Just climb. Nothing else. Fred Beckey died aged 94.

He was called dirt bag, even in the film about him that premiered this year, although he himself rather disliked that description. But actually he didn’t care about what others said about him anway. He just wanted to climb. And really just climb. He refused to have a professional career or even to have enough money. Uncompromisingly, through to his old days. »He chose to eschew climbing fame, financial security, marriage, and all other aspects of the ‘American dream’ in pursuit of climbing, back when it was an unheard of choice,« Colin Haley said in a speech about Beckey in 2015.

Fred Beckey became 94 years old, although he never quit climbing, again, through to his old days. And he died a natural death. Well, what is a natural death for a climber with this history? Beckey’s the climber with the biggest record of first ascents in America. Simply a legend. Moreover he was  a chronicler and historiograph. Someone who’s being adressed with demands to judge accomplished climbs.

In a nice and detailed article about Beckey by Alpinist Magazine, Beckey’s friend Megan Bond is quoted:

I know Fred mostly never wanted to be considered a “dirtbag”…. He actually worked a TON [and] saved every cent—he was not a bum…. He was not only a climber, but an academic in every sense of the word—a scholar of the mountain world: terrain, flora, fauna, geology. He was meticulous in his research, careful with his relationships, protective of wild places, and never wanted to die in the mountains. He out-climbed two generations, and outlived three. He made numerous trips to the Himalaya, many of these in the last 30 years, interested in uncharted landscapes, or at least untrodden…. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank, was the king of one-liners. He would become so one-thousand-percent fixated on a topic or project that there was no rest for anyone in his orbit until it was finished and complete; he hated to leave things undone. Most important to him in friendships was loyalty. If someone made a commitment to him to spend time with him and cancelled or didn’t follow through, he would continue to be gracious to that person, but the trust would be gone. Time was critical, and not to be wasted.

The legend goes that he was ignored in the selection for the first American Everest expedition in 1963 due to his dirt bag image. But actually, he seemed to have disliked such big team efforts anyway. Probably the dirt bag image is equivalent to what in German is called Bergvagabunden (mountain vagabond), as in the old alpinist folk song. Or a climbing bum: just living for and in the mountains, subsiding almost on nothing. Almost unimaginable, given today’s hype and an incredibly large outdoor industry with its colourfully dressed urban customers imprisoned in the rat raced of their work-life-balances, or should I say: earn-spend-balance.

No surprise, Beckey said about his desire to climb: »For me, the appeal of climbing has many sources: a longing to escape from the artificial civilized order, a need for self-rejuvenation, a desire to restore my sense of proportion. When you are climbing, you experience freedom from constraints.«

Still, Beckey was not outside of the system. But to a wide extent he gave a shit. Or a dirt; a dirt bag. Maybe he was an outsider in the best sense of the word. Almost unimaginable.

Read the entire Alpinist article here.

Source: Wikipedia/Peter Stevens

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A few more words about Ueli Steck

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.

He admitted,

»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. Continue reading

An exceptional one has gone: Ueli Steck is dead.

We are shocked by the message, the climbing community has to recognize the loss of one of its grandest. Ueli Steck’s dead body was found in the Mount Everest area, as the Himalayan Times reports, where he was preparing for a traverse of Everest and Lhotse.
It is hard to believe and words don’t come easy, although one might not be extremely  surprised by the message. Yes, in fact, there might not have been many other ways of dying imaginable for a person who loved the mountains and climbing as deeply and amply as Ueli Steck and who was as irresistibly attracted by them. Mountains were his life. But still, the message comes out of nothing and as a shock. Still it is hard to imagine a climbing world without Ueli. In an interview around three years ago, after his fantastic alpine-style climb of Annapurna’s south face, he told me that if he continued on that level, eventually this wold go wrong; »Irgendwann geht das schief.« What a fatal sentence.
Now it did go wrong, although he had seemed to have drawn consequences and did choose his recent project, the Everest-Lhotse-traverse, in particular because he did not want to continue climbing as risky as on Annapurna.

His death leaves questions, at least to me.

Ueli leaves a wife, and the climbing community mourns for one of its greatest lights of inspiration, possibly with a disturbing shade of dark fascination.

I need time to think about his death. You will certainly read more about this in the next days and weeks.

Inspiration on Women’s Day: Alison Hargreaves

Eiger North Face

The Eiger North Face. A.k.a. Eiger “Mordwand”. Epitome of a mountain face, filled with myth to its snow-edged brim: hair-raising tales of darkness and cold, death bivouacs, nationalist instrumentalization, and immense rockfall. First climbed in 1938.

