What really happened on the day that Ueli Steck fell from Nuptse?
The person who found him shares some interesting clues...
Vinayak Jaya Malla is a Nepalese In-Training Mountain Guide and the person who found Ueli Steck while climbing up to C2 on Everest with a group on April 30, 2017. The author (Dr. Leo Montejo) met Vinay in 2016 while climbing the Sky Caves of Mustang in Nepal, and was impressed by his skill and manner while on the mountain. He saw him again this year at Everest Base Camp shortly before Vinay summitted with a group from the Indian Navy. His story of what may have happened is filled with great respect and admiration for Ueli, and it is also a first glimpse and analysis as to what probably occurred that morning on the slopes of Nuptse.
Vinay, at Everest Base Camp about 10 days before Ueli's accident on Nuptse
We were not together that morning of April 30. In fact, I had slept at Camp 1 and Mingma was descending from Camp 3. He was headed down the mountain towards base camp with clients, and I was going up with my group. We met along the way, about 300m from where we found Ueli, somewhere between camp 1 and camp 2.
I had left Camp 1 at 7am and we met up with MIngma and his group at around 09:10 AM. We found Ueli at exactly 09:34 AM.
# What was the weather like that day? Do you remember if it was any colder or warmer than usual?
The weather was excellent - not a cloud in the sky, no wind - a sunny day! If anything, I remember walking on the Western Cwm and feeling very hot that morning because of the sun and its reflection on the snow.
# What about winds up higher ? Any winds the night before? If one looked up at Everest, did it have a plume? (cloud indicating high winds)
Again, there was no wind, the top of Everest had no plume, so it was probably calm up higher.
# What were you doing when you found a climber with no life, and how far away was he from from your path?
Earlier I had seen somebody climbing up towards Nuptse, and at one point I heard a sound of something falling. I looked up again, and did not see this person anymore, so I suspected this climber may have fallen. When I met with Mingma, I told him of this, and we both walked in the direction of the place where I had heard the sound, and as I got closer, I recognized who it was immediately. I knew his face and his jacket with his sponsor's name in green.
I immediately contacted base camp by radio. He could not have survived the fall. I gave all the details including time, place, condition of climber, etc. I took a picture, which is why I know the exact time, and had my radio contact notify Tengi (Ueli's climbing partner) immediately. This was some 300m from where Mingma and I had met earlier.
# How long do you think Ueli had been there?
I would guess some 45 minutes. As I said earlier, I had seen somebody climbing Nuptse, and then the sound of the fall. When I met with Mingma, we agreed to go together to see what may have happened.
#How did the recovery take place?
The accident area was not safe and rocks could fall at any time. We therefore returned to where Mingma and I had met earlier and he continued down with his clients. Shortly after, I met up with Pema Cheri Dai who had a stretcher. His two clients also came to help us, and among them one was an IFMGA guide from Peru (Victor) and another climber from Iran. We returned to the accident scene, collected his stuff, placed Ueli on the stretcher, and brought him back to where we had met earlier. Without team work we could not have done this. From base camp, Lakpa Norbu Sherpa (HRA) helped us in communicating with helicopter pilot Maurizio Folini of Fishtail Air who flew Ueli back to Kathmandu.
# It is guessed that he fell some 1000m. Do you have any ideas on this? How far do you think he was from the summit?
I think he fell some 800-900m. When I last saw him, he was on a ridge that is 7100-7200m. Any higher and I would not have been able to see him. Nuptse is 7861m high and Camp 2 is at 6400m. If we assume he was at 7100-7200m and subtract 6300m (below camp 2) we are left with 800-900m.
# What equipment was he using when he fell? Helmet? Crampons? Gloves? Radio? What type of ice axes and how many did you find?
We all knew his climbing style: Light and fast. He was wearing Scarpa Phantom 6000 boots, Petzl Irvis Hybrid crampons, a good jacket and pants, and he was carrying a small bag of water, a candybar, a GPS and a camera.
