Ueli Steck, who has died aged 40, in an accident on Nuptse in the Himalayas, was one of the finest alpinists of his, or any, generation, and was a much richer character than was suggested by the tag he had been given by the media – the “Swiss machine”. Steck himself disliked the phrase, although it captured one aspect of his high-octane career, the focused application of sports science to his preparations for the astounding challenges he set himself. His physical and mental focus helped him break speed records on some of the biggest challenges in the Alps, most famously the original route on the north face of the Eiger. He reclaimed the speed record for this in November 2015, setting a new benchmark of 2h 22m 50s, a vertical marathon where any misstep carried the threat of death.
For those who felt queasy at the notion of the Eiger being turned into a racetrack, Steck had persuasive arguments. “Speed is nothing new,” he once said. “Times are.” The difference seems subtle but Steck thought deeply about alpinism, and understood how speed in the mountains could make you safer. If sometimes he seemed too enamoured of the media, he was also imaginative about how to take his craft forward. Developing speed on familiar ground, he argued, could prepare you for challenges yet to be realised.
His target for this spring, the traverse of Everest and Lhotse, was just such a challenge. In an era of commercialism, he was attempting something genuinely impressive. He matched strength at altitude – for example climbing Shishapangma, the world’s 14th highest mountain, in only 20 hours – with high technical ability, including on hard routes on the walls of El Capitan in the Yosemite valley.
Unlike many leading Swiss climbers, who usually spring from mountain communities, Steck was born in the Emmental valley, where the cheese comes from, in the ice hockey town of Langnau, the third son of Max, a coppersmith, and Lisabeth. His brothers both played hockey, one of them professionally, and Ueli followed them on to the ice. He also joined his father on ski tours, but it was a family friend, Fritz Morgenthaler, who introduced him to climbing, on the Schrattenfluh, a limestone peak in the upper Emmental.
After that, climbing took over his life. At 16 he was rock climbing at almost the hardest standard of the day and at 18 he made his first of many ascents of the Eiger’s north face. He and his partner got soaked and shivered through a bivouac before reaching the top. His lesson about speed was well learned.
Steck’s first record on the Eiger’s north face broke the four-hour mark, achieved while training for a new route in the Himalayas. The following year he beat three hours. He lost the record to his compatriot Dani Arnold, and Steck demurred when asked if he would like his title back, but the lure proved too strong. The media interest alone was a powerful draw, even though Steck frequently claimed otherwise, a clue to his complex relationship with fame.
Steck started his working life as a carpenter, but was in demand as a public speaker and was one of the first alpinists to grasp the potential of social media. Charismatic, warm and modest, Steck was anything but machine-like, able to connect with the non-climbing public in a way most alpinists do not. To do this, he simplified the complexities of his game, relying more on his personality to win friends and influence sponsors. His use of an Olympic coach and the language of athletics were comprehensible to non-climbers. This bred envy among his peers and led some to question the veracity of his achievements.
Steck’s ascent of a new route on the south face of Annapurna in October 2013 was the best example of this. He climbed alone, doing the hardest section at night in a situation of unimaginable peril, but also lost his camera and failed to keep a GPS track, increasingly standard procedure for leading climbers. Two Sherpas witnessed seeing his headlamp above all difficulties and his account was enough to satisfy the jury of the influential Piolet d’Or, which gave him his second such award. Steck’s achievement was hailed as a landmark in mountaineering history.
Steck had climbed Everest without bottled oxygen in 2012, but found himself at the centre of a violent confrontation with disgruntled Sherpas the following spring, while preparing for the same traverse of Everest and Lhotse that he was planning to attempt this year. The event went viral and Steck, wholly blameless in the affair, became severely depressed and disheartened. His success on Annapurna was a reaction to the misery of those months.
The potential consequences of a life in the mountains were obvious to him. In 2007, on his first expedition to Annapurna, he was struck on the helmet while climbing and knocked out, falling a thousand feet to the glacier below. He came to discombobulated with concussion, and was wandering among crevasses when a team-member spotted him. The following year, trying the same objective, he became involved in a heroic attempt to save the Spanish climber Iñaki Ochoa. In borrowed boots, climbing alone and wading at times through chest-deep snow, Steck managed to reach the Spaniard, who had suffered a stroke high on the mountain, and inject him with steroids. Despite Steck’s best efforts, Ochoa died the following day.
In the summer of 2015, Steck, with various partners, climbed all 82 peaks in the Alps over 4,000m, cycling, running and even paragliding between each mountain, in only 62 days. The freedom and scale of the challenge seemed almost a holiday in comparison to what had gone before, but it was still an exceptional achievement.
He met his wife, Nicole, at an ice-climbing competition, and climbed the north face of the Eiger with her. She survives him.
• Ueli Steck, climber, born 4 October 1976; died 30 April 2017