Interview: Alpine Speed Freak

When it comes to big mountains and fast ascents, Swiss climber Ueli Steck is one of the speediest alpine technicians on the planet. He trains like a madman — strength and aerobic — and has for years embodied alpine climbing’s “fast and light” mantra like few others. Steck’s records are many, including speed ascents on the Matterhorn, the Eiger, Grandes Jorasses, and other stout peaks in the Alps and beyond.

Like any elite athlete, the right gear is crucial to Steck’s success. But in the realm of solo climbing, your life is literally in your own hands — often via the grip of an ice ax handle. Gear takes on a new dimension altogether. For Steck, ice tools swing like extensions of his own arms. His crampon-equipped boots allow him to run up low-angle slopes (literally run) and then Spiderman it on a steep face.

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Kick and Swing! Ueli Steck moving fast on a climb

This winter, Steck unveiled a custom piece of gear with Wenger. He worked with the company to create a knife made for climbers. The namesake Ueli Steck Special Edition Swiss Army Knife is a serious tool and a piece of equipment that Steck now carries on every climb. It has a large blade with bolt-head wrenches to tighten an ice pick, titanium handles for light weight and strength, and a file that unfolds to hone an ice tool razor sharp.

I caught up with Steck on a phone call to get the low down on the new knife and some insight into his world as an elite climber in need of speed. —Stephen Regenold

Gear Junkie: What is the allure of speed climbing?

Steck: I need to have challenge in my life. For me, climbing is that personal challenge. I eased into speed climbing over the years. Really, the “speed” part of it was never what it was about. I just got faster as I got better at climbing. Now, I climb fast because it is a challenge and a personal thing.

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Ueli Steck Special Edition Swiss Army Knife

What speed ascent stands out? What are you most proud of?

I think my climb on the Grandes Jorasses. It was an onsite climb. [He had not attempted it before.] I used my technique learned from the Eiger.

About the Wenger knife, how did you come up with the implements to include?

We did a bunch of prototypes. About 10 or so I think. I talked to Peter Hug [CEO of Wenger] and said the knife had to be simple but with all the tools I need. We focused on weight, too. At first it was too heavy. We got it down to very light. [Editor’s note: The final knife weighs about 100 grams.]

Where do you store it when you climb?

In a jacket pocket or on my harness. Some climbs I never use it. But it’s always there. It has what I need. It is a safety tool.

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Ueli Steck in speed-climbing mode

What’s next for you on the climbing front?

More climbs! I like to push my gear to the limit just like I push myself!

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com. A version of this post ran originally on Gear Junkie’s blog on VentureThere.com.

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