I did not see a helmet, nor was he wearing gloves. He was also not wearing a harness. I did not find an ice axe, nor did I see his poles. These may have ended up on the mountain. I cannot speculate.
# Tell me more about what he was wearing. Do you think he was wearing appropriate clothing for the conditions higher up on Nuptse?
In my opinion we has dressed appropriately for a sunny day in the Himalayas. But I did not see gloves on his hands.
# It is believed that he had left his tent at 04:30 AM. Do you think this is probably right?
I think this sounds right. He was a well known speed climber and was used to Alpine starts early in the morning. The day before, on April 29 he had been there with Yanick up to 6800m and they had left some gear up there. That morning he climbed solo and made it up to the ridge.
#Was anybody else on Nuptse that day?
To my knowledge, no - Ueli was alone.
# Did you realize right away that this was Ueli Steck when you found him?
I had seen him at base camp several times. He was wearing the same jacket with his sponsor's logo. Of course, I also recognized his face.
# Did you also help collect his belongings on camp 2?
At camp 2, in the evening of the day of the accident, a French climber and his guide Pemba and myself went to see his tent. It was only 2 minutes away from mine. I helped pack his belongings.
In the tent we packed his sleeping bag, food, and another pair of boots with crampons.
But a couple of things suprised me...
We found a 5mm 50m rope, as well as his ice axes. I have always believed that a climber should carry a rope, even if he does not intend to use it. What if bad weather gets in the way or if you need a safe rest? A rope is very useful. Even more when you are solo. But I guess he left his rope behind.
Second, his ice axes. Personally, I cannot imagine climbing without them. Either he took his poles up the mountain, or another pair of ice axes were lost during the fall. We never found either. My guess is that he went up Nuptse with trekking poles.
# You summitted Everest some 20 days after this, and you are also an accomplished climber. What would you have taken on the climb to Nuptse that Ueli did not take that day?
First, let me make very clear that I respected him very much. But I am not a solo climber, and of course I would not have gone up there by myself. More than anything else, a climbing partner is perhaps what would have been most valuable.
#Have you climbed Nuptse? Nuptse is in fact seven peaks. Was he climbing Nuptse 1? Is this considered a difficult climb?
No, I have not climbed Nuptse. Ueli was climbing Nuptse 1 and did not use the standard route. From camp 2 he went up the glacier on a block of ice, and then continued on a 70-75 degree mixed wall of ice and snow. The wall then traverses to the ridge which is also a mix of rock, ice, and snow.
#Finally, Vinay, what do you think happened that day?
I heartily respected Ueli and his climbing style. He grew up in the Swiss Alps and he had won twice the Piolet d'Or, the highest climbing honor.
I think several things could have happened. Again, I stress that I very much respected his climbing style.
I saw a rock the size of a football stained with some blood nearby. I think that this rock may have fallen and hit him on the head. Or maybe he hit it on the way down. He was not wearing a helmet and I also saw that the back part of his head had been hit, probably by this rock.
When I found Ueli, I noticed that one of his crampons was missing from his boots. A loose crampon could definitely contribute to a fall. This can happen with any type of crampon, and it has even happened to me several times while climbing the icefall. Crampon performance depends a lot on the boots you are wearing and how carefully you have attached them. But they could have fallen off during the fall - who knows...
Ueli was not wearing a harness when we found him. Solo climbers usually do. When they need a rest, when they are tired, when it's hard to continue, they can use a safety line and they then attach it to their harness. It is possible that he was tired when he came up to a difficult section, and then he fell. As I said earlier, he did not have a rope either.I have always believed that a climber should always carry a rope; even if he does not intend to use it. What if hard sections come when back climbing? A rope (5 mm, 50m) is very useful.
I think he used his trekking poles for the climb. That was his climbing style for a mountain with an easy slope. I didn’t see an ice axe at the scene of the accident. But I did see a pair of ice axes in his tent. Maybe he underestimated Nuptse……
After Tengi (Ueli's climbing partner who was to accompany him) got frostbite in his hands, the doctor told him that he would not be able to climb this season anymore. All the Sherpas knew he had a great project. And he knew that world was following him. I talked with many different people who were close to him. They said “ he was upset after the Doctor's decision to keep his partner from climbing with him, and that he was not behaving as before".
