ExWeb interview with Ueli Steck: "We couldnt have lived with ourselves otherwise"

Posted: Jun 27, 2008 03:02 pm EDT

(MountEverest.net) The Khumbu Express, the Young Spider, Eiger speed record, a new route on the north side of GII East, a solo attempt on Annapurna south wall Swiss Ueli Steck has climbed fast into the mountaineering hall of fame.

Suffering a head injury on Annapurnas avalanche prone south slope last year, Ueli swore to come back. He kept his word, only his time - it wasn't a falling rock that wrecked his plan.<cutoff>

<b>A call for help on Annapurna's south face</b>

On another part of the deadly wall, Friday May 16 a team of three climbers were headed up on a summit push. On Monday May 19, following a16 hours non-stop climb, two of them turned around very close to the top and descended to camp 4 at around 7400 meters. In the tent, Spanish Inaki Ochoa suddenly became seriously ill and the situation quickly became desperate.

With him in the high camp, Inaki's climbing partner Romanian Horia Colibasanu called home for medical advice over a dying sat phone. Unaware of the situation, Russian partner Alexey Bolotov was lost somewhere above in a lonely summit push. The climbers had already spent 3 hard days high up and Inaki was fast deteriorating. Horia soon used a radio to call for help the only other climbers left on the dreaded peak; Ueli Steck and his climbing partner Simon Anthamatten.

Realizing the urgency, Ueli and Simon dropped everything and sped up the wall. Simon stayed behind in camp 3 while Ueli reached Horia and Inaki on Thursday, May 22. By then Horia had spent 4 days trying to aid his dying friend, and close to a week on Annapurnas high slope. Thanks to Uelis fast ascent, Horia survived but it was too late for Inaki. Within 24 hours of his arrival, the Spanish mountaineer died by Ueli's side.

Steck returned home to Switzerland where he was honored by the prestigious Eiger award and earlier this week, ExplorersWeb caught up with him for an interview. Usually in our chats, we go over mostly technical stuff with Ueli. This interview though, had to be different. Here goes:

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> Hi Ueli, congrats to your Eiger award, how are you - any scars from Anna this time?</i>

<b>Ueli:</b> Thank you. No scars.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> Tell us about Inaki, what was it like to climb up to him - you did it in such a record time?</i>

<b>Ueli:</b> When we received the distress call from Horia, we instantly knew that we were going to help. I couldnt have lived with the fact that we did not help and instead had gone for our own attempt on Annapurna South face. You have just one life to live and I can go to Annapurna another 20 times if I will.

So Simon and I went as fast as we could. However we had to be careful, too. Going from C2 straight to C3 would have been too dangerous with the avalanches and lots of snow, so we had to wait and move again very early in the morning.

Further we had another, quite a big problem. In our first try to climb Annapurna south face on May 15 we had left all our high altitude gear in ABC (4900 m). There was no time to get it so to rescue Inaki and Horia we had to leave our base camp with only the equipment we had in BC; light alpine material which is adequate for a summer expedition up to around 4000 m, but definitely not up to 7500.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> This all must have been a shock to Simon as well - this was his first 8000+ experience?</i>

<b>Ueli:</b> Not really a shock, but it came completely unexpected out of the blue. Simon is a mountain guide; he knows how to act in difficult situations. Within minutes you have to take the right decisions and this all the way up. It was mentally very challenging. Simon is a smart and strong person, and I was grateful to have him next to me.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> What condition were Inaki and Horia in when you arrived? And what about Alexey?</i>

<b>Ueli:</b> Simon and I reached Camp 3 on Wednesday around noon. We didnt have direct contact with Inaki and Horia because of the ridge. Alexey reached Camp 3 the same day around 4.00 pm, just down from his summit success. We noticed that Alexey and I had the same shoe size. So we swapped gear. We then convinced him to descend to C2 as there wasn't space for three people in the small tent at C3.

We knew that Horia was getting worse as well. I wanted him to come down, but he didnt want to leave Inaki alone. That night, on early Thursday, Simon had first signs of altitude sickness. This, along with the fact that he didnt have the right gear, made us decide that I would move on alone.

I radioed Horia when I reached the ridge, telling him to come and meet me and track the route. He complied, which saved his life. We met up about an hour and a half later; he was so exhausted that he could hardly walk. I gave him Dex, food, melted water for him to drink and then a caffeine pill. He felt better and after a while was able to descend safely to camp 3, where Simon was waiting for him.

I reached Inaki in camp 4 around 4 pm. He recognized my voice and I told him that Denis Urubko and Don Bowie were on their way up to help bring him down. He could hardly move and was unable to sit up. I gave him water to drink and a shot of Dexamethasone - intra-muscular straight in his thigh - following advice I had got over the phone from Swiss high altitude medicine specialist Oswald Oelz. Inaki felt a little bit better with the Dex, but could not keep anything down.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> To us, it seemed like you spent a long time with Inaki. What was it like? Was he aware of the great attempts made to save him? </i>

<b>Ueli:</b> I spent less than 24 hours with Inaki. The moment I arrived until he died on Friday, May 23 around noon, were less than 24 hours. I think he knew that help was on the way, but I do not know if he really realized this.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> How did you feel during this time? How did he feel?</i>

<b>Ueli:</b> Inaki was in a very bad shape. He kept throwing up and I tried my best as Horia did all the days before me to support him, talk to him, give him drink and food and hoping that Denis and Don would reach camp 4 in time. In these moments you just function. There is no time and space for other thoughts. I think that Inaki was glad that he wasn't left alone, and that he was taken care of during all this time.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> Could you two talk to each other? If yes, what did Inaki say?</i>

<b>Ueli:</b> I said things to cheer him up, to let him know that he is not alone. Inaki was too weak to speak. On Friday morning, after a long night, he asked for coffee. I thought "great, he is back to the important things in life." But there was no coffee, just water. And a couple of hours later he passed away.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> Was there really any chance? What was his condition like? </i>

<b>Ueli:</b> What shall I say. You never give up hope that there is a tiny chance, that everything will turn out OK. By the time I reached camp 4 Inaki was not able to walk anymore. To save him, we would have needed many more men to bring him down, and this straight away. Alone it was impossible. There was a lot of snow; the weather was bad, the visibility even worse, and the way from C4 over the ridge 3km long...

