When Ueli fell to death three months ago, it really came as a shock to me. It did, because I supposed that he had reached a point where he would slow everything down a bit. Because he recognized he had to.
It seems that Ueli mostly was a very reflective person, at least to me. After his fantastic but questioned success on Annapurna in 2013 he continued to reflect on his risk-taking. In an interview he told me he was very aware of the risks that climbs like the one accomplished at Annapurna bear, and that he could not continue on that level forever. He really wanted to slow down everything, it seemed. And in this regard his honesty was impressive, although perhaps he was not consequent in following his own conclusions.
He perfectly knew what the consequences are when you fail on such a high level of both skill and risk-taking: »Failing means dying,« he said in his last interview.
The climb he planned, a traverse of Lhotse and Everest, was probably not very demanding in technical regards, but definitely extremely demanding in length and altitude. If we believe his own statements, he even chose the climb because it was relatively free of risks, compared to the majesty and size of the enterprise. He would either push through, or get too exhausted and descent.
But still, this climb would take alpinism a step further, as also Reinhold Messner recognized.
In October 2016, I asked Ueli why he had continued to do solo climbs, despite writing in his book that he wanted to stop it, for respect of his wife.
»yes, that is in fact a delicate topic for me. Actually, I have to be careful with those solo climbs, because you largely go to the limits there. But on the other hand, that is a part of me and I cannot simply say “No, I won’t do that anymore.” Not, as long as I have the feeling that it’s something that drives me. So you somehow have to settle this with yourself. It was a phase, in which we thought about it very much and my wife would certainly prefer if I wouldn’t do it. But still, solo-climbing is a part of my personality. And that was the reason I always turned back to do solo stuff.«
Ueli’s very honest answer basically says that he cannot simply quit something which he is driven by, and he would disregard his wife’s feelings in this concern. Is that an exaggerated interpretation? To say he is driven, or, possessed? Probably not.
»If you always act in this dangerous field, it will go wrong eventually.«
Ueli already had been lucky a few times, primarily in a solo attempt on Annapurna in 2007, when he was hit by a stone and fell.
On Mount Everest he was nearly killed by sherpas who were angry about him, throwing stones and fists, for climbing above them while they were fixing ropes. After, he even considered to quit the whole issue of professional climbing.
To both mountains, however, he turned back, having passed through processes of intense reflection, or even a mental blockade.
Was he inable to follow his own reasonable considerations? He perfectly knew that, if he continued that way, it »will go wrong eventually« (»irgendwann geht das schief«). And his death opens up the abyss of an intricate human psyche, one I was inspired by for its sheer honesty and depth. But I was also shocked and appalled by it.
Reading what he said in his last interview, took my breath. Questioned about a remark he once made about the high amount of alpinists dying in the age of 40 to 45, he said:
»Of course I always ask myself, if I should take myself out of that game. However, that’s extremely difficult. Because in mountaineering, decreasing fitness can be outweighed by increasing risk. Hence, you can still achieve outstanding results. But the development is foreseeable: at some point you would risk too much and crash. That is why my climb on Annapurna in 2013 was no success. The risk I took was so high that I survived only by enormous luck. So this cannot be a successful climb for me, although I stood on top.«
That’s not easy to grasp, I think. But again, it sounds like he was becoming more careful.
In the end, the game was deadly. He died 40 years old. But perhaps it was simply misfortune. There’s always at least a slightest chance of deadly misfortune, everywhere. And even the best of the best cannot expel risk completely, although they’re also best in calculating and dealing with risk. Let’s believe it was only misfortune and there is no deeper meaning to his death.
Although it is hard for me not to believe there is a deeper meaning, and it was pointed out once by Reinhard Karl who said after becoming the first German to climb Everest:
»Slowly, after joy comes sadness, a feeling of emptiness: a utopia has become reality. I intuit that Everest, too, is only a pre-summit, the real summit will never be reached.«
You just have to go on. We all have to.