Steck, on the Annapurna
In 1990, Slovenian mountaineer Tomo Cesen claimed to have soloed the last major problem in the Himalayas: the chilling south face of Lhotse, where the great Jerzy Kukuzcka died in 1989. He warned that he did not have photos to prove his feat, but shortly after he contributed some snapshots … stolen from compatriots who had tried to overcome this aspect years ago. In 2015, the Frenchman Rodolphe Popier managed to unmask a second lie from the Slovenian: the photos taken with a telephoto lens by a friend of Cesen from the base camp were not taken in the south of Lhotse but elsewhere. In 2017, a report on the solo climbs of Ueli Steck in the south of the Shisha Pangma in 2011 and the Annapurna in 2014 only confirmed with evidence the suspicion that the Swiss had been untrue. Popier talks like this about his investigations
Question. Did the doubts about Ueli Steck's solo ascent to Shisha Pangma in 2011 arise before or after his 2013 climb to Annapurna?
Answer. Before. In fact, I was only able to question him between 2015 and 2017, with a face-to-face meeting in Kathmandu in the fall of 2015 and more or less tense discussions in 2016. The Annapurna study was commissioned to me by Eberhard Jurgalski of 8000erscom in 2016 , but in this case I was left with no room for maneuver to chat with Steck because our relations were already deteriorated after the aforementioned meeting … so the dossier has been published without interviews with the person concerned.
Q. What was the reaction of the jury of the Golden Ice Axes when you presented your work on Steck to those responsible for these awards in 2017?
R. Lindsay Griffin felt that there were not enough incriminating elements to doubt his word. Christian Trommsdorff believed in his partner Yannick Graziani, who had doubts about both ascents after reading my studies. Within the jury that sent the award to Ueli Steck in 2014 for his solo climb in the south of Annapurna (2013) a division was created: Catherine Destivelle and Georges Lowe showed their reservations and both congratulated me three years later when I presented my
P. He states that his intention is not to criminalize Cesen or Steck but to force a reflection on the need to ask for conclusive evidence of the activities of the mountaineers …
R. Exactly, it is the true meaning of my work since I started . In fact, in 2017 he already had one foot in the Himalayan Database, the other in 8000erscom (that is, the two institutions that collect the chronicles of the entire Himalayas), and he was already collaborating with the chronicles of the French Alpine Club, as well as with the American Alpine Journal. Then it was very clear that there was a gap in the way of approaching the issue of top events or relevant activities, a problem that affected both mountaineers and institutions. When I presented my work in 2017, the debate about it was fueled but it was very disappointing to see how this reflection quickly died out. When Steck passed away at Nuptse, a kind of status quo was reached (Catherine Destivelle received death threats, I was called all over the place on social media, and they suggested that I should put the Steck case aside if I wanted to continue working on the Himalayan Database). In addition, in 2018 the Grupo de Alta Montaña (organizes the Golden Ice Axes) made a somewhat incomprehensible announcement in which it diplomatically dismissed the progress of 2017 in which we had managed to demand that applicants for the awards provide "an adequate documentation of his activity. ”
Q. Did Ueli Steck explain to you why he did not use his gps watch to demonstrate his peaks in Shisha Pangma or Annapurna?
R. As I have said before, I could not question him about the Annapurna because he got angry a lot with me when I threw the awkward questions at him. Regarding the Shisha Pangma, he told me that his watch only had the capacity to store about ten outputs and that the Shisha's had since been erased. I don't remember if I still had that watch, but if it was positive, it could have been sent to Suunto (but this firm sponsored it …), or to other experts. The fact is that he also had an independent GPS with which he took a point in the bergschrund at the beginning of the route to find it on the descent. By this I just mean that he could have taken a point at the top, which his watch already did, even if it had been redundant. It is a point to review in the reports…
Q. How much time did you invest in the Shisha and Annapurna case study?
A. My studies started in 2015 and ended in 2017. It was a long, intense job, although I can't say how much time I really invested. My colleagues at 8000erscom followed the study constantly and corrected me when necessary, which helped me very well not to get lost.
