Mountaineering expert Rodolphe Popier: ‘I think Ueli Steck lied’

The French researcher talks to EL PAÍS why he believes the Swiss climber’s ascents of Shishapangma and Annapurna are not all they seem

Steck, en el Annapurna
Ueli Steck ascending Annapurna in the Himalayan mountains.

In 1990, Slovenian mountaineer Tomo Česen claimed to have scaled the south face of Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. It was declared the greatest feat ever seen in Himalayan mountaineering, but he warned that he had no photos to prove it. Soon afterward, however, he provided some snapshots – stolen from fellow climbers who had tried to conquer this slope years earlier.

In 2015, French researcher Rodolphe Popier managed to reveal a second lie by the Slovenian: photos taken with a telephoto lens by a friend of Česen’s were not shot at base camp on the south face of Lhotse but elsewhere.

Then in 2017, a report by Popier on Ueli Steck’s solo Himalayan climbs of Shishapangma’s South Face and the Annapurna massif confirmed a suspicion that the Swiss climber had lied about his own ascents. In an interview with EL PAÍS, Popier discusses his research and mountaineering’s lax approach to self-reported feats.

Question: Did doubts about Ueli Steck’s 2011 solo ascent of Shishapangma arise before or after his 2013 Annapurna climb?

Answer: Before. In fact, I was only able to question him between 2015 and 2017, with a face-to-face meeting in Kathmandu in the autumn of 2015, and some rather tense discussions in 2016. Eberhard Jurgalski of [mountaineering website] 8000ers.com commissioned me to do the Annapurna study in 2016, but in that case, I ran out of time to chat with Steck because our relationship had already deteriorated after the aforementioned meeting... so the report was published without interviews with him.

Q. What was the reaction of the jury of the annual mountaineering award Piolets d’Or when you presented your work on Steck to the award organizers in 2017?

A. Lindsay Griffin felt that there was not enough incriminating evidence to doubt his word. Christian Trommsdorff believed his colleague Yannick Graziani, who had doubts about both ascents after reading my studies. There was division among the committee that gave Ueli Steck the award in 2014 for his solo ascent of Annapurna South [undertaken in 2013]. Catherine Destivelle and Georges Lowe aired their doubts and both congratulated me three years later when I presented my work.

Ultimately I think Steck is a concrete case of the evil that contemporary marketing can do, together with the recurring problem of becoming a media darling

Q. You state that your intention is not to criminalize Česen or Steck but to force some thinking about the need to ask for conclusive evidence of mountaineers’ activities?

A. Exactly, that has been the true spirit of my work since I began. In fact, in 2017 I was linked with the Himalayan Database and 8000ers.com [two institutions that document climbs in the Himalayas], and I was already collaborating with the French Alpine Club, as well as with the American Alpine Journal. It was by then very clear to me that there was something missing in the way we approached the issue of summit tests or relevant activities, and it’s a problem that affects both mountaineers and institutions. When I presented my papers in 2017, a debate was sparked, but it was very disappointing to see that period of reflection quickly die out. When Steck died on [Everest’s west peak] Nuptse a sort of status quo was reached. Catherine Destivelle received death threats, I was called all sorts of names on social media and it was hinted that I should drop the Steck case if I wanted to continue working on the Himalayan Database. In addition, in 2018 the Groupe de Haute Montagne [organizer of the Piolets d’Or] made a slightly incomprehensible announcement in which they diplomatically dismissed the progress of 2017, when we had managed to require award applicants to provide “adequate documentation of their activity.”

Q. Did Ueli Steck explain why he did not use his GPS watch to demonstrate his summits of Shishapangma or Annapurna?

A. As I mentioned before, I could not question him about Annapurna because he got very angry with me when I asked him uncomfortable questions. Regarding Shishapangma, he told me that his watch only had the capacity to store about 10 activities and that the one for Shisha had since been erased. I don’t remember if he still had that watch but if he did, he could have sent it to Suunto, [the watch company that sponsored him], or to other experts. The fact is that he also had an independent GPS with which he recorded a point at the beginning of the route in order to find it again on the descent. By that, I only mean that he could have recorded a point on the summit, which his watch already did, although it would have been redundant. Something to review in the reports....

