Legendary alpinist Ueli Steck set out last year on an odyssey to take speed climbing to some of the tallest mountains on Earth: the Himalayas. After ups and downs, a little over a year later, he went back to take care of some unfinished business.
Dubbed Project Himalaya, or Himalaya Speed, Steck’s mission pitted him against some of the Himalayas’s most fabled 8,000 meter peaks: Shisha Pangma, Cho Oyu, and Mount Everest. But unlike typical ascents of these summits, which often take days or weeks, he planned to employ his speed climbing technique–an endurance-intensive sprint up the mountains.
In 2011, he conquered two of the 8,000 meter peaks, in addition to logging a quick ascent up the steep Cholatse mountain. After failing on the third peak in 2011, he returned to the Himalayas in May of this year to chalk it up on his incomparable mountaineering CV. This third and final peak was Everest, and he aimed to climb it fast and without oxygen.
Ueli Steck blasted onto the mountain climbing scene when he took the summit of The Eiger’s North Face in a record time of 3 hours and 54 minutes in 2007. The very next year, he conquered his own record, cutting the speed to less than three hours. (By comparison, the first ascent that successfully reached the summit took three days, and this was made only after the North Face had claimed the lives of seven other climbers who’d previously attempted the summit.)
After dazzling the Alpinist world with this feat, Steck said, “I want to take this to the Himalaya. In the big mountains, that’s where you can really push the limits.”
And that’s just what he did. After blazing up Cholatse (about 6,440 meters) on a steep-pitched Alpine mix-climbing route, Steck set his sights on the 8,000 meter peaks. Beginning on April 16th, he solo-climbed the summit of the Shisha Pangma, the 14th highest mountain in the world. The ascent took him up more than 2,000 vertical meters of terrain, where he reached the 8,027 meter summit in a mere 10.5 hours.
Just 18 days later, on May 5th, Steck took his second speed-climbing 8,000 m+ summit, conquering Cho Oyu, the sixth tallest mountain in the world. This 8,201 meter peak he took with partner Don Bowie in 10.5 hours as well.
And the final climb–this the granddaddy of them all, Mt. Everest (8,848 meters)–Steck failed to do on his initial mission, having to turn down because of poor weather and an acute potential to lose his toes to frostbite (without the help of oxygen at those altitudes, there is little to carry your warm blood to your extremities).
Yet Steck returned to the Himalayas in May of this year and conquered Everest sans oxygen on May 18, thus completing his original triple-summit mission.
Upon reaching this lifelong goal, Steck wrote the following:
“At 1.15 pm I reached summit of Everest. Clouds appeared on the sky. The view was limited. I could spot Tibet on the north side. Makalu, which came out of the clouds. I thought about my ascent on Makalu. What a fight it was and how exhausted I was. Although the view was limited I had the feeling to know exactly where I was. It was not new or unfamiliar or strange. I took some pictures with the Sherpas. Tenji was not on summit yet. I decided to descend.”