Ueli Steck's first solo climb of the Cholatse's north face during this expedition was sensational. His style of climbing reflects his disagreement with larger commercial expeditions using fixed ropes, oxygen and other artificial aids. A huge wall whose difficulties are similar to the North of the Eiger (vertical ice, grade V rock according to Ueli and M6 mixed terrain). The psychological pressure is different though: even the smallest accident on this rocky bastion is fatal as there's no chance of being rescued. As Ueli explains: "you're absolutely vulnerable, any mistake could be fatal!"
The 14th April, three o'clock in the morning, Ueli Steck extracts himself from his cosy sleeping bag at base camp and reaches the pile of equipment lying at the foot of the wall. As he gets into the swing of the climb he falls into a state of meditation. A state in which the climb becomes central to his existence: "I'm totally concentrated on the climb and don't even consider what might follow". Every day life, his partner waiting at base camp are all on another planet. As Ueli admits" as soon as I'm on the wall I become a total egoist. But that's also why I can enjoy myself with my girlfriend following the climb, impossible if I haven't played out my wilder side hooked on action." It's impossible to describe the fear one has for a loved one who's climbing solo.
It's perfectly understandable that the girlfriend is as exhausted afterwards - at least psychologically - as the climber himself.
A magic word: psyche
The psyche. The magic word for these achievements: climbing solo at this level would be impossible without the ability to concentrate one's whole body and mind on the climb and the next step. "I've always had good insight", says Ueli. So he's never needed to study meditation techniques …. It just comes naturally. "If you can concentrate totally on something then it remains completely focussed. I knew, based on personal experience, that I could climb Cholatse. The trick is to use this knowledge whilst climbing.
What happens when fear hits you? In the bivouac. At roughly 6000 metres. Ueli Steck has managed to squeeze himself into a tiny snow hole having covered hundreds of metres of dangerous and steep terrain, belaying himself with his own rope rendering the pitches less dangerous. The worst bits, says Ueli, is the slightly less steep but more exposed terrain where you can't belay yourself. And in the bivouac? "That's where the problems start. It's very difficult to calm down. It's extremely claustrophobic. You have to try to change your frame of mind and think rationally.
The riskiest bit is the 450 metres following the bivouac: steep terrain at 85 degrees with barely transformed snow that the ice axe can't get a bite into. Then at long last the crest leading to the coveted summit. Just 250 to 300 vertical metres to go. But …… one step after another, bits of the crest that were so thin that Ueli had to sit astride them to make any progress. Then suddenly with only 50 metres to go a crevasse cuts across the crest dividing it into two: "if I had had enough gear I would have doubled back and rappelled down - even though I was so near to the summit. This bit took everything out of me - especially as it followed a day of intense concentration during which I'd had to continuously spur myself on, this "obstacle" was really too much! 150 metres of void on both sides of the crevasse. Impossible to avoid it. I had to perform a really difficult manoeuvre: descend 3 metres on the south side, enter the crevasse, climb up it with one foot on each side, cross over to the other side as high up as possible and then the most difficult bit: exit plunging my ice axes into the powdery snow on the edge of the crevasse, hoping that they would hold at the critical moment and that I wouldn't simply fall backwards!"
Diet according to Dr. Steck
Following this adventure Ueli had to have time to recover. Climbing at this altitude, more than 6000 metres, needs to be approached carefully so that you don't end up mid-pitch badly out of breath. Ten minutes later - the summit. He used up his last pitons and carabiners going down the southern crest reaching the glacier's plateau and a second bivouac. Menu: hot water. He didn't have anything else to eat. The four power bars and one portion of spaghetti were past history. Ueli: "a well planned diet!"