Written by Jonathan Griffith
Alot will be written about Ueli in the coming weeks, about a man who inspired across generations, and who accomplished maybe more mountain exploits than anyone previously. But I knew a different Ueli, a Ueli that only a handful of people here and outside will have been privileged to know. Ueli the human,Ueli the person. There can be no greater honor to be asked to say a few words about Ueli at his public service, but in these final moments of public remembrance I wanted to leave you all with a reminder that Ueli was a human being just like me and you.
But how do you summarize a life like Ueli’s in to just ten minutes, how do you do him justice as a person. It’s easy to condense his climbing career into statistics and numbers but Ueli wasn’t a famous climber to me, he was like a brother to me and one of my closest friends.
I first met Ueli 9 years ago. I was starting out in my career as a alpine climbing photographer and I had dared to email Ueli about getting some photos. I wasn’t really expecting a reply back, this was just at the start of the Alpine North Face Trilogy - a busy man with a lot of media attention, and I was a nobody in the climbing world. However to my surprise he replied back. We kept in contact but it wasn’t until he solod the Grandes Jorasses North Face in Chamonix that we actually met. The following morning he rang me to meet up for coffee- I must admit I was a bit nervous. Ueli was waiting patiently outside the Aiguille du Midi cable car station, I was expecting a tall heavily built man with an ego the size of Belgium but instead there was a warm smile and a man with bright shining eyes who extended out his hand to shake mine. This was Ueli. He took me out for coffee and, like every single time in the last 9 years, he insisted he paid for it at the end.
We talked all morning.
We talked about his climb of course, but we also talked about work and dreams. It was like going out for coffee with an old friend rather than someone who had just solod one of the great north faces of the Alps quicker than it takes me to reply to my emails in the morning.
We left promising to keep in touch.
I had always thought it very odd that the morning after one of the greatest solos in the Alpine world, he decided to have coffee with me. A nobody.There was no reason or gain for him to have spent these precious hours with me after such a big climbing event, he would have been far better to have spent his time with the journalists that kept calling him during our coffee morning. But then that was Ueli – a man who prioritized people over fame. Always.
A week later we went and took photos of his climb and I came back with photos that defined my career and the rest is history. Ueli could have asked any climbing photographer in the world to come and get those precious photos, but for some reason he asked me, and I’m glad he did. I guess it’s always been something I wanted to ask him but never did. Maybe it was fate.
We spent a lot of time together over the following years. Sometimes climbing, but mostly just hanging out as he came and stayed in my tiny flat in Chamonix. Famous as he was by then he was always happy to sleep under the kitchen table on a roll out mat as there was no space in my flat. Always quiet and shy preferring to sit silently in the corner at times when there were too many people around but always with those bright eyes and big smile.
Careful to never offend, if anything his fame made him even more sensitive and shy around people. His personality did not match his public persona of the Swiss Machine. I remember one night we went to a party at one of my friend’s house. The wife was polish and had made her own special homemade polish liquor- it was dark and very strong. As we entered the house, full of young alpine climbers, everyone of course recognized Ueli. It makes him uncomfortable, Ueli doesn’t thrive on attention like many famous climbers do. Everyone wanted to meet Ueli, and everyone wanted to have a drink with him. More and more climbers insisted on having yet another shot of Polish liquor with Ueli and as he could never say no he ended up getting very drunk very fast, eventually turning to me and saying that if we didn’t leave soon he may die of alcohol poisoning. It was a comical scene – incapable of letting people down, Ueli was drinking himself into a three day hangover.
It’s a recurring theme in his life. I’ve seen him be asked for photos and autographs in airports and in the streets, I’ve even sat outside a bar and watched as an excited young girl ran home and got her guitar so she could sing a song she’d written for Ueli to him in front of a dozen of my friends. I’ve literally seen it all. Looking back on it all, people are drawn to Ueli because of his modest and quiet character. A boastful and arrogant climber would never get this much attention, but Ueli in his quiet and humble self attracted people because they could connect to him. Even though he was an inspirational athlete they could connect to his warm smile and quiet demeanor. He didn’t seem so superhero when he talked.
He was never rude and always polite and thankful. It’s just who he was, a rare quality for a person who could easily have let his climbing status define how he treated those around him.