Fifty years later, Scottish alpinist Alison Hargreaves climbed it in 1988, pregnant in her sixth month.

In August 1995 she died after having reached the summit of K2 – acknowledged as the world’s most dangerous mountain – without supplemental oxygen at the descent; and after having climbed Everest before, without supplemental oxygen, as the first woman, and as well, solo. She had a husband and two children, aged four and six. Continue reading

The outstanding free-climb of El Cap’s “Dawn Wall” and its echo

Much has been written about a climb that has been accomplished on El Cap in Yosemite on January 14th by Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell. It echoed even in larger media such as wide-read newspapers and was highly debated, too, since dimension and style of their climb were not comprehensible for everyone.

El Capitán. Source: Wikipedia

The climb was topping year-long efforts, which consisted basically of figuring out a climbable route and preparing it – and themselves, of course. They accomplished the first free-climb of the Dawn Wall ever. It has “pushed climbing forward”, was one of the frequent statements, as expressed for example in an article that’s very worth reading on National Geographic‘s Adventure Blog. The climb was remarkable in several aspects. Continue reading

Interview with Ueli Steck

As promised, here is the English translation of the interview I led with Ueli Steck one year ago at the IMS in Brixen. It’s the translation of the shorter version as it appeared in ALPIN. At first, I talked with him about an incident at Mount Everest, in which he was violently attacked by sherpas in an angry dispute.

After the incident at Mount Everest you departed immediately. How did you continue after the return?

It was all just too much! You have to imagine: journalists knock at your door at eight in the morning, demanding an interview. But I am not keen on talking with them. They are just waiting for a chance to criticize you. I seriously considered to jack it all in, to go climbing only for myself. Period.

On your website you expressed your disappointment about the happenings at Everest. How has that incident changed you?

It has changed all my life. It’s hard for me since, to get involved with people. A lot of confidence is lost and will not come back very soon. I am so sick of the entire mechanism of the media that started afterwards. I will never forget that and I cannot undo that. But now it has happened and I have to deal with it.

After all the discussing, your record ascent on Mont Blanc came like a coup.

Maybe. But after Everest I was not keen on talking with anyone. The problem is that I can’t just hide. At Mont-Blanc I was just climbing and had a fantastic day. It wasn’t about the records. In the last time everything is being reduced to records. But what’s the difference in whether you take 16 or 17 hours? It very much depends on the conditions. For me the decisive point was: to start in Courmayeur, to go via Peuterey (to the summit of Mt. Blanc, t.a.) and on the other side back down into the valley – if possible, in one day. I didn’t want it to become a matter of record-hunting again, so I downplayed the story a little bit.

Was there pressure by the sponsors?

There certainly is pressure, we must not blandish anything here. If you want sponsors you have to achieve something. Otherwise you won’t get another contract in the next negotiations. And often I have to slow the sponsors down a bit. Of course, they want to see something immediately. You are talking to marketing people there and as an athlete you have to be careful.

Nevertheless you had decided relatively soon to return to Nepal and with Annapurna to try an 8000m peak.

Sure, after Everest there were doubts. But the experience on Peuterey did show me: climbing is what brings fun to me. I thought, if I stop climbing now, then everything goes down with me.

And Annapurna has been a project for me already for a long time. But one thing I certainly know now, too: I only go climbing for myself and everyone can form his opinion about that.

Have you had the thought of quitting your career as early as, for example, Walter Bonatti?

After the Everest incident of course there were thoughts like “Now I’m completely fed up”. But I knew: If I quit in a moment like that, I would blame myself for the rest of my life. Walter Bonatti was an idol for me – he said: “Now I have reached my zenith and now I quit.”

Admirable.

That’s admirable, in fact! And I think that’s what is missing in alpinism. There are many climbers who have in a way reached their zenith and extend their career artificially. I want to avoid that. Mountaineering is not a competitive sports. When as a hundred meter sprinter don’t bring your performance you just don’t get to the finale. But in mountaineering you still can sell an expedition as an act of madness. And a climb like that on Annapurna can’t be done ten times, you won’t survive that. Bonatti moved within a range of which he knew: If I continue here, this will go wrong.

Steve House, too, has accepted that now, I think. I don’t want to put the words in his mouth, but for his achievement in 2005 on Nanga Parbat he had worked a lot. And that was a gigantic success. But you will do something like that only once in a career. After that, you have to be able to put it behind and accept that.

What does that mean for you?

For me, that’s the point where I have to be careful. It doesn’t go on like that forever, I cannot enhance myself infinitely. And this could also mean that I want to protect myself. If you always act in this dangerous field, it will go wrong eventually.