On the 29th, a French climber by the name of Yannick Grazaiani went briefly up the Nuptse face to look for a climbing route and then came back to camp. The plan was perhaps to climb Nuptse with Ueli but Graziani's climbing company stopped him from doing so because he did not have a climbing permit for Nuptse. So Ueli went at it alone...
#Anything else you'd like to add?
If you have been to the Himalayas, you will often see Bharal, blue sheep, very high on the mountains. They are very agile and fast so as to protect themselves from snow leopards. But sometimes, blue sheep fall off from cliffs. Each time they do, there is a different reason. Sometimes they fall due to rock fall, other times, they have perhaps run too fast, etc.
Perhaps we must think of Ueli as such - as a Bharal, as one of our blue sheep of the Himalayas who one day fell for an unexpected reason but was otherwise a master.
#Thanks for this beautiful interpretation
Addendum June 27
A few people have been asking me about what's new here. In fact, what is interesting about Vinayak's account is not what he saw, but more importantly what he did NOT see. Check out the picture below of Ueli at Island Peak a while back, but in which we can see his gear and his climbing habits:
Ueli Steck at Island Peak
Helmet: As seen from the above picture, he rarely wore one. He did wear one at Annapurna and it saved his life after being hit by a rock and bashing it. He apparently briefly lost consciousness, slid down the mountain, but was able to recover.
Harness: The Sherpa did not find one on Ueli - for whatever reason. In his Island Peak picture, he is wearing a Petzl Alpine harness, but no locking carabiner on his center loop, no slings, no ascender (Jumar), no safety carabiner to attach himself to a rope on his center loop.
Gloves: Vinayak did not find any on his hands, but if he was wearing mittens such as those in the above picture, these could fall easily. But usually also one wears light liners underneath...
Ice Axe: No ice axe in this picture and the last 300m at Island Peak are pretty vertical. You can see he used a trekking pole. Most use trekking poles up to the glacier, and then switch to an ice axe at the steep part, while leaving the poles there to be picked up on the way down.
Crampons: He is wearing hybrids, as described by Vinayak.
Oxygen: Curiously he has an oxygen mask in this picture - Island Peak is about 900m lower than the place from which Ueli seems to have fallen, but this may have been during his earlier climbing career or other reason. ( In fact I've been corrected - this is NOT an O2 mask but rather a mask to keep the face warm and rebreathe warmer air... )
In short, the article is more about what was NOT found than what WAS found. I believe that if we want more clues we need Yannick Graziaini to tell us what stash they left they day before at some 6800m and for what reason. What were their plans before he was prevented from accompanying Ueli? What was the route they took like? Did he use an ice axe the day before? Did he mention any issues with his crampons? Was there much loose rock? (Vinayak says there was much where they found him.)
In short, the purpose here was not try in any way to judge Ueli our outsmart the educated reader. It was an opening into what may have happened and what did not happen, and for those who are into detective work, there are many questions that remained unanswered here.
I am sure the mountain still holds some clues up there too.
Addendum July 6:
Vinayak has contacted me and told me that he received a message from Yannick Grazaiani:
"Hello Vinayak - I have read the article about your testimony of Ueli Steck. You made one mistake. Of course Ueli had ice axes. When I went to the bottom of Nuptse we left our tools there. He didn't want to climb Nuptse with ski-poles only. Maybe you can correct that. Hope everything is fine with you. All the best Yannick."
About the author:
Dr. Leo Montejo has been to the Himalayas four times both on expeditions and climbs. He is an anesthesiologist and also the founder of WiCis, a company specializing in real time vital signs for telemedicine. The systems he has designed have monitored climbers vital signs live, while climbing K2 and Everest and other high mountains of the world.
Dr. Leo Montejo, in the Sierra Nevada next to Lake Tahoe