There are two kinds of great athletes. The first stand out by comparison, the Jordans, Gretzkys and Maradonas who dominate by being consistently better than their peers. The second are completely different. These are the athletes whose approach is so different from what has come before that they not only excel, but change their sports in the process. Ueli Steck is one of these athletes.
Steck isn’t just a fast climber. His application of speed and ultra-marathon level endurance to mountaineering is as revolutionary as Reinhold Messner’s introduction of alpine-style climbing to the Himalayas in the 1970s. Steck is, in effect, creating a new sport, shattering speed records by moving faster over snow, rock and ice than most climbers can imagine.
But what does it mean for alpinism to be focused on time? Traditionally, in the climbing world, records were fixed. When a team or soloist bagged a first ascent, that was that. The route could be climbed again, climbed faster, or in a different style, but the first ascent stayed on the books. Time-based records, like those in running, only hold till someone faster comes along.
Steck, though, continues to approach his projects with a traditional climbing mindset. His goal isn’t to beat a competitor’s time but to reinvent a route as a speed climb. Like the first free ascent of a climb that has only previously been aided, Steck’s projects are reinterpretations of existing routes. After setting a speed record on the Eiger, he turned to the Himalaya to pioneer speed ascents on 8,000 meter peaks. He returns this spring to continue that quest.
So while Steck’s projects are measured in time, what sets them apart is the vision behind them. Eventually, his time record for any given climb may be beaten. But like Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile, his first speed ascents will stand as milestones even if their times are broken.Wenger Swiss Army are proud to have Ueli as one of their brand ambassadors.