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Speed Series Part III: Ueli Steck

Ueli Steck solos the Heckmain Route (ED2, 1800m, Harrer-Heckmair-Kasparek-Voerg, 1938) on the Eiger. In 2008, Steck climbed the peak in 2 hours and 47 minutes, breaking his own record by 67 minutes. [Photo] Robert Boesch

Outdoors enthusiasts love to quantify their pursuits. Kayakers measure difficulty with a I-VI class system; BASE jumpers use meters and seconds; even skiers have the D System for quantifying risk, difficulty and length. But no outdoors-person loves to quantify his or her feats more than climbers. From length and commitment to medium and style, climbers have a classification for everything. The growing popularity of speed climbing has brought to the forefront an entirely different way to quantify our sport: time.

Recently, we at Alpinist picked the brains of the speediest climbers to learn more about speed climbing and how it fits into our grade-crazy community.

This week, we sat down with Ueli Steck, who has broken numerous speed records in the Alps over the last few years. In 2011 and beyond, Steck plans to take his speed-climbing strategies and training to 8000-meter peaks.

Please tell me about your first speed climb. What about it inspired you to continue speed climbing?

For me it started on the north face of the Eiger. I first climbed it in 1995 with my friend Markus. After several ascents, I soloed it for the first time in 2004 in 10 hours. This made me think about Thomas Bubendorfer’s time of 4 hours and 50 minutes and Christoph Heinz’s 4-hour, 30-minute record. This was almost incredible for me. Less than half the time it took me to climb it. This pushed me to improve my climbing.

What did you do to improve your time on the Eiger?

I climbed solo a lot in the following years. I was not sure how to beat the record, but I didn’t care. I just want to do it faster. The result was 3 hours 54 minutes. I thought “Wow that’s great!” But I also knew that’s definitely not close to my personal limit. After that, I spent one year to train and improve my speed skills, I set the second record in 2:47. But this time will not change the world, so I came with the idea to climb Matterhorn and Grandes Jorasses.

Editor’s Note: In 2008, Steck set the speed record on Grandes Jorasses at 2:21. The following year, he broke the Matterhorn record, climbing the peak in 1:56.

Steck swings his way up the McIntyre Route on Grandes Jorasses. His climb from base to summit clocked in at 2 hours and 21 minutes, making his the fastest ascent in the peak’s history. [Photo] Robert Boesch

In what style did you climb during your record ascents?

I wanted to make the record, but I also wanted to do it onsight and not using the rope. I climbed the whole route free and not using any rope or protection at all. I used this technique for other projects. I know now I can move very fast in unknown and quite technical terrain. Jorasses is 5.10, A1. But this absolute speed is very dangerous so you have to slow down. Otherwise you’re going to die. I try to keep using this technique, but on a more moderate level. I am sure the speed ascents will be a very important experience for me in the future. At the moment I am interested in the big mountains: 8000m peaks.

What is climbing “about” and how does speed climbing fit into that philosophy?

I think climbing is more than a sport. It’s about a lifestyle and I am loving this lifestyle. But for me climbing is not just about hanging around. I am an athlete; I need my training. And speed climbing fits perfectly with this idea, It’s not just about being on a summit. For me its also important how you reach the summit.

How does alpine speed climbing differ from speed climbing in other environments?

Alpine climbing is a lot about conditions and waiting for the right moment. For me, the speed climbing in Yosemite is a kind of strange. It’s about minutes now. But these minutes depend on two placements in the Great Roof, or whatever. People take it very seriously in Yosemite. For me you cannot compare the ascents because (in Yosemite) there are always different conditions on the route: how many parties you have to pass, how much fixed gear is on the route, etc.

But that’s also the same for alpine climbing. Every ascent will have different conditions, but it is just fun. I think it is nice to be able to climb a peak in several hours instead of several days. You don’t have to suffer so much.

What kind of compromises to your safety do you make when you’re speed climbing?

I am always taking the same risk. I never climb a route and without being 100 percent sure it will work out well. But of course there is always a risk of falling off. It is only your own skill that will change this risk factor.

Steck stops his watch on the summit of the Eiger after his record-breaking ascent in February 2008. [Photo] Robert Boesch

Speed Series Part I: Alex Honnold“It’s all super safe as long as no one falls.”

Speed Series Part II: Sean Leary and Dean Potter“We’re always filled with the knowledge that if we fall, it’s a minimum 100-footer and probably way more. You’re going to kill your friend and probably mutilate or kill yourself.”