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Touch the Sky

How are mountains like motorbikes? One way is this: if you like either of them, you may know a lot of people who have died young. Mountains and motorbikes are both thrilling things to experience, pushing senses and skills to their limit, but with the thrill comes danger. You might fall or you might crash. And when you’re climbing at great height or moving at great speed, a fall or a crash can easily prove fatal.

Ueli Steck always knew the danger that came with his love of mountains, but he didn’t let it stop him becoming one of the world’s greatest climbers. Now the Swiss has become another of the greats who died young: he was only forty when he fell almost half-a-mile from the Himalayan peak Nuptse on 14th May 2017. He was preparing himself physically for one of the astonishingly fast climbs that had brought him fame and admiration from the mountaineering fraternity.

This time he was targeting the world’s highest mountain: Everest. It’s also one of the world’s most dangerous mountains, but that’s partly because it attracts many inexperienced mountaineers and then disorientates them with altitude sickness. Where oxygen is thin, the brain grows dim. At high altitude the simplest task, like untying a knot or putting on a glove, can suddenly seem like a complicated problem in chess. And the longer you’re at height, the worse it gets. Everest and other Himalayan giants have a “death zone”, or region where human beings cannot survive long when breathing unaided.

Steck, who climbed without bottled oxygen, knew very well how dangerous Himalayan climbing can be. That was one of his reasons for climbing so fast. Yes, he was pushing himself to his limits, but the faster he moved, the less time he was exposed to thin, freezing air and to the danger of rock falls and avalanches. He’d proved that during one of the greatest mountaineering feats of all time: his ascent of the north face of the Eiger in 2 hours 22 minutes 50 seconds. Some mountaineers have taken two days to do the same.

And many have died in the attempt. The Eiger is in the Alps and isn’t particularly high by Himalayan standards. But its north face – the Eigerwand, or “Eigerwall” – is very steep, very cold and very icy. It is swept by regular avalanches of rock and snow, as though it’s trying to brush itself clean of the pesky human midgets who challenge it. The less time a mountaineer is on the face, the smaller the danger. But only the most skilled and daring mountaineer can climb at speed on such demanding terrain. Steck climbed very fast indeed, cementing his reputation as the “Swiss Machine”.

He didn’t like the nickname and his friends knew that he was nothing like a robot in his personal relationships. He was badly upset by the dispute he had with Nepalese porters in 2012, when he was accused of disrespecting them by climbing solo and without on Everest. That was a low before the high he reached two years later when he made a solo ascent of the south face of Annapurna in the Himalayas. That’s like climbing three or four Eigerwands stacked on top of each other. It won him mountaineering’s greatest prize, the Piolet d’Or, or “Golden Ice-Axe”, and would have been a fit end to his career.

But he was still young and still wanted to experience the thrills and joys of climbing high, unaided, and very, very fast. Annapurna had nearly killed him in 2007, when he was struck on his climbing helmet and knocked out, apparently by a falling rock. He fell a thousand feet onto a glacier and although he survived the fall, he might have died when he came to and was groggy with concussion. Fortunately, he was climbing with an expedition that time and other members of the team rescued him.

Thirteen years later, his luck ran out and another fall in the Himalayas has snuffed out one of the brightest stars ever to shine in the mountaineering firmament. Ueli Steck was only forty, but he did more in those few decades than most of us could achieve in a dozen lifetimes.