UELI STECK took a deep breath and stared up at the north face of the Eiger, the infamous 5,900-foot wall of fractured limestone and ice, high in the Bernese Alps, that has killed at least 64 people since climbers first started taking it on in 1935. Soon he’d be dangling thousands of feet off the ground from its icy, rounded holds, with nothing to stop a fall. Yet Steck was calm and focused; the nervousness sloughed from his shoulders like spindrift.
The Swiss, then 31, gazed at the far side of the valley that rolls out from the Eiger’s sprawling base, where a weak winter light was inching across the pastures. Up here there was no warmth or sun, which was good. One rock, breaking free from the ice and falling at the wrong time, could kill him instantly, but the cold kept the Nordwand glued together. Steck grabbed his ice tools, started two stopwatches, and exploded up the mountain.
His arms and legs hammered the snow on the 40-to-50-degree slopes at the beginning of the Heckmair Route, the classic, ambling line set in 1938 during the first ascent of the north face, by a German-Austrian team. Steck had never felt so dialed as he did on that February day in 2008. His five-foot-eight frame was wiry with muscle. He’d practiced climbing steep cliffs using only the thinnest of holds, with no rope or partner to catch a mistake. His gear was minimal and precise: an ice screw, four carabiners, a quickdraw, and a hundred feet of cord, which he could use to rappel down if things really got grim.
When the weather holds, most climbers need about three days to do the Heckmair. But a year earlier, in 2007, Steck had shown that it could be completed in less than four hours when he smashed the old record by 47 minutes, with a time of 3:54. Still, something nagged at him. Steck had retraced other people’s steps to avoid the exhausting work of breaking trail on the snowy sections, and he’d relied on climbing gear to aid his ascent through tricky spots—no-no’s to a free-climbing purist. Max Steck, Ueli’s coppersmith father, had taught him never to half-ass anything, but Steck began to believe he’d done exactly that. “I was just faster than the others,” he told me recently with a shrug. “I wanted to reach the limit.”
That’s what this second Eiger speed attempt was all about. Steck had waited for a storm to fill in the footsteps and coat the face with new ice, and this time he would free-solo the whole route with only axes and crampons to keep himself pinned to the wall. He had hired a coach and physical therapist from Switzerland’s top Olympic facility to create a fitness program designed to get him up big Alpine faces as quickly as possible. The training went far beyond what most mountaineers are willing to endure—some 1,200 hours of murderous workouts a year. How could he not be faster this time?
Thirty-nine minutes into the climb, about a quarter of the way up, Steck reached the start of the first crux, a vertical dihedral called Difficult Crack, and noticed that he was ten minutes behind his 2007 record pace. Here, with thin holds covered in snow, Steck would need steady hands, but his heart rate was way too high, making him uncoordinated and clumsy. He paused like a biathlete, reined in his pulse, and went for it. Somehow he gained speed, scaling 180 feet of glazed 5.7 limestone in just four minutes.
Most would find the exposure nauseating, but Steck kept on, blowing across the dizzying, icy slab of the Hinterstoisser traverse in less than a minute. Over the Flat Iron, through the White Spider—the mountain’s legendary features fell behind him like stripes on the autobahn. At last he reached the summit ridge, an airy blade of snow that he ran across in crampons. Soon there was no more up.
Steck looked at his watches. One read 02:47:33, the other 02:47:34.