Ueli Steck

Annapurna, Ueli Steck’s regular stomping ground, is intimidating, even from base camp. Photo via Shutterstock

Given Ueli Steck's stack of solo feats of speed-climbing—where speed is the No. 1 goal of a climb—it's not surprising he was just voted one of National Geographic's Adventurers of the Year. The Switzerland-based mountaineer is notorious for his excursions on one of the world's most deadly mountains: Annapurna.

Some of Steck’s treks up the peak's faces—all considered daunting, even in the alpineering world—have broken records. Others are remembered more for what went terribly wrong. But Steck has survived many challenges to tell his stories of fast and furious climbing where, some say, Mother Nature may have never intended.

"I like people who just do what they like to do and follow their own way," Steck says in reference climber Alex Honnold and runner Kilian Jornet, two athletes he admires. "This puts expedition climbing in a completely different aspect."

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The "Swiss Machine," as he's been coined, recently shared his perspective and some tormenting tales, such as his epic 2013 solo attempt of Annapurna's south face, on an eight-city American Alpine Club speaking tour in U.S., including climbing mecca Boulder, Colorado.

Steck's adventures are never without controversy, making them both engaging and educational. In 2007, climbers found a disoriented Steck wandering around a glacier under Annapurna's south face after he'd been struck by a falling rock and plummeted 1,000 feet during an un-roped solo attempt. A year later he returned to the Himalayan mountain with Spanish mountaineer Iñaki Ochoa de Olza, but left without his climbing companion, who died after suffering an on-slope stroke. Steck attempted a risky revival of his partner to no avail, burying the Spaniard in a crevasse and leaving the mountain with an icy dose of reality.

Two more recent mountain encounters included escaping an avalanche on Tibet's Shishapangma that killed two mountaineers while Steck was climbing with his wife, as well as an embarrassing fight on Mount Everest between some 100 Sherpas and a few climbers, including Steck.

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Perhaps his most provocative memory occurred during a 2013 solo climb on Annapurna's south face, when Steck barely survived an avalanche and lost the camera he used to record his perilous but successful summit. In retrospect, he admits the attempt may have been too risky, and says he's learned from the experience, along with each and every controversial climb that has plagued him in the press.

"You always learn. This is part of getting older. I get more self confident in making decisions. If I don't feel good, I turn back. If I feel something is too big for me, I back out. I think it's just normal in a career as a climber," he says. "But the most important thing you learn from close calls is that in the end you are doing this only for yourself. If you push too far, you are going to die—no one else."

Steck has said of those who don't believe his latest accomplishment on Annapurna: "There are people who believe that Americans didn't reach the moon." Despite the lack of evidence, in March of 2014, Steck was given the prestigious Piolet d'Or, mountaineering's highest honor for the world's most impressive ascents, an accolade he shared with two climbers who established a new route up the previously unclimbed K6.

Ueli Steck

Ueli Steck in action, free climbing at unheard of speeds. Screen shot from Trans World video

In stark contrast to the life-or-death adventures he's undertaken, The U.S. seemed refreshing to Steck during his visit. "I really like how people are more emotional in public then in Switzerland," he says. "In general, people have a more positive attitude than in Europe, and I really liked that.”

As far as which route he'll climb his way next, Steck is intriguingly elusive: "I don't like to speak too much about my projects. This is not good."

Guess we'll just have to wait and see which face Steck graces next.

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