“Swiss climber Ueli Steck has died.” The voice from NPR echoed through my car on an otherwise bright April day, and I felt my heart break inside my chest.
His is an accomplished, iconic name, one to admire and learn from, a towering figure in the world of mountaineering. He was a celebrity in my world, someone whose death should have elicited a, “That’s too bad,” before I moved on with my grocery shopping and perhaps recalled the news every few months until it faded from memory. But it didn’t. Instead, it hung there, the lingering vibration after a symphony, when the concert hall has long gone silent but the echo of the music, the ghost of its sound, still fills the room. I could not smile and carry on, could not erase his name from my version of existence.
His name had populated my life for all the years I had been climbing, which were not many. He was not a main character, but played cameos in various YouTube videos and Alpinist articles as he set speed records on the Eiger Nordwand or summited all 4000-meter peaks in the Alps in a single summer, traveling between them by human power. My husband introduced him to me in a tone suggesting that all true climbers knew about Ueli, and so of course I pretended that I had, too.
And soon, I did. I knew his face, lined with the very beginnings of wrinkles etched by wisdom and mountain weather, as it smiled at me through videos and magazine articles; I knew his small, fit frame even as the great mountains of the world dwarfed it in photographs; and I knew his kindly Swiss accent that described adrenaline-rich adventures with a calm that suggested complete peace with his place in the world. I watched him climb and marveled at his speed as he scaled rock faces at a pace faster than I can maintain on flat ground. For a girl new to climbing and ignorant of the breadth of experiences available in mountaineering, Ueli opened up the world and demonstrated what was possible. He didn’t just describe it, or dream about it; he filmed his climbs and took interviews and talked to the amateur climber. He made the mountains he summitted and the landscapes he conquered accessible to the average human being. Ueli taught me what it looks like to work with unceasing diligence towards formidable objectives, to view nothing as impossible. He shared with me a life that would otherwise have been the stuff of fantasy. I may never climb Everest without oxygen or achieve first solo ascents on forbidding Himalayan faces, but Ueli taught me that dreams only remain fantasy if we let them.
Ueli Steck is dead, and I have lost a friend in this life.