I got to know Ueli incredibly well over those years. I watched him develop into one of the most accomplished climbers of all time. I watched him share his passion for climbing, running, and training with people of all abilities. I watched him cross the finish line of the 50km CCC trail run in Chamonix, which he had trained for for a while, and stop one millisecond before the end to let someone he had been running with for the last few kilometers cross just before him.
I saw the kindness and respect with which he treated those around him.
He was a highly intelligent man and that is what drew me to him. If you knew how much deep thought he put in to his risk assessment and soloing you wouldn’t be so quick as to judge his pursuit as overly dangerous or an accident waiting to happen. But that conversation will be for another day.
We rarely talked about climbing together, which made a refreshing change. He had an extremely analytical brain and almost child-like excitement for life, and especially for chocolate cookies. It was hard not to be inspired by him. I had a very futuristic view on photography and business and it was one that we shared- no matter how crazy my plans would be he would never say no. His motto, it seemed with everything in life, was nothing is impossible, and I really appreciated that in him.
But there were dark times as well for Ueli. After the altercation on Everest in 2013 he was mercilessly attacked by media outlets and jealous climbers around the world. We live in an age where we are more interested in negative and critical stories and rumors about people’s lives than positive ones and it’s very dangerous thing. We forget that not everyone lives in a multimillion dollar mansion on Hollywood Boulevard with 5 swimming pools and a team of people to manage public attention- Ueli lived a simple life and it affected him far more than anyone could have thought.
He went in to a spiral of depression, anxious, paranoid that people hated him even though he had no reason to think that. He became scared of his public lectures, something he always loved doing, always feeling that those in the audience were out to get him.
A son of Switzerland cast out to the wolves.
Ironically it drove him to doing one of the greatest solos of all time, the South Face of Annapurna. On the phone I knew in his voice that he wasn’t planning on coming back, in his own words he was on a “one way ticket”. Unfortunately Annapurna bought him little relief, he had redeemed himself in the eyes of the public but it just opened up another avenue for baseless accusations from people who refused to believe what was possible, simply because they had never seen him move and climb like I have done.
An attack on the integrity and honesty of one of the most truthful and humble men that has ever graced our sport, and they have a lot to answer for. The Everest-Lhotse traverse would have been his restorative climb in the eyes of the world; proof of his abilities that should never have been needed.
Let Ueli’s legacy been one not only of his climbing but a reminder as to how we should treat our athletes, as human beings like you and me. A carpenter from Emmental, who still builds wooden shelters for his wife’s tomato plants, and who used to hand out lift tickets in order to save up for his climbing dreams.
The very last time I saw Ueli was just before he got on the plane for Nepal. Everest was symbolic, it was where his problems started and deep down this climb would finally close this chapter of his life. But for the first time he seemed to have risen above it all, he was happy, really happy.
He had a glint in his eye again that I hadn’t seen for a while, a confident smile, safe in the knowledge that he was returning back to his old project and know that it would finally lay to rest all the problems he’d been faced with.
I hugged him goodbye. I said “Be careful”. But it didn’t seem necessary, before me stood the old Ueli and I am happy that the last time I saw him was this image- a strong man who lived for personal challenges and who was faced with his biggest one yet, but privately confident he would complete it. And I’ll always remember his child-like grin as we parted for the last time.
I look around here today and see people from all backgrounds, young and old, from all nationalities and all walks of life. I see people touched and changed by Ueli’s life and stories, who have travelled far and wide to pay their last respects. Lives who have all been uniquely transformed by his presence and energy, who will all have a small story, much like I have told you mine, about why Ueli was special to them. And I thank you for being here today.
There will always be a huge Ueli shaped hole in my life and I will miss him terribly. I will miss him not seeing my little daughter grow up, I'll miss his huge smile and bright eyes, I'll miss trying to ruin his training schedule by taking him out drinking till 2am and yet still see him drag himself out of bed to go for a run stinking of beer, I'll miss our endless discussions about life and work, but most of all I'll miss his presence and energy; a man who could install a sense of "anything is possible" just by spending time with him.
It's heartwarming to see how many messages of love are being poured out all across the world. Ueli will leave an amazing legacy for generations of climbers, he was one of a kind, a pioneer who opened up styles and attitudes that will be copied for years to come. A true gentleman who brought grace and humility to our world.
But I'll miss him most as my friend and mentor. I know that time heals and the pain will stop but I really miss him, I can't believe I'll never see him again; the hardest part is never getting the chance to say goodbye.