October 14 Update:
On the morning of October 9, Dan Patitucci and Tenji Sherpa awoke in their tent and gazed at the South Face of Annapurna. “My dream was that Ueli stood on the summit last night,” Tenji said. His dream had been right.
After a 28-hour solo push, Steck summited the South Face, completing the 1992 line attempted by Beghin and Lafaille and the first solo ascent of Annapurna’s main South Face. (Tomaz Humar did make a solo ascent on the south side of Annapurna in 2007, by a new route in alpine style. However, what he climbed was a long snow slope on Kangsar Kang [aka Roc Noir; 7485m], a summit on the far east end of Annapurna, not on the main face.)
Speaking of his climb, Steck told planetmountain.com, “In some short sections the ice and firn proved somewhat thin, and on a couple of occasions I had to climb a few metres up rock. Surprisingly the face wasn’t really vertical. Just a few sections of stepped terrain. Ideal for soloing.” While looking at a photo he had taken of the headwall, Steck was knocked off balance by spindrift. “[A]ll I could do was clutch my ice axes to stop myself from being flushed down the face,” said Steck. “In doing so I dropped one of my down gloves and my camera fell, too. I now had to climb into the night with only my [thin gloves]. I wore the down outer glove on either my left or right hand, depending on which felt cold.”
“My inner fire is burning once again,” he told planetmountain.com afterward. “It was almost extinguished after Everest. Now it’s flared up again, fully. This makes me happy and I think I’m beginning to find the fun in life once again!”
The name “Ueli Steck” has become almost synonymous with speed in the mountains, and after Steck’s solo ascent of Annapurna’s infamous South Face early yesterday morning, his celebrity as a fast and light alpinist only strengthens. In 2007, Steck soloed the Eiger (3970m) in a record time of four hours and 40 minutes, and in 2011 he reached the summit of 8046-meter Shishapangma in an unbelievable 10.5 hours.
In 1960, Chris Bonington gazed upon the face from the summit of Annapurna II (7937m) and recorded in the 1971 American Alpine Journal, “From this viewpoint Annapurna’s great south face stood in silhouette, appearing so large and steep that its ascent seemed unlikely.” Despite its apparent difficulty, “Annapurna could never be described as a beautiful mountain,” Bonington later wrote in Annapurna South Face: The Classic Account of Survival. “[It] has no real shape or form. It is like the body of a great octopus, its tentacles of subsidiary peaks thrown higgledy-piggledy from the central mass… It reminded me of the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses with its three huge buttresses, but it was three times the size and very much more complex.”
Bonington returned to the face in 1970 as part of a large expedition. After several weeks of siege-style attempts, the 11-man team devised a plan to end their “great logistic bottleneck” and slow progress on the upper ridge: “[P]ush the strongest two [alpinists] over the backs of the others in hopes of a quick success.” These two were Don Whillans and Dougal Haston, who made the summit in a 2,500-foot push without supplemental oxygen and in poor weather. Bonington called the climb “a superhuman performance. And it was our passport to head home. It brought happiness in all camps and restored a partial degree of unanimity.”
The South Face garnered three more lines in the 1980s, all to the mountain’s shorter, middle summit (8061m). In 1981, a nine-man Polish team fixed 10,000 feet up the longest and right-most buttress (1982 AAJ). Later the same year, a Japanese team put climbers Yukihiro Yanagisawa and Hiroshi Aota on the summit, establishing a direct line in between the 1970 and 1981 routes. On the same expedition, team members Haruyuki Endo and Yasuji Kato were approaching the summit when Kato fell to his death. In 1984, Spaniards Nil Bohigasone and Enric Lucas completed the line first attempted by Alex MacIntyre and Rene Ghilini two years before.
Until now, the South Face has never seen a (recorded) solo ascent. Steck’s attempts on the South Face began in 2007, a climb that ended in a 300-meter plunge after rockfall knocked him from the wall. At the time, Steck was attempting a line first tried by Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Pierre Beghin in 1992. A failed anchor at 7100 meters sent Beghin’s to his death. Lafaille descended alone, using tent pegs as anchors amid rockfall and avalanches. One rock hit his right arm, breaking the bone. The next day, after splinting his arm, Lafaille continued down the face, “rigging 10-meter rappels with my sound arm and my teeth” (1993 AAJ).
After Steck’s 2007 fall, he returned to the wall the next year to attempt a new route, only to be trumped by unsafe avalanche conditions. After descending to Base Camp, Steck and others attempted a rescue of Spanish climber Inaki Ochoa de Olza, who had a seizure and lay incapacitated for five nights before passing away.
A disagreement with rope-fixing Sherpas and the subsequent media frenzy derailed Steck’s light-style ventures on Everest earlier this year. Speaking to swissinfo.ch in September about the incident, Steck said that, “After what happened in spring, coming back to Nepal is really important for me….The spring expedition is over, and it was certainly not the greatest story I’ve ever had, but it happened.” Steck began his third attempt on the South Face of Annapurna on September 16, marking his first return to the Himalaya since the incident.
After acclimatizing for several weeks with Canadian alpinist Don Bowie, who climbed with Steck in Tibet during the 2011 climbing season, Steck and his partner established advance base camp on Annapurna. Speaking of the climb beforehand, Steck told swissinfo.ch, “The South Face of Annapurna I is an old project. I have attempted it twice already and I guess you need patience if you want to climb hard routes on an 8000m-peak. Sometimes you have a lucky punch, but often you have to go back, and everything has to be right.”