Q. How much time did you invest in studying the case of Shisha and Annapurna?

A. My studies started in 2015 and ended in 2017. It was long and intense work, although I can’t really say how much time I spent. My colleagues at 8000ers.com followed the study constantly and corrected me when necessary, which was very good for me so I didn’t lose my way.

Q. Why didn’t we hear any critical voices, voices that doubted Ueli Steck. Was there a pact of silence? What about people like Australian rock climber Greg Child or French mountaineer Ivano Ghirardini, who in the 1990s had doubted Tomo Česen?

A. One of the first to doubt the Steck affair was Andreas Kubin in Germany [former editor-in-chief of the German mountaineering magazine Begsteiger]. Later, there were climbers like Rolo Garibott and the Huber brothers, who made their doubts clear at the 2017 Piolets d’Or. Leslie Fuczko, former president of the Groupe de Haute Montagne, also had doubts, and there were others, whose names I have forgotten or who I didn’t know felt that way at the time.

But none of those voices were picked up by the media, which was loyal to Superstar Steck. Kubin’s articles and doubts were known to the organizers of the 2014 Piolets d’Or. Aside from that, Steck was not an obscure newcomer, coming out of nowhere like Česen. Steck was a well-known personality, attractive, approachable; what more could you ask for? In France, everyone called him Ueli, as if he were a friend they all knew personally, or the “Swiss Machine,” as if his skills were inexhaustible. But behind this was a competition, like the one he had with [Swiss aplinist] Dani Arnold when Arnold broke his record on the Eiger North Face and Steck reminded him that he had not used the fixed rope on the Hinterstoisser Traverse.

Even if Steck sometimes regretted being called the Machine, it only fueled this discourse in which everything he did seemed simple. The very idea of questioning the version of events of a climber at such a high level, and with such a positive public image, seemed ridiculous. Anyone who opposed Steck would pass for an envious, mediocre person incapable of matching him, and I myself was convinced that he was above suspicion until 2015.

When doubts began to surface, Steck used to say that he didn’t know he had to “provide proof,”

When Steck climbed Gasherbrum II, another climber decided to check the proof of summits from expeditions there, but she did not ask the Swiss any questions: that was Ueli, fresh from the rescue attempt of Iñaki Ochoa de Olza [who died while trying to climb the peak of Annapurna] and a man beyond any doubt. And when doubts began to surface, Steck used to say that he didn’t know he had to “provide proof,” an incredible thing for a professional mountaineer to say, as someone knowledgeable of the history of mountaineering and aware of the controversies created by [Italian mountaineer Cesare] Maestri and Česen lying. These are stories that everyone knows because they nestle in a corner of the collective unconscious of mountaineers.

Ultimately I think Steck is a concrete case of the evil that contemporary marketing can do, together with the recurring problem of becoming a media darling. His image was amplified by social media and picked up by the media at such a speed that it preceded the facts. We like to read or listen to nice stories of nice superheroes that life smiles upon. In fact, in his statement issued at the 2017 Piolets d’Or, there were two speeches: one for the public where he spoke about his “free spirit” or “transcendent experiences,” and another for journalists where he spoke about climbing speeds, to say that he could indeed climb that fast. Since Steck passed away, I find it hard to talk about this subject and a pact of silence seems to have grown. I have retained my position at the Himalayan Database but even this interview may hurt my position.

Q. How did you use photographs in your work?

A. Photographs are the most direct evidence we have, and offer us the most information possible for this type of work. Over the last decade, I have had to analyze several thousand snapshots of ascents and areas near summits. What I try to do is locate where the photo was taken by comparing several of them, and like that, I was able to discover that Tomo Česen’s photos on Jannu and Lhotse were not taken where he said they were taken. In Česen’s case, analyzing photographs was very interesting because he had a lot of material, which is something I did not have in Steck’s case, as for most of his Himalayan ascents he hardly provided any photos (he said that his camera got lost, or the batteries or camera froze). In both cases, the definitive problem is access to the photos of other climbers present at the time, but it would take legal powers that we don’t possess to force them to hand them over, which is difficult when they may contradict the word of a friend.

Q. What can mountaineers and the media do in these cases?

A. Everyone has to form their own opinion and act accordingly, both in the practice of mountaineering and journalism, while remembering that we form part of the same community. It is not enough to say “I climb for myself” when you claim a first-rate feat in public and in the media.