Q. Why weren't critical voices heard, voices doubting Ueli Steck? Was there a law of silence? Why haven't there been references like Greg Child or Ghirardini in the 90s, two who doubted Tomo Cesen, now able to raise the tone?
R. One of the first to doubt the Steck affair was Andreas Kubin, in Germany (former editor-in-chief of Begsteiger). Later, Rolo Garibotti also doubted in Patagonia, as well as the Huber brothers, who in 2017 made their doubts clear in the 2017 Golden Ice Axes. Leslie Fuczko, former president of the Alta Montaña Group also had doubts. And there were others, of whom I have forgotten their names or had no knowledge of their doubts. But the voice of none of these mentioned was picked up by a means of communication faithful to the figure of the superstar Steck. Kubin's articles and doubts were known to the organizers of the 2014 golden ice axes. Apart from this, Steck was not an obscure newcomer, emerged from nowhere, like Cesen. Steck was a well-known personality, attractive, approachable; What else to ask for? In France everyone called him 'Ueli', as if he were a friend that everyone knew personally, or the 'Swiss machine', as if his capacity were inexhaustible. But behind this was hidden a competition, like the one he had with Dani Arnold when he broke his record in the north of the Eiger and Steck reminded him that he had not used the fixed rope on the Hinterstoisser crossing. Although Steck sometimes regretted being called the machine, he only fed this discourse in which everything he did seemed simple. With this, the very idea of questioning the version of a mountaineer of such level and with such a positive public image seemed far-fetched. Anyone who opposed the Swiss would pass for being envious, a mediocre incapable of matching Steck (which happened in reality) and I myself until 2015 was convinced that he was beyond suspicion.
The French mountaineer Rodolphe Popier
When Steck climbed the Gasherbrum II, a climber decided to control the summit tests of the expeditions in the place, but the Swiss was not asked anything: it was Ueli, just arrived from the rescue attempt of Iñaki Ochoa de Olza and a man out of all doubt. And when doubts began to surface, Steck used to say that he did not know that he had to "provide evidence", an incredible answer for a professional mountaineer, knowledgeable about the history of mountaineering and aware of the controversies created by the lies of Maestri and Cesen, stories that everyone knows because they nest in a corner of the collective unconscious of mountaineers. Lately I think that the Swiss is a concrete case of the evil that contemporary marketing can do together with the recurring problem of media figures. The image enlarged by social networks and collected by the media at instantaneous speed precedes the facts and their relationship. We like to read or listen to beautiful stories of nice superheroes to whom life smiles … in fact, in his statement issued at the 2017 Golden Ice Axes, there were two speeches: one for the public in which the Swiss spoke of 'free spirit 'or' transcendent experiences', and another for journalists in which he spoke of ascent speeds to say that he could climb that fast. Since Steck passed away, it has been difficult for me to talk about this issue and it seems that a law of silence has been imposed… I have kept my position in the Himalayan Database but even this interview can damage my position.
A shadow in the memory of Ueli Steck
P . How he used photographs in their work?
R. Photographs are the most direct evidence and the ones that offer the most information when preparing this type of work. For a decade I have had to analyze several thousand snapshots of ascents and areas near the peaks. What I am looking for is to locate where the photo was taken by comparing several of them. Thus I was able to discover that the photos of Tomo Cesen in Jannu and Lhotse were not taken where he said. In the case of Cesen, the photographic analysis could be very interesting because he had a lot of material available, which I did not achieve in the case of Steck since in most of his Himalayan ascents he never contributed hardly any photos (he said that his camera was lost, it was the batteries or the device itself frozen …). In both cases, the definitive problem is access to photos of other mountaineers present at the site, but it would take commissary powers that no one has to force them to deliver them, which is difficult when they can contradict the word of a friend. Q. What can mountaineers and the media do in these cases?
