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‘You don’t climb a mountain in order to die’

Three alpinists who knew Ueli Steck, the Swiss mountaineer who fell to his death near Everest on Sunday, explain what drives extreme athletes to take risks that, to many people, seem irrational.

“Ueli was looking for this kick,” said Oswald Oelz, an author, former professor of medicine at Zurich University Hospital and pioneer of modern high-altitude medicine.

“Lying in bed is boring, but hanging from a rock with nothing below you and having to spin round to get your foot in exactly the right spot – everything’s activated. That’s when all your survival systems are in overdrive.”

In an interview with the Tages-Anzeigerexternal link on Tuesday, Oelz, who was also a successful mountaineer in his own right and who climbed with Steck, denied Steck was gambling with his life.

“On the contrary. He did everything to survive. You don’t climb a mountain in order to die. You climb a mountain in order to live intensely.”

The 74-year-old Austrian, who has lived in Switzerland since 1968, was asked whether he thought Steck would at some point have said ‘I’ve risked enough, now I’m going to take on some other challenges’.

“At some point sure. But the question is when is that point? Success makes you hungry for more success. And there are still countless challenges in the mountains,” Oelz said.

Statistical risk

François Perraudin, a Swiss mountain guide, author and photographer, agreed that Steck was not particularly venturesome.

“Although [Steck] earned his living by exploring his limits, he always stayed within his comfort zone,” Perraudin told the Neue Zürcher Zeitungexternal link (NZZ). “As far as he was concerned, he wasn’t taking any excessive risks.”

Perraudin admitted, however, that every climber had to accept that dying in the mountains was a possibility. “Death is ever-present – especially in the Himalayas. Had Ueli Steck completed his planned crossing, on descending Everest via the normal route he would have passed countless corpses.”

Perraudin said talking about dying on the mountain was a taboo for climbers and rescuers, but at the same time they all think about it. “And when there’s a fatal accident, everyone analyses the causes so as not to make the same mistake,” he said.

“The chance of dying in an avalanche is statistically only slighter greater than dying in a car crash. Yet society treats these two risks of dying in completely different ways. One is taken for granted, the other isn’t.”

Climbing for himself

Karin Steinbach Tarnutzer, a German-Swiss alpine journalist and co-author with Ueli Steck of several books, wrote in the NZZexternal link of the last conversation she had with Steck. He was at Zurich airport, heading to Nepal for a practice session in February.

“He emphasised that he was happy as soon as he was up in the mountains because that was where he could search – and find – his challenges. He said: ‘I accept the accompanying risk because what I get back more than makes up for it. I wouldn’t be satisfied if I couldn’t climb mountains’.”

Steinbach Tarnutzer said she had asked him whether after 20 years in the business he still had the same enthusiasm as before.

“He responded with a confident ‘yes’, adding that in recent years he had realised that the only reason he climbed was for himself. He said: ‘What the public say about that is secondary. I do it for me, because it interests me and because it’s fun. After all, everyone’s time here ends some time’,” she said.

“No one expected that time to come so soon.”