Swiss Machine — Definitely Not an Oxymoron

Post by blogger | April 26, 2011      

Ever wondered what it feels like to be an ant searching for food, perhaps perched below the door of a refrigerator, looking at the climb above? Try standing below the Eiger North Face. The wall looms in grim northerly shade 1,800 vertical meters (5,900 ft) above, an iconic bastion of snow, rock and ice that’s helped define European alpinism for three quarters of a century. You are the ant.

But ants can move fast when required. In modern alpinism, since classic walls and summits are all taken by multitudes of routes, speed is often the frontier.

Enter the movie “Swiss Machine,” which gives us a compelling glimpse inside speed climbing. Continuing the delightful trend of adventure films with authentic narration that I’ve been viewing for review re 5 Point Film Festival, Swiss protagonist of speed climbing, Ueli Steck, shares a few adventures and a bit of philosophical underpinning.

In particular, Steck ramped up the speed side of alpinism by setting an under 3-hour time for the Eiger north face route. While his record of 2:47 was recently cut by 20 minutes (Dani Arnold, 2:28), this film still rings true and honest — not to mention displaying amazing footage of Steck on the actual Eiger climb. Speaking of which, again keeping with what seems to be a trend for authentic sound and narration in adventure films, the audio track includes the actual stomping thudding, yes, machine like noise of Steck’s foot falls on the Eiger as he runs up the final icefield. I found that aural effect to be somewhat eerie, but to effectively convey the awesome power these trained speedsters are bringing to the game.

It could be argued that speed climbing is somehow dishonest, even irresponsible. At first glance this branch of alpinism seems to strip away the concept of going gently, to be replaced with an arrogance and casual disregard for danger, which in turn almost seems like cheating as basic safety concepts pale in the face of speed — more speed. In a way it’s like a war movie, when a patrol methodically works in on a machine gun bunker, then suddenly one soldier has enough, and runs into the hail of lead, screaming like a madman and wildly firing his weapon. Sometimes that guy miraculously succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t.

As Steck himself says in the flick, to operate in his realm you’ve got to be willing to not succeed — and to even pay the ultimate price. But if you do succeed, you’ve done nothing less than create a work of art. More, you’ve shown a sense pf purpose that can be a lesson to any of us, in any endeavor. At least that’s the theory.

So, let us play intellectual machine. Watch the movie, cut through your unabashed amazement, then you tell me: Is what we see Ueli doing a radical expression of human creativity, with a foundation of pure basic athleticism that inspires us with purpose and commitment? Or did he just dodge some bullets and live to talk about it?

WildSnow three skis up, and give me your opinion over a brew after you watch “Swiss Machine” at 5 Point Film Festival, Friday, April 29, evening. Oh, and I’ll bet Ueli skis fast too. Perhaps you can ask the filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, as at least one of those guys is expected.

Aha! Daniel Patitucci sent over a bonus shot of Steck on rando race gear doing a bit of cardio. Yikes. More Ueli photos from Dan.

Ueli on ski mountaineering gear.

Ueli, skiing. Click image to enlarge.


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17 Responses to “Swiss Machine — Definitely Not an Oxymoron”

  1. Dan Patitucci April 26th, 2011 6:33 am

    Hi Lou,
    Great review – as usual.
    I do have some Ueli skiing info: He, Janine and I skied down from the Eigergletscher Station to Grindelwald this winter. From the push off he was in a tuck, I followed. Not once did he turn for the 1600 meters. In town, after my eyes cleared we had lunch and I asked him if he ever wants to just go ski and not train so much. He said it is of no interest and admitted he is actually a terrible skier. To this, Janine responded to the world’s best alpinist, “Ya, you don’t know how to turn”. Ueli looked a bit surprised, but then we all laughed.
    We have a whole photo spread and story about his Himalayan training program on our portfolio blog:

    Dan Patitucci

  2. Lou April 26th, 2011 6:39 am

    Dan, thanks! You got a photo of him “skiing” that we can publish?