A. Everyone has to form their own opinion and act accordingly both in mountaineering and journalism, thinking that we are part of the same community. It is not worth saying that 'I climb for myself' when you vindicate a feat of the first order in public and in the media. One wonders how we can organize ourselves so that mountaineering continues to be a free game in which its protagonists respect each other. Do we want to contribute to writing history in a fair way, whatever the scale of practice considered, managing to establish clear criteria on which to develop collectively and individually in harmony? It should not be forgotten that the exploits claimed by Cesen and Steck could open a door to unknown dimensions that generated a taste for potentially dangerous extreme engagement. Do we want to identify with stories formatted for mass consumption and thus sell more GPS watches or anything else? Or do we prefer to be able to identify with high-level mountaineers whose feats we trust even if they establish huge quality jumps? The question is complex and as is almost always the case with sensitive cases, the institutions of mountaineering are not clearly pronounced. Those responsible for the Golden Ice Axes had the courage to throw the stone in 2017, but it was a shame that in 2018 they removed their hand …
Q. Do you believe in the possibility that Steck did not lie?
R. It is something that I do not know. may know. Only he knows what happened. What I do know is that both Steck and Cesen were great climbers and mountaineers. Having done my work on both, I have no evidence to say that they both lied. The doubt remains, hence this type of ascents are defined in English as disputed or unrecognized , that is, doubtful or not recognized. Steck and Cesen's are dubious. What we try is to analyze the information we have and contextualize it so that it matches the facts. From this angle, the case of Steck in the Shisha in 2011 cannot be rationally accepted and should be labeled as doubtful, and the same happens with the Annapurna because not everyone believes that what he said was possible and the Swiss's word was not. it may suffice in such a case. I personally believe that there is a lie somewhere, something that I cannot say in my reports because they are only based on data
Q. Why would Ueli Steck lie? Pressure from his sponsors?
A. I don't think his sponsors put pressure on him, but as almost always in the history of mountaineering it was he himself who, perhaps, put the pressure on himself to make sure that his company was at the highest level. In this sense, it would be necessary to analyze the media image that Steck offered: who would not like to be someone super strong, friendly, who makes one dream and who offers an image of a great mountaineer for whom everything is simple? But this was true and false: he trained a lot and his ascents were not at all simple, perhaps to continue being the best…. Some specialists think that it is necessary to find the trace of a traumatic event to explain a behavior that leads to lying. This could be the Yalung Kang in 1985 for Cesen … or the trauma of the incident with Steck's Sherpas on Everest in 2013 (but this would not explain the Shisha in 2011 …). It would be necessary to ask psychologists to clarify these hypotheses. What I am convinced of is that at extreme heights, reasonable alpinists at sea level can behave improperly and make this a habit when nobody unmasks them …
Q. Mountaineering has built its rules without referees: should we create them to certify alpine achievements?
A. It is impossible to control all the alpine feats: at 8000erscom we try to do it for the 14 eight thousand and it is a colossal and unpaid task. No, it is the mountaineers who must organize themselves, take responsibility to preserve the fundamental principle of their practice in freedom. It is something that should interest them because in the times we live the given word is worth nothing, so it is better to cover yourself with evidence that is simple to provide. In addition, the tests nourish individual and collective memory and it would be interesting if the Alpine institutions encourage the provision of evidence of what has been done. And if not, it would be necessary for the institutions that chronicle the world of mountaineering to progress in their methodology to better accommodate doubtful cases. This is why I have applied to the university for help, being aware of the limits of my empirical experience.
Q. You are in some way the heir of Miss Elizabeth Hawley, who fought for most of her life against lying in Himalayanism. How is your job?
R. I am an heir to Miss Hawley (whose control specialty was on the eight thousand and Everest in particular) but one more among other heirs who helped me train: my first mentor was Pierre Chapoutot, later Eberhard Jurgalski and Lindsay Griffin … I would have liked to also meet and learn from Xavier Eguskitza and Ken Wilson … I work on a paid basis for the French Alpine Club, but not in the cases of 8000erscom, or the Himalayan Database, nor in my own studies. My job is to try to provide as accurately as possible the events and basic data of an ascent in the most objective way possible. We are very far from those who like to explore within the spirit of mountaineering, the eternal philosophical and psychological sense of why we climb … but I have to say that studies like the one carried out on Steck are rare and if we analyze the statistics of the Himalayan Database only 1% of ascents have a doubtful or unrecognized asterisk
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