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> How did you feel when the end came? </i>

<b>Ueli:</b> After he died I have to be honest I got a little bit selfish. I knew I had to go down and that I had a long way ahead of me. But because the weather was too bad, I had to spend one more night in C4.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> Did you know Inaki from before? What made you drop everything and go up for him?</i>

<b>Ueli:</b> We knew that there was another Annapurna expedition over the moraine, who wanted to go for Annapurna main peak over the east ridge. We spoke on the phone several times to exchange weather forecasts and check in with each other. I knew Alexey from the Piolet dOr in 2005, but Inaki and Horia we met for the first time in Annapurna BC. We had some beer at their base camp.

As I said earlier: you just have one life to live and it was clear to us that we wanted to help them. Without hesitation. I must repeat; Simon and I could not have lived with the fact, that we did not help. It's just normal that you go and help.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> What was your descent like, you were alone, it must have been awful? </i>

<b>Ueli:</b> I was very focused. It had snowed all night and the sight of the conditions when I left C4 that Saturday morning was terrible. I couldn't see more than 2-3 meters (5 ft) ahead of me, and the track was gone.

Fortunately I had Simon's GPS in which I had set waypoints for every 50 meters on ascent. I backtracked by those points, locating them one after the other. The ridge is 3km long and the snow was waist deep, it took me 2 ½ hours to traverse it. There was no time to think, just walk and come down fast and safe.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> How do you feel about everything now?</i>

<b>Ueli:</b> I can live with it.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> What about your and Simon's attempt on the wall? How did that go? Will you try again? </i>

<b>Ueli:</b> We did a first attempt on May 15, but the weather was still too unstable. The avalanches came down already at 9 am, so we decided to return to BC and wait for another chance. Our expedition was supposed to last until June 9, so we had another 22 days to wait the weather out... Its too early to answer if I will try again.

<b>ExWeb:</b><i> Whats your next plan? And has the experience changed your views about climbing in any way? </i>

<b>Ueli:</b> I always was and I still am aware of the danger we are exposed to as part of our profession. I have some plans for the Alps around here. We shall see. And of course I will return to Himalaya.

<i>At 31 years old, Swiss climber Ueli Steck is known for his alpine-style climbs on major mountain faces in the Alps, Alaska, Himalayas and Patagonia. Free solo ascents and extreme mixed routes are his favorite games. In the Himalayas, he completed the first ascent on Pumoris West Face in alpine style, and he has attempted the North Face of Jannu.

In 2004 Ueli Steck soloed up Excalibur, a 6b, 350m-long route on the Wendenstöcke that he followed with a trilogy composed of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau's North faces in 24 hours, alongside Stephan Siegrist.

In April 2005, Ueli completed two outstanding solo ascents, alpine style, in the Nepalese region of Everest. One was the first solo ascent of the North Face of Cholatse (6,440m). Only days afterwards, he sped up the 1,500m-long East face of Tawoche. Bad conditions prevented him from completing the trilogy by soloing up the NE face of Ama Dablam. The combination of routes, known as the Khumbu Express project, got Ueli nominated for the 2005 edition of the International Piolet dOr.

July 10, 2006, Ueli Steck, Hans Mitterer and Cedric Haehlen reached the summit of GII East (7,758 m) via a new route on the peak's north side. Ueli, Hans and Cedric were members of a small team led by Kari Kobler, which also included Spaniard Manuel Lolo Gonzalez.

In 2007, Ueli attempted a solo, alpine style ascent of Annapurna, after acclimatizing climbs up Cholatse and Pumori. Uelis Annapurna climb was aborted when he was hit in the head by a falling rock and sustained a concussion.

The Swiss Eigernordwand (The Ogres north face) is one of Ueli's favorite spots. In winter 2005-06, he opened the new route Young Spider in solo, alpine style there and late 2007; he set an Eigernordwand speed record at 2hours and 47 minutes.

Ueli returned to Annapurna in spring 2008 but aborted the attempt for Inaki Ochoa who on May 19 suddenly showed stroke-like symptoms in a tent at 7400m on another part of the wall. Ueli reached Inaki on May 22nd and stayed with him until his death on May 23d.</i>


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Ueli Steck (right) and Simon Anthamatten (left). Image courtesy of Ueli Steck (click to enlarge).
Ueli Steck (right) and Simon Anthamatten (left) after the Annapurna ordeal. "I think that Inaki was glad that he wasn&#039;t left alone, and that he was taken care of during all this time," Ueli told ExplorersWeb. All above images courtesy of Alex Gavan&#039;s CloudClimbing.ro (click to enlarge).
Ueli Steck (left) receiving the 2008 Eiger Award. Image courtesy of the award organizers (click to enlarge).

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