We must ask ourselves how we can organize things so that mountaineering remains a free game where we respect each other. Do we want to contribute to writing history in a fair way, whatever the scale of achievement we are looking at, by establishing clear criteria that we can develop collectively and individually?

It should not be forgotten that the exploits claimed by Česen and Steck could open a Pandora’s Box for potentially dangerous extreme commitment. Do we want to identify with stories designed for mass consumption and to sell more GPS watches or anything else? Or would we prefer to identify with top mountaineers whose exploits we trust even if they set huge leaps in quality? The question is complex, as ever with sensitive issues mountaineering institutions are not defining things clearly. Those responsible for the Piolets d’Or had courage in 2017, but it was a pity that in 2018 it had dissipated.

El montañista francés Rodolphe Popier
French mountaineering expert Rodolphe Popier.

Q. Do you believe in the possibility that Steck did not lie?

A. We can’t know that. Only he knows what happened. What I do know is that both Steck and Česen were great climbers and mountaineers. Having done my work on both of them, I have no evidence to say that they both lied. The doubt remains, so these types of ascents are defined as disputed or unrecognized. These particular climbs of Steck and Česen are disputed. What we try to do is to analyze the information we have and contextualize it to fit the facts. From that angle, Steck climbing Shisha in 2011 cannot be rationally accepted and should be labeled as disputed. The same goes for Annapurna because not everyone believes that what he said was possible, and his word alone is not enough in such a case. I personally believe that there is a lie somewhere, but that is not something I can say in my reports because they are based on data only.

The very idea of questioning the version of events of a climber at such a high level, and with such a positive public image, seemed ridiculous

Q. Why would Ueli Steck lie? Pressure from his sponsors?

A. I don’t think his sponsors put pressure on him, but as nearly always happens in the history of mountaineering, it was perhaps he who put himself under pressure to make sure his endeavor was at the highest level. We should analyze the media image that Steck broadcast: who would not like to be someone super-strong, nice, who inspires you and for whom everything is simple? But this was both true and false: he trained very hard and his ascents were far from simple, but perhaps, to remain the best... some specialists think you have to identify a traumatic event to explain behavior that leads to lying. That could have been Yalung Kang in 1985 for Česen [when his friend died during the descent] or the trauma of the incident with Steck’s Sherpas on Everest in 2013. You would have to ask psychologists to clarify these hypotheses. I am convinced that at extreme altitudes, people who are reasonable mountaineers at sea level can behave inappropriately, and make a habit of it when nobody exposes them.

Q. Mountaineering has established rules without referees. Should they create referees to certify mountaineering achievements?

A. It is impossible to monitor all mountaineering achievements. At 8000ers.com we try to do it for the 14 eight-thousanders [14 mountains above 8000 meters] and it is a colossal and unpaid task. No, it is up to mountaineers to organize themselves, to take responsibility to preserve the fundamental principle of practicing what they do with freedom.

It should be of interest to them because we live in times when someone’s word is not worth anything, so it is better to cover yourself with proof that’s simple to provide.

Evidence nourishes the individual and collective memory and it would be great if mountaineering institutions would encourage them to provide evidence. Otherwise, the institutions that chronicle mountaineering must make their methodology evolve to deal with disputed cases better. That’s why I asked a university for help, as I am aware of the limits of my empirical experience.

Q. You are in a way the heir of journalist Elizabeth Hawley, who fought almost all her life against lies in Himalayanism.

A. I am an heir of Hawley [whose specialty dealt with the eight-thousanders and Everest in particular] but others also helped to train me: my first mentor was Pierre Chapoutot, then Eberhard Jurgalski and Lindsay Griffin. I would have also liked to have met and learned from Xavier Eguskitza and Ken Wilson. I work on a paid basis for the French Alpine Club, but I’m not paid by 8000ers.com, or the Himalayan Database, nor for my own studies. My job is to try to provide as accurately as possible the basic facts and data of an ascent in the most objective way possible. It’s nothing like exploring in the spirit of mountaineering, the eternal philosophical and psychological sense of why we climb, but I must say that studies like the one on Steck are infrequent and if we analyze the statistics of the Himalayan Database only 1% of the ascents have an asterisk of disputed or unrecognized.

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