What happened to Ueli Steck? The Tragedy of the Swiss Machine

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: October 4, 2023 (Last updated: January 10, 2024)
What happened to Ueli Steck? The Tragic Story of the Swiss Machine

You don’t get a nickname like “The Swiss Machine” for nothing, and record-breaking solo alpinist Ueli Steck earned the moniker and then some. One of the subjects of the Netflix documentary Race to the Summit along with his long-time rival Dani Arnold, Steck was a remarkable, award-winning figure in the mountaineering and alpine climbing world, but he met a tragic end in the pursuit of further accomplishments. What happened to Ueli Steck? What did he achieve in his remarkable life, and how did he meet his untimely end?

What follows is most of what we know about Steck and his life, records, family, and untimely death.

Who was Ueli Steck?

Ueli Steck was born in the town of Langnau, in the Emmental Valley in Switzerland, the third child of a coppersmith.

A carpenter by trade, he seemingly got the bug for mountaineering by accompanying his father on ski tours. By the age of 17, he had achieved his ninth difficulty rating from the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme, or UIAA, and at 18, he climbed the North Face of the Eiger and the Bonatti Pillar in the Mont Blanc massif.

Steck was the first to accomplish many incredible climbing feats. He set a speed record on the North Face of the Eiger in 2007, and then broke that record the following year (he did it in 2 hours, 47 minutes, 33 seconds, less time than it takes to watch The Godfather.)

Steck was also the first to climb Annapurna solo via its South Face, won two Piolet d’Or awards, set speed records on the North Face trilogy in the Alps, and summitted Mount Everest.

What happened to Ueli Steck on Everest?

On April 30, 2017, Ueli Steck met an untimely and tragic end while acclimatizing for an attempt at the Hornbein route on the West Ridge of Everest.

The route had only been climbed a few times, and not since 1991, but that wasn’t enough for a climber of Steck’s caliber. His plan was to climb the Hornbein Couloir to the summit, then proceed to the peak of Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain in the world.

This particular route had never been achieved before.

Due to unforeseen difficulties stemming from his climbing partner, Tenji Sherpa, developing frostbite, Steck changed plans and decided to instead summit Nuptse (or Nubtse), two kilometers west-southwest of Everest.

It is not known what caused Steck to fall, but fall he did, an estimated 1000 meters to his death from 300 metres below the summit. His body was found in the Western Cwm, between camps 1 and 2, and memorial services were held for him in Kathmandu.

He is survived by a wife, Nicole Steck.

Is Ueli Steck on Race to the Summit?

The Netflix documentary Race to the Summit charts Steck’s accomplishments and his rivalry with fellow speed climber Dani Arnold, who broke several of Steck’s records.

Arnold’s fate was less tragic than Steck’s, having survived various perilous expeditions before seemingly retiring to a small village in Switzerland called Burglen, where he lives with his wife and their daughter. Arnold is on record as having said, “It’s important to go for what you’re motivated by, but you have to know when to stop,” a position almost certainly influenced by the tragic fate of his former rival.

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