  3. Dan Patitucci April 26th, 2011 6:43 am

    Lou, Email me the best address to send it to and it’s all your’s. It’s going up, there was no way to get one going down. I only got him training.

  4. Frame April 26th, 2011 7:54 am

    Lou, I recently watched a tv documentary on the history of climbing on the Eiger (was on BBC, but no longer on their replay facility) and it show’s the guys who first got up there and then focussed on the North Face. It mentioned Uli and that he can do it in less than 3 hours, when others take days blows, me away. I’m not very well versed on how speed mountaineering works – are all his anchors already set up for sections requiring ropes and the clock starts once everything is set?
    It doesn’t inspire me to climb things faster, but I sure would like to stick my head out the doorway from the train tunnell half way up and watch him run on by… praying he dodges those bullets, while filling whatever need for speed it is that he has.

  5. Mark Sweatman April 26th, 2011 8:11 am

    Frame – I think he speeds solos .. so no anchors in use. Carries a small rope in case he needs to beck of something.

  6. Gentle Sasquatch April 26th, 2011 8:21 am

    I sure preffer speed climbing over the whole ensemble of porters, helpers, guides etc… Aside from the dangers, I think speed climbing causes less environmental impact over the alternatives.

  7. Daniel Dunn April 26th, 2011 8:29 am

    Thanks Lou, great read. I have total respect for this guy. Yeah, he may a little proud of himself, but aren’t all athletes? At least he’s doing it by himself, for himself, and he’s driven to push himself, for I think the right reasons. Why not?
    See you this weekend at 5 Points.

  8. Dan Patitucci April 26th, 2011 9:55 am

    I personally know Ueli enough to strongly believe he does these things for himself, to truly improve at everything he does. He says himself when he speaks, he is not a naturally gifted athlete, he has had to work very hard at what he has achieved and his own progress and achievements seem to fuel him even more.
    Also, he did the Eiger speed record without using gear in place, he climbed the route on his own. The latest speed record includes the use of fixed gear at the Hinterstoisser Traverse. It will be interesting to follow how this is viewed by the media. I have no idea how much time is saved or how it truly changes the route, but it is a different method.

  9. altis April 26th, 2011 11:46 am
  10. Caleb Wray April 26th, 2011 12:01 pm

    Ueli just climbed the South Face of Shisha Pangma in 10.5 hours. Next up this season Cho Oyu and then Everest for an 8000m trifecta. I haven’t decided if he is a genius or if he leaves half his brain at base camp to save weight. Regardless it is impressive.’s-ascent/

  11. Tay April 26th, 2011 12:18 pm

    Just to clarify that Steck free climbed the Eiger, where as Dani Arnold used fixed ropes in the exit crack of the Hinterstoisser Traverse as the ice was not in condition to free climb.

  12. altis April 26th, 2011 12:23 pm

    More Ueli movie with added wow:

    Have you ever fancied skiing the Eiger?

  13. Lou April 26th, 2011 12:57 pm

    Tay, I of course understand the difference, but in the case of speed climbing is this a big deal?

  14. wick April 26th, 2011 3:10 pm

    ….will some one show him a quick release system for his skin attachment 😉

  15. Marskilowski April 27th, 2011 3:27 am

    Yes Lou, it is a big deal.
    I think Ueli did not just speed climbing on the Eiger. He climbed it in the most beautiful manner, showed what is possible in modern alpine style and was fast.
    Dani, was just very fast.

    I’d would say Ueli is an Artist and Dani a great and extraordinary sportsman.

  16. Lou April 27th, 2011 5:36 am

    Thanks Marsk, clear. If I have time, I’ll edit the post a bit.

  17. Jim May 2nd, 2011 9:43 pm

    Thanks for putting this up Lou. I’ll be on the side of creativity, power, athleticism, all the good stuff. Not a climber myself but i do push my body and have much respect for what Ueli does. Really amazing that he or anyone can push that hard for that long, very impressive.

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