The Swiss Machine
It did not surprise me to hear that Ueli Steck has climbed the Eiger North Face thirty seven times. In fact it makes perfect sense.
Conventional wisdom suggests that to succeed in achieving significant breakthroughs, one might try to think 'out of the box'. My sense in listening to Steck speaking last night, was that in the way he sees the world, there simply is no 'box'. He climbs like an ibex or a mountain goat, simply doing what works best for him.
To use superlatives to describe Steck, would be to not have listened carefully to his message. As he spoke to a full house at University of Washington's Kane Hall, it was clear that he is a humble man and a straightforward thinker. While I was curious to know if he was a risk-seeker or driven by psychotic demons... I came away from his talk believing that he is not a risk-seeker, but that he accepts risk in pursuit of his chosen path. Consequences aside, there is probably more risk of me falling on the stairs at my office today, than of him falling off the Eiger Norwand.
In his videos, it's clear that he is moving fast and it's true that not infrequently, one of his feet slip off a rock or piece of loose snow. It could look dangerous, but on closer inspection, (on technical terrain) he has three solid points of contact at every move. He's just so smooth that it's hard to see when one limb stops moving and the other one starts. Those foot slips are part of the plan and he can recover them effortlessly.
On moderately steep snow (where protected by a run-out), he does move his arms and legs simultaneously for efficiency. When running along a a knife-edged ridge, while he does certainly look like he might be a couple of steps away from coming off... he is subtly leaning into the slope, just a few feet from the crest and in a position to fall inwards rather than outwards. He also spoke of doing many training sessions where he runs in crampons, in order to enhance his footing on snow and ice. He is not reckless and there is a consistency to his method of mitigating hazards.
He started his talk by speaking about fitness, saying that "Fitness is rather underdeveloped in mountaineering" (he used a comparison to marathon running). With a coaching team he uses a trifecta of mountaineering, trail running and core-strength training to prepare. He said that 80% of his training is aerobic, which means that most of the time he is not working hard. This made me realize that the key to his ability to move rapidly is not so much based on an impenetrable drive to go to the limit, but rather the application of the "slow is smooth - smooth is fast" concept. I think he is at play on the mountain, using his remarkable efficiency, vast experience (especially his intimate feel for the medium of snow, rock and ice) and his confidence based on self-knowledge to move through mountain terrain as a bird might move through air currents. Where most people labor, he flows. There is too, an absence of competitiveness in his intentional approach. During his talk, he mentioned several times that it is important to not compare ourselves with others, but to focus on doing what is right for ourselves.
If there was a take-home realization that I could apply in some way, it was Ueli's demeanor and approach. He has command over his emotions in a way which empowers, freeing his mind for the task of coolly challenging gravity. There is not a hint of drama in his storytelling, there is no yelling or whooping it up, he seems to have an ability to create a hypnotic calmness and he seems to avoid rumination. In telling of providing assistance to a hurt climber on Annapurna, he followed up a description of his attempt to help this person, by saying, "Unfortunately he died of altitude-sickness in the tent next to me that night".... He neither explained nor judged, but simply shared. His generosity showed, too. In borrowing a pair of boots and doing an unplanned 8,000 meter climb (on an unknown route) to support that climber, Ueli also ensured that this man was not alone as he passed.
There certainly is a gentleness about his spirit. My strongest sense is that in the purity of the way he practices his craft, as well as the way utilizes his physical and mental gifts, he is, as Sree Sree Thaker described, 'upholding existence' in what he does and how he lives.
With his inspiring stories, breathtaking imagery, his lighthearted humor and encouragement. He is a person who makes it difficult, or not-possible, to remain unquestioning in our attitudes to potential and purpose.
There is no doubt Ueli Steck is a remarkable climber. I came away from meeting him, thinking he is also a remarkable man.