career was not without controversy. In 2013, he was acclimatizing on Everest with Simone Moro, a famous high-altitude mountaineer and helicopter pilot from Italy, and Jonathan Griffith, an English climber and photographer. The trio made the decision to climb above a team of rope-fixing Sherpas, an action to which the Sherpas took offense. An altercation ensued at a lower camp in which a large, angry group of working Sherpas confronted the European climbers, and ultimately hurled rocks at their tents.
In a recent video, Steck offered a haunting definition of success in regards to his Everest-Lhotse project. “I will not offer a definition of success … The only definition [of failure] is to have an accident or die.”
To many, Steck will always be remembered as the Swiss Machine—a powerful, rare animal stretching its formidable legs and lungs across an impossible mountain sweep. But to those who knew him, he was much more. As British journalist Ed Douglas, who has covered Steck’s career over the years, wrote on Twitter:
“One thing Ueli Steck wasn’t and that’s a machine. Warm and at times surprisingly fragile. But not a machine.”
Steck is survived by his wife, Nicole.