Up at Mt Hood on Saturday evening, Taylor got a text from a connected friend: “Do you guys want to climb with Ueli Steck tomorrow?”
For those of you less familiar with Ueli: he is a Swiss alpinist best known for speed soloing the North face of the Eiger in 2 hours and 47 minutes. The film about the climb earned him the nickname “The Swiss Machine” for his relentless organization, drive, and power output. He is a two-time winner of the highest honor in climbing, and he recently completed a long-time project, making a first ascent on Annapurna and down-climbing the route solo in 28 hours.
Late Sunday morning, the climbing gym was busy, but not packed. Taylor and I threw on our harnesses and started to climb around, glancing with anticipation towards the door. Midway through a pitch, I heard Taylor call up to me: “He’s here!”
When I lowered off, sure enough, there was the guy I’ve seen in movies, in ads, and across the climbing internet. He was stooped over the iPad at the desk, filling out a waiver. Ushered by Heidi from the local American Alpine Club chapter, he headed to the locker room. He’s short. He’s not duck-footed, as I’d heard, but he does have bowlegs that would make a cowboy jealous. Returning from the locker room, he smiled his way through a perfunctory top-rope belay test with nervous laughter before tying in with the assistant manager, JB Graham, to take a lead test.
JB took a whipper onto Ueli’s belay while a gym member shyly backed-up the Swiss legend. After lowering JB, Ueli tied in and hiked an 11b as a warmup. Not one to miss out on the action, I walked over and started chatting with JB as Ueli lowered. Perfect timing: next thing I know, I’m making small talk with the man who speed soloed the Eiger in under three hours.
Ueli pulled out his phone and started flipping through pictures, “Yeah man, this is a real nice wall here. In Europe, it is all this way. You know, steep, but with more, what are they, volumes.” On his phone were pictures of climbing gyms: Golden, CO (his most recent stop), Holland, Switzerland, Spain… “Oh”, he said, flipping sideways through a flurry of white photos, “Those must be from Everest…but this is in Seattle. Really nice.”
For the next several hours, Ueli swapped leads with JB while Taylor, Heidi, and I climbed nearby, chatting with Ueli during his belays. Verdict? He’s a really nice, down-to-earth guy. Fresh off the plane from Europe, he was jet-lagged, and told us how he had been crushed-sideways during the flight by the obese woman next to him. He won’t eat airplane food. He won’t eat if it means less time for climbing. He’s fine with Power Bars for missions, but really, he prefers bread and cheese. He thinks it looks stupid when people climb at the gym with a belay device dangling from their harness. He climbs hard (13b) but he also falls. He’s not a good skier, but he’s going skiing with his wife after the Mountain Hardwear tour to balance out his me-time at Annapurna. He likes liquid chalk. He’ll top-rope belay 5.8. He’s adorably shy for such a famous climber.
In the evening, we went to watch Ueli give his talk at the University of Portland. Before-hand, he joined us for beers (he drank water) and explained how last year his wife could tell that he was going to go back to Annapurna, and how that worried her. He realized that he hadn’t eaten since leaving Europe and ate fistfuls of turkey wraps while warning us against eating too many energy-food products. I brought up Kilian Jornet; “That guy’s crazy”, he said.
By the end of the night I felt refreshed: I got to spend the afternoon with a guy that I really admire and found him to be genuine, shy, not the least bit arrogant, and very approachably human. At the bar, he hid most of his time with us, the people that he recognized from the climbing gym, eschewing anything more than the obligatory photos with event organizers.
I think that too often we distance ourselves from the people that we admire, from the “celebrities” and the “professionals”. We do this by saying things like “that dude’s crazy”, “she’s a mutant”, or “he’s a genius”. We use language to hide them away on an ethereal plane that hovers out of our reach, even while we’re all too happy to keep up with them on their YouTube channel. There’s the little ‘us’, and then there’s them.
If we want to accomplish things in our lives, then we have to do away with this construction. It disempowers us, and it is insulting to the accomplishments of the people that we admire. Instead of placing them on a pedestal that we deem unavailable to us, we should meet our idols as real people who have shown an extraordinary inspiration for hard work. Ueli didn’t solo the Eiger because he’s crazy, he soloed it because he machined himself into someone who could. His first time on the climb, it took him two days, and he says that when he finished that first climb he finally felt like “a real alpinist”. Even at that time, the face had been climbed in around ten hours. “I thought that was crazy”, he said, “that’s just not possible”.
When we call Alex Honold fearless, or Adam Ondra a ‘mutant muppet’, we let ourselves off the hook: if they’re not like us, that explains why we’re not like them. They have the extraordinary advantage of circumstance, insanity, genetics, or upbringing that we will never have, so ‘thank goodness, let’s get back to the sofa’. On the other hand, if we meet them and they turn out to be like Ueli– just another guy, with a complicated home life and an undesirable travel schedule, flying coach– then they can really inspire us. Instead of watching them on TV like NFL players, giving us an injection of life-thrill so that we don’t have to go get it for ourselves, they can stand as markers for what is possible.
Ultimately, the celebrity of people like Ueli is a great thing for our community, if we read their stories with respect. Once you get over the blerch guilt of realizing how little you measure up to your potential, the new possibilities ahead of you become intoxicating.
Taylor always tells me, “Your idea of normal is not normal. The people that you compare yourself to are not normal”. And that’s exactly how I like it.
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