The climbing pioneer redrew the boundaries of the sport.
At Tengboche Monastery nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, Tibetan monks sang and chanted prayers during a three-hour ceremony. With Mount Everest as the backdrop, it was a fitting tribute in Nepal to the life of world-renowned alpinist Ueli Steck.
The 40-year-old Swiss climber passed away this spring while training for the Everest-Lhotse Traverse Project, a never-before-accomplished summit and traverse of neighboring peaks Everest and Lhoste—the first and fourth highest in the world—in a single push. His absence will be felt by athletes, enthusiasts and the mountaineering community at large.
“Ueli was one of those rare people who changed our ideas of what is possible in the mountains,” wrote Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club. “His fast ascents of giant peaks inspired us all.”
Steck was celebrated for his innovations in climbing, most notably the speed and lightness with which he ascended many of the world’s most challenging peaks. In 2009, he received climbing’s highest honor, the Piolet d’Or, for ascending a new route up Tengkampoche in Nepal. Shared standards of speed and performance brought Steck and Audi into a sponsorship, and in 2014, Steck earned the honor again for his first solo climb of the south face of Annapurna in Nepal.
When Steck bolted up the north face of Switzerland’s Eiger (13,025 feet) in 2 hours 22 minutes, he set a record that stands today. Speed was not a common consideration in climbing before Steck, and he will be remembered for bringing this new kind of athleticism to the centuries-old sport.
“Ueli was one of those rare people who changed our ideas of what is possible in the mountains.”
His precision and swiftness earned him the nickname Swiss Machine, which he was reputed to dislike. Throughout his career, Steck was in a race against himself, always striving to be lighter, quicker and fitter.
To develop the physical capacity to power up climbs such as Everest, often without supplemental oxygen, Steck was relentless in his preparation. He was among the first to bring Olympic-level training to climbing. To maintain a precise weight and heartrate for major climbs, he followed a Spartan diet and rigorous exercise regime that also involved weightlifting, distance running and mental training. He often followed a big climb with a trail run up the steep ridges around his hometown of Interlaken, Switzerland.
Beyond extensive training, Steck worked out ways to shed minutes off his ascents by leaving behind materials most climbers carry. Less can be more when performance is the ultimate goal, as recognized by Audi engineers and Steck. At the forefront of a more minimalist climbing style, his apparel sponsor worked with him to design lightweight gear that eliminated pockets, zippers, vents and other nonessentials. Steck even pushed them to create a zipperless sleeping bag for the sake of efficiency. “If you’re able to move fast, you don’t need a lot of equipment,” he once said. “You’re so light [and] that’s where you can really push the limit.”
While his innovations and records earned global recognition, it was his mindset that made him truly remarkable. Steck valued the personal challenge over numbers and hardware. When asked about his 2-hour 22-minute summit of Eiger, he brushed off the notion of calling it a record. “Conditions and weather are always different,” he said.
A friend of Steck, journalist Billi Bierling wrote in a tribute, “What I liked about Ueli was his modesty and the fact that, despite his amazing achievements, he was down to earth—never arrogant. When you look at the CV on his website, it says, ‘Profession: trained carpenter’ even before he lists all his incredible mountaineering achievements.”
Steck’s interviews and ascents make clear that he was impassioned by the journey and by devising new routes such as the Everest-Lhotse Traverse Project. In a video he posted shortly before embarking, he said that just thinking about a project like this is enough. “My goal is that process to think about it, to train and to try.”
Audi was honored to share a long sponsor partnership with Steck. Our thoughts are with his friends and family during this time.