Training with Ueli Steck

Ueli Steck winter running

Ueli Steck

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.

Ueli Steck beneath the North Wall of the Eiger. February 2011

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!”

Setting out in the early morning to run pistes. Grindelwald, Switzerland

Coffee at Grindelwald’s C & M Cafe

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.

Ueli Steck winter running below the Eiger

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?

Morning run; approximately 10km, 1400 meters gain, on snow, fast.

Post morning run; straight to Interlaken’s climbing gym

Many laps on hard routes

Ueli Steck presenting his show to a Swiss audience

Ueli at home; a man who loves coffee and knows how to do it right

Training in the forest behind the house

Post run; straight to Bern for a TV interview. Briefing & makeup

Another Ueli Steck day

Post TV show; straight to Bern’s climbing gym

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


Comments 14

  1. “…a completely normal person who happens to have some clearly defined goals and is willing to work very hard to obtain them.”

    I remember reading about a study that some physicians did on Messner, to find out why he performed so well at altitude. They were disheartened to find that physiologically, he was disappointingly average. What he did possess, however, was the ability to focus intently on a goal. Sounds kind of similar, no?

    1. Post

      Interesting you say this because I was going to include this bit of info:
      Ueli says during his show that after he did the Eiger speed record he decided to get serious about training – he had a series of tests run on him and they told him he is an average athlete. At first he was disappointed, then super inspired because he imagined what more he might be able to do if trained properly.

  2. Yes, how often we hear this same thing in life: from business people to olympic athletes.
    Here’s to living with passion and commitment!

  3. Impressive feat and steadfast mind.
    I’d love to see a video of his descent, as it seems it would be difficult since sight is different looking up than looking down. Or it is common practice to helicopter down?

    1. Post

      I have actually done the descent and it is relatively easy. There is a descent off the back where you actually don’t drop so much but rather traverse into a hut and then the famous Jungfraujoch train takes you down.

        1. Post

          My pleasure, there is another descent from the Eiger, the West Flank, I think a lot of people use it in the summer if they top out further below the summit and don’t want to go up and over to the station. I don’t know much about it.
          The Jungfraujoch station is a place to put on the Must Visit list – it is amazing.

  4. Thank you for the very interesting article. Excellent photos. Since you have done this so well why not do similar articles with other top athletes? I wish you success!

    1. Post

      Thanks for the time to comment. I would love nothing more than more opportunities like this, it is both great fun and very rewarding to get to see behind the scenes of great athletes like Ueli. I am curious how you found our page with the Ueli story.
      Thanks again, Dan

      1. The guys at gymjones twitted about it. i follow them with interest as they post quality info every time. Lots on training inspiration.

  5. When I get a little soft in my training and look out at some light drizzle and a bleak morning, it’s great to have an inspiring climber to look up to. On those mornings I ask myself what would ueli do. Might make a good ad or poster. I’d have it on my door just for those mornings.

  6. And talking of ordinary people doing amazing thing, I wanted to add something that is not directly linked to alpinism… And please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to make any political point here!

    I read the other day an article about the the killing of Osama bin Laden. After the operation President Obama met with the seals who did the mission. He was struck to find very ordinary-looking guys. Not at all the sort of people we are used to see in super hero films.

    Again, no political point is meant here. I am neither expressing approval nor disapproval on that event. Just interesting parallel on how we are conditioned to think about people who perform technically, physically and psychologically demanding feats.

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