What happens after all your heroes have gone? It is one thing entirely, to lose your heroes by moral failing; when you put someone on a pedestal, only to find them far below your perfect expectations of them. At least in these circumstances, you can simply cut emotional ties to that person. Not so when you lose a hero to death. In these circumstances, there is no resolve, good or bad. These heroes are simply gone. In their absence, the earth suddenly has a void so intensely felt, it is almost tangible. When Ueli Steck died, I felt the void.
I have climbed before, both rock and ice, but to label myself a “climber” would do injustice to “real” climbers. Maybe for this reason, I have no credentials to offer any significant tribute to the Swiss Machine. Or perhaps, in some ways, as a non-climber I might be a good candidate to write a note of gratitude to the life-changing inspiration he brought to the world at large, and not just inside the climbing community.
My introduction to Ueli occurred late one winter night, alone in my cabin up Bear Canyon, near Bozeman, Montana. The memory is forever crystalized in my mind. I was in the depths of the worst depression I had ever experienced, trapped in a cycle of booze therapy. I was surfing the web aimlessly in the dead of night, nursing a hangover by yet more alcohol in fact, when I stumbled upon a video of the Swiss climber. It was a clip from Reel Rock 7, of Ueli’s 2008 Eiger speed ascent.
The video started with Ueli working his way up the north face of the mountain. Only the muffled sound of his crampons and tools hitting frozen rock can be heard. Below him is more than 3000 feet of dead space. The film is shot from different helicopter perspectives, making the immensity of his surroundings more intensified; the small man appears like a tiny astronaut in deep space. As he nears the top of the technical section and approaches the final snow field, Radical Face’s “Welcome Home” begins to play in the background, and Ueli’s legs and arms pump rhythmically through the snow. The melody playing is so poignant and synchronized to his movements, it almost seems as if the film were choreographed with the music itself. In the background, Ueli narrates in somewhat broken English: “You’re progressing at something, and that’s [what its] all about! You wanna keep moving, having a progress in your life.”
With this, he literally trudges in a run to the top of the peak, completely out of breath. Slowly, he stands up straight, and then raises both arms in triumph, and then smiles- a crooked-toothed smile. The helicopter angle pans out, and the viewer is left with the image of Ueli standing on the mountain, as the camera spins around and around, and the figure becomes smaller and smaller. As I watched, an overwhelming feeling came over me, and a lump formed in my throat. I have rarely been more inspired by a sight in my life, let alone one from a tiny computer screen. I did not want to keep living a miserable life.
The difference between idols and heroes, is that idols remain on a pedestal to be worshipped; always out of reach. In contrast, heroes live among us, elevating and inspiring the people around them to live better lives. Ueli Steck was just the type of hero for me. My brief introduction to him was not without consequence. Soon after, I began to run. One mile on a country road turned to five miles on the mountain trails. And then five miles turned into twenty. 500 feet elevation gain turned into 6,000 feet gain. Less than six months later, I was cigarette free and crossing the finish line of my first 100 mile ultramarathon in Wyoming.
I do not mean to suggest this Swiss alpinist was the sole purpose for me cleaning up my lifestyle- but there is no doubt in my mind, his inspiration was a key piece in a collection of similar pieces that helped me move more vigorously toward a happier life. There were other heroes along my journey too, heroes that also recently perished; people like Dean Potter and Kyle Dempster. Some, are still here today, including my non-climbing heroes like J. Michael Fay, Scott Jurek, and Kilian Jornet. I can point to each one of these characters, and definitively describe their influence in my life.
With the collective inspiration I have gathered from all these people, I have gone on to accomplish things I never dreamed possible: like completing my first book, or executing solo backpacking expeditions in Alaska and Africa, and now- becoming a competitive ultra runner (Ironically, Ueli also was a very accomplished ultra runner in his own right, remarkably, as an afterthought to his greater mountaineering goals.)
Despite the complications Ueli might have encountered high above the clouds during his many difficult expeditions, I have come to believe, his life was still remarkably simple compared to the lives of so many of us in the western world. Lives where unfulfilling careers, tedious education, dead social obligations, and stagnant routine dominate the days. This “simplicity” I describe is not to be mistaken for easy; surely, nothing was easy about Ueli’s alpine endeavors. But I believe, while he was up there, the meaningless complexities of the world below the mountain suddenly became irrelevant. In their place, was left one pure and honest purpose: to live. At its core, stripped to its barest essentials, Ueli’s life was about testing himself against a force greater than mankind- and in that testing, the one object of success was not the summit, but to come back home alive. For whatever the reasons, for the first and last time, he did not come back home.
Even now, writing these words, the answers to my original question seem to rise closer to the surface and out of the fog, but aren’t quite fully understood: What happens after all your heroes have gone? As these larger than life people continue to leave us each year in this fragile space of existence, I will continue to gnaw over the thought of their demise with a feeling of irrevocable emptiness. I might not ever find the resolve I am looking for, but there is a comfort in knowing that their influence does not die with them. In their place, they leave deep reservoirs of inspiration to constantly draw from; material to build the next generation of heroes. In the case of Ueli, the reservoir of inspiration he left behind runs much deeper than the brief 40 years he was given to fill it with.