I have watched the Sender film The Swiss Machine numerous times – and still the goosebumps come. Seeing Ueli Steck speed soloing the North Wall of the Eiger is something sublime. For those not familiar with this, a quick summary: Ueli Steck, alone, climbed the North Wall of the Eiger in 2:47 minutes. This is something along the lines of someone suddenly running a one minute mile. He also established alpine speed records on the North Wall of the Matterhorn as well as the Grand Jorasses. Feats that left the climbing world stunned.
As a climber myself, I am in awe of his technical skills and mental strength. As an athlete, I am inspired by both his fitness and ability to push himself to limits when the consequences are extreme. Ueli Steck not only plays one of the most dangerous games, he does it as an elite athlete, combining many skills and applying them to huge objectives. One can’t help but wonder, what’s this guy like?
The subject came up recently when talking to Mountain Hardwear, a company we provide photography for and who works closely with Ueli in developing their alpine gear and clothing. With Ueli preparing for an upcoming trip to the Himalaya, I asked them about spending some days photographing him training at home in Interlaken, Switzerland. One thing lead to another and suddenly it was a go, I had Ueli on the line and a plan came together.
The catch was, Mountain Hardwear did not want a “photoshoot”, but rather a documentary of Ueli’s time which it turns out, is in great demand. Ueli is in the middle of a slideshow circuit for Explora.ch in Switzerland and has a show almost every night for 6 weeks right up until the eve of his Himalaya departure.
Photographing Ueli Steck
Typically, photoshoots include our ability to control what we photograph. We know where, when and what we will shoot ahead of time. In this case, we had no clue, we were along for Ueli’s ride. With his tight schedule, Ueli needed to maximize his training time so as to fit it in along with two shows and a TV interview – just in the two days we were with him. We were allowed to hover but not to impose, the photos had to be honest accounts of who he is. No back and forth in perfect light at a scouted location, just running by where we could get to him.
So, what was it like? How is the Swiss Machine? Janine and I met him in pre-dawn darkness in Grindelwald, Switzerland and were immediately struck by his casual, friendly nature. He’s also all business, “I’m going to run up to the Eigergletscher Station (1400 meters gain), you take the train up, ski down and shoot me where we meet. Then I wait for you at the station, bring my skis up, we’ll ski down together and then go get some lunch.” Off he went, “Tschüss!”
Later, after our turn free descent, we headed for a local cafe and finally got to spend some time sitting and getting to know this guy. Some of the creative direction provided was to capture what a “badass” he is while training. And admittedly, I had gone into the shoot with the desire to do this very thing. I wanted portraits that demonstrated his “Swiss Machine-ness”; absolute focus, maybe even a killer look in his eye. I found none of this to be the case. This was my perception of a man who has certainly done some very “badass” things, but when sitting at a table sharing a meal, I felt I was with a completely normal person who happens to have some clearly defined goals and is willing to work very hard to obtain them.
Suddenly my perception and focus changed. With our job being to document Ueli Steck, I realized I wasn’t going to get “badass”, I was going to get a guy running in the woods behind his house, training at his local climbing gym and drinking coffee in the morning. This is who the hero is. He is a genuinely good guy working his ass off each and every day, balancing a staggering training program with a climbing profession, a media onslaught, and a happy marriage; the badass comes from what he accomplishes. Ueli Steck might be a bit uncomfortable being called a hero, but he handles it with grace. Best of all, he is a guy to learn some things from about working hard for what you want. What more could you want from a hero?
Janine and I would like to express our sincerest thanks to Ueli for welcoming us into his home and life for two days – and to Mountain Hardwear for making it all possible.
To keep track of Ueli, visit his Facebook Page: Ueli Steck