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Losing Ueli Steck

Ueli Steck

Ueli Steck

I’ve lost one of my closest friends. Since the moment I heard the news, and watched as it shattered the worlds of so many people, I have been trying to make sense of many things. This man was a friend, a husband, a son, and a hero. It turns out that his influence, globally, was even bigger than what he achieved. Ueli Steck was so much more than a climber. What can we learn from this?

Since the accident I’ve had to balance an extra busy work and travel schedule with making sure I take time for myself, without a camera, continuing to be me. I’ve let some things slide while focusing on others. One thing I have been acutely aware of is that my senses are hypersensitive. I hear every bird sing, every leaf rustle, and see countless little movements as I pass through the environment. My head has not been full of the usual mix of random thoughts. At some point things slowed down, settled, and I came to realize that I’ve been present more often.

Times like these tend to bring out a lot of cliches. Not really knowing what else to say we utter them to comfort each other. But to me a cliche is only a cliche if you don’t mean it, or you don’t live it. “Follow your dreams!” is a cliche, doing it is not. I teased Ueli just before he left for Everest for his email auto-reply. It said, “Your email has been deleted while I focus on my dream.” Ueli was no cliche. 

I don’t want to simply proclaim that life is precious and we have to make the most of it, I just want to say life is. It is real, and we need to be real as well. For me, the loss of someone close has been a reminder of what is of real value.

In the last month I’ve found myself more appalled than ever at all the bullshit in this world. The things we consider worthy of focusing our energy on, our fake everything, and especially our social media where we can beat our chest about it all has become too much. I want to remove this from my life and do a restart to get back to what is most important. But what is that?

I’m old, approaching 50, in fact. No one is more surprised than I am about this. With more than thirty years of memories and experiences in the mountains, I started to consider which stand out, and why.

What I came up with are the moments that made me. Not moments that made me something; happy, successful, tired, whatever… I mean moments that made me what I am, moments that defined me in context of what I do.

There is some consistency within the moments that stand out; accomplishment, newness, suffering, and the discovery of what comes as a result of huge efforts. So I next considered what I can do in the coming years to have more of these experiences, also what things I can stop doing to avoid wasting time.

And then I went for a run in the mountains.

There I was again, listening to birds sing more beautifully than I’ve ever heard before, seeing a mouse dash across the trail in front of me, and just generally being still within myself. In that moment life had returned to being beautiful, it just took seeing it.

It’s all such a cliche, right? Be present… but it’s all we have and it always was. Every experience we have, memorable or not, is an opportunity. And every experience we will have will be another opportunity. We don’t need to pursue anything, it’s available all the time. 

Those birds were singing when Ueli was here, and they’re continuing to sing now. I don’t expect they’ll stop singing for me. It’s time to listen.

Ueli Steck

Ueli on the summit of the Eiger, New Year’s Eve 2016.

One of the most intense experiences of my life, and I was just watching… Ueli starting up the massive south face of Annapurna, solo.

We met Ueli on the glacier beneath the south face of Annapurna after his 28 hour solo. We could all relax.

Basecamp shower.

While in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley in 2015, Ueli was using Lobuche Peak as training. He’d literally run up to it’s 6119 meter summit, without ice axe. He kept encouraging me to have a go. As I was starting up he was coming down at full speed, and without stopping he just yelled, “1:49 to the summit!” He had a huge smile on his face.

Ueli getting pumped up during his 82 Summits project, 2015.

Ueli Steck

David Göttler, myself, and Ueli at ABC on Shishapangma.

Ueli Steck

Ueli convinced me to do the Eiger’s West Flank, but from Grindelwald, as a winter mountain run.

Bouldering at 5300 meters near Shishapangma basecamp, Tibet.

Ueli Steck

The world knew him as the Swiss Machine, but he was human, and threw snowballs like everyone else.

Ueli Steck

Our last of many runs together

Ueli Steck

Ueli, Janine, and I at Annapurna ABC, 2013.

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Comments 2

  1. Dan: Kathy here. I believe I’m having a similar experience, with a different cause. Extraordinary stress; danger, loss, effort: these can catalyze a clarity, sensory and intuitive, that can be called by different names: flow, nirvana, enlightenment, awakening… I believe what these have in common is the relative suppression of a sense of a separate self, and a greater awareness of connection and inter-dependence. Maybe that is what you’re describing. I love your description of your experience, whether it jibes with what I’m intuiting or not. Love and sympathy to you and Janine both.

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