Ueli Steck setting a new record.
The Eiger is a 13,025 ft peak in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland.
+5 pts for having Radical Face for the soundtrack.
At the limit: Speed climbing
Scaling the treacherous north face of the Eiger in less than three hours is the pinnacle of the extreme sport of speed climbing
The Traverse of the Gods is still a desperate climb. Its approach is scored by a thousand scratches, each the scramble of an alpinist looking for purchase on the icy rock. If climbers fall here they will have 14 seconds to ponder their mistake before they reach the bottom.
Many have been defeated by this, the most exposed section of the north face of the Eiger, itself one of the most infamous climbs in Europe. The mountain was first conquered in 1858, but its near-vertical northern flank, with unpredictable weather and snow and ice fields rarely touched by the sun, held out until 1938.
Generations of mountaineers have been inspired to try, but few have made it. It is a climb that has claimed more than 50 souls. Yet Ueli Steck, a Swiss climber, has just shattered all past records by shinning up the north face in 2hr 47min 33sec. His previous best in 2007 was just under four hours, which itself had slashed half an hour off the four-year old record held by Christoph Hainz, an Italian climber.
Steck’s feat is the latest example of the growing phenomenon of “speed climbing”. For adherents it is no longer enough to climb a mountain “because it’s there”; they also want to scale it in record time.
To understand the magnitude of his achievement, we need to go back to when the north face was first conquered. For three days in the summer of 1938, excited tourists manned the observation telescopes of the Kleine Scheidegg hotel in Switzerland. High above them, four alpinists were hacking their way up the north face – a vertical mile of ice, rock and snow– to the summit 13,025ft above sea level. On past form, the assembled crowd must have expected to witness the climbers’ deaths.
Instead, they were present for a pivotal event in mountaineering history: it was the last great unclimbed Alpine wall, and the Austrian-German team who scaled it received personal congratulations from Adolf Hitler. They also inspired such greats as Chris Bonington, who made the first British ascent 24 years later.
Steck’s phenomenal climb began on the morning of Februay 13. The weather was fine, and he was acclimatised to the altitude.
He stood at the base of the cliff and looked up at the huge wall of rock towering above him. If he was to climb it in less than three hours, he would need to cover 35 vertical feet a minute. To do that, he needed to be as light as possible.
An ordinary climbing pair on the Eiger’s north face carry two 200ft ropes, a sleeping bag each, a stove, gas, food for three days, ice axes, and safety gear for attaching equipment to ice and to rock.
Everything Steck had could fit in a small rucksack. He had just the essentials: a thin 100ft rope (which he didn’t use), a single ice screw, four karabiners and a pair of ice axes. Most ramblers on Ben Nevis carry more weight. Because of his training regime, he had also lost 11lb in body weight. Compared with his last record breaking ascent, he was lighter, quicker and stronger. His attempt followed the most popular line, the 1938 route. “On the lower part of the wall there was quite a lot of snow, which cost me a lot of energy,” he says. In every other respect, though, the “conditions were simply perfect: very dry rock and the ice fields were covered with hard snow”.
His first major obstacle was the Hinterstoisser Traverse. A thin band of vertical rock, 100ft wide, it separates the lower portion of the climb from a steep snow slope beyond. At this point, any climber who looks down between their legs will see 2,000ft of clear air.
In a celebrated feat of rock climbing, Andreas Hinterstoisser proved in 1936 that it was climbable, but in doing so sealed his fate. When his party was forced to retreat, they discovered they could not cross back – the traverse was possible from right to left, but from left to right there were simply not enough holds. All four climbers died: the last frozen to death dangling helplessly from a rope, within earshot of rescuers.
After the Hinterstoisser Traverse comes a series of snow fields. This is where most parties pause after a day’s climbing to set up camp for the night before trekking across to the next rocky section. Steck, however, was still a little over an hour into his ascent.
By this stage it was critical that he moved fast. He needed to cross the upper sections before the temperature rose too high – even in winter, loose rocks come unfrozen from the crumbling face, hurtling down at deadly speeds.
At the end of the snow fields, Steck reached Death Bivouac – named for an unfortunate early climbing party who froze to death, huddled in the snow. Only now, for a climber of Steck’s ability, did the serious climbing begin.
The route takes alpinists directly up a steep groove known as the Ramp. A thin ice-filled crack, flanked by angled rock, it is perhaps the most technically difficult section of the whole face. Here, Steck’s experience showed. Delicately placing his crampons on thin ledges, and wedging his axes in cracks, he pulled himself elegantly up – to be rewarded with the Traverse of the Gods. If there was anywhere where Steck would have succumbed to fear, it was here. But his concessions to safety were small.
“I carried my rope on my back and had a daisy chain on my harness, which allowed me to clip on the fixed gear on the route,” he says, describing the looped sling he used to attached himself to equipment left by other climbers. “Other than that, I did not use the rope at all.”
As he entered the third hour of his climb, laterising tourists in Kleine Scheidegg would have still been taking breakfast. Some might have been looking through one of the many telescopes trained on the mountain. If they had been, they would have seen Steck facing his last obstacles: the White Spider, a snow slope where the first of the day’s rocks would be plummeting to earth; and the Exit Cracks – thin grooves leading to the summit ridge.
Finally, his thighs burning, soaked in sweat, but otherwise unharmed, Steck hauled himself the last few feet to the summit and stopped his watch. He had climbed 6,000ft; the display read 2hr, 47min 33sec.
Some have criticised Steck’s achievement, and the new obsession with speed, as demeaning to the efforts of other climbers, but Sir Chris Bonington believes it to be an inevitable progression. “The real thing is, as in all sports, each generation is trying to surpass the previous generation,” he says.
“In areas that have been developed for a long time – the Alps, Yosemite, Everest – because you can’t do new routes, the top climbers need to measure themselves against something. So there is a definite trend to go in for speed climbing. It is the game we play – it is just a natural development.”
Steck is not alone in taking on previously hallowed peaks with a nonchalance bordering on disrespect. Last year Christian Stangl, an Austrian climber, completed the seven summits – the highest mountains in each continent – in a combined time of 58hr 45min. He went up Everest in less than 17 hours. And in September climbers will converge on Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain, for the fourth annual speed climbing competition where competitors discard much of the equipment previously thought essential in an effort to shed weight and increase speed.
So has the daunting reputation of the north face of the Eiger, the mother of all peaks, been lessened now that Steck has shown he can reach the top in less time than most people take to summit Snowdon? “It’s still a very special mountain to me,” he says. “It’s my home mountain and I have spent so many days of my life and climbed so many routes.
“The fact that I am the first human to climb the north face in under three hours will stay with me for ever.”
Conquerers of the north face
1938 First successful ascent of the north face, led by Anderl Heckmair; it took three days
1947 Lionel Terray and Louis Lachenal, a French team, follow Heckmair’s route for the second ascent. On completion, Terray vows never to repeat it
1962 Chris Bonington and Ian Clough complete the first British ascent, spending one night on the mountain
1963 First solo ascent, by Michel Darbellay, taking 18 hours
1981 Ueli Bühler, a Swiss guide, climbs the face solo in 8½ hours
2003 Christoph Hainz reaches the top of the north face in a little more than 4½ hours
2007 Ueli Steck stuns the climbing world by conquering the north face in a time of 3hr 54min
2008 Steck beats his own record, reaching the summit in 2hr 47min 33sec