Ueli Steck: A New Vision

imageAdventure media fans got a rare online look at one of the new features set to appear late this year in the REEL ROCK 8 Film Tour. This six-minute short that posted to YouTube is based on the most recent alpine innovations of the high-speed ascender known as the Swiss Machine. Called Ueli Steck: A New Vision, this mini-movie reveals what’s next in ultra-light solo mountaineering as the climber becomes a flier sailing from one peak to the next via paraglider.

“At the end of this clip, Ueli describes his current vision for the future of alpine climbing … you pack your pack, and you just keep going,” said director Josh Lowell in a recent email exchange. “I think what he’s doing in the Alps with the paraglider is one way of approaching this broader goal – being able to cover tons of ground, and multiple peaks in a push. For sure all of the preparation he’s done with pure speed climbing over the years, and all of the fitness training he does are working toward this same goal.”

This adventure short is much more than a mere trailer. Produced by Big Up Productions in cooperation with Sender Films the story is a super-condensed version of the longer piece audiences can look forward to next year. In this post Lowell shares some of the motivation behind the executive and capture of this 12-hour project to link up the peaks of Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger using the paraglider to fly from the summit of one to the base of the next!

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JTP:
Is this the next obvious progression in Ueli’s style of uber-efficient big mountain speed ascents? I can’t imagine a faster way to get it done that doesn’t require motorized transportation.

Lowell:
More than anything, I think what Ueli has been doing in the Alps with the paraglider is about having fun. He’s not necessarily looking at it as a huge new advancement or revolution in alpine techniques, but as a fun and beautiful way to cover lots of ground. He started to learn how to fly as a break from just climbing all the time after returning from a previous trip to the Himalaya and feeling spent from it. Living in Interlaken, you see hundreds of paragliders in the air every day, and most of his friends are pilots, so it was natural for him to try it at some point. In our interviews he talked about how exciting it is when you’re learning a new skill because you progress so quickly, as opposed to something you’re a master at, like climbing. In climbing, if he wants to improve at all, he has to dedicate every ounce of energy to eke out tiny gains at this point. But with flying, every day he was learning something new and feeling that fresh excitement. But of course, as he became a solid pilot, being Ueli, being driven, his mind naturally went to ways he could incorporate the paraglider as a tool into what he’s always done.

When he described his idea to link up the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau with a paraglider to me and Peter Mortimer, who co-directed the piece with me, he was adamant that the goal wasn’t about breaking a record or doing something Extreme, but about a fun and beautiful new way to cover tons of ground. It seems like a natural outgrowth for somebody who lives right below these magnificent peaks and stares up at them all day.

JTP:
Some might suggest this is taking an extreme sport too far! Is a paraglider peak-link true to the spirit and integrity of mountaineering?

Lowell:
I think it’s true to the long tradition in Switzerland of people having fun in the mountains in many different ways. The peaks are so spectacular, and so accessible, that just about everyone goes into the mountains to play. Climbers, skiers, paraglider pilots, and tourists can all take trams up into the high peaks and enjoy them in their own ways. With such a long history of alpine climbing and paragliding booming in the Alps, it’s only natural for somebody to combine the two. Anyone who’s climbed a big mountain has probably thought how nice it would be to fly down instead of walking down. With Ueli, he just decided to keep going…

JTP:
Ueli is already in a class by himself when it comes to speed ascents. How likely is it that anyone else might try to follow his example? It kind of reminds me of Dean Potter and free-basing which never really seemed to catch on.

Lowell:
Well, many people already hike up mountains and fly down with a paraglider. The main difference in what Ueli is doing is that he is doing technical alpine climbing while carrying the glider on his back. He doesn’t see it as a new movement that will change the way people climb, just as a fun and cool thing to do. Probably the main thing that would limit the broad applicability of this approach is conditions. It’s pretty unusual to get a day in the big mountains when the conditions are perfect enough to fly from multiple peaks. Just like with Dean’s free-basing, the limiting factor is finding a wall that is overhanging enough to make a fall safe, while having the bottom pitches be easy enough to free solo (the BASE rig will only be useful above a couple hundred feet).

JTP:
What does it mean to you as filmmaker to share this story on the cutting edge of the mountaineering?

Lowell:
Peter Mortimer, from Sender Films, has been following Ueli’s path for several years. He first saw Ueli’s slideshow at Banff a few years ago and immediately called me about doing a REEL ROCK film with Ueli. The guy is a true visionary and an inspiration. Then this year, when Pete told me about what Ueli has been doing lately with the paraglider, I personally got super excited to help him tell this new story.

I used to fly a paraglider myself back in the mid 90’s for a couple years, My college buddy and climbing partner Josh Cohn was one of the world’s best pilots, and he taught me how to fly. We would go on climbing road trips and fly on our rest days. I never got good, but had some of the most surreal and memorable experiences of my life flying with him. In my mind, climbing and flying were always related, so to hear about Ueli going one step further to literally combine them, got me really psyched.

I jumped at the chance to be back in that world and try to capture and share some of the amazing feeling of flying. It was really cool to see how much paragliding has changed in the last 15 years or so! The gliders perform so much better now, and they’re much lighter and smaller, which is one of the key things that’s made what Ueli’s doing possible. The aerobatics that people are doing now (like hundreds of tumbles in a row) were in-comprehendible back then. The shooting was really fun for me because I got to get back in the air again – taking tandem flights to shoot air-to-air. Ueli offered to let me take his rig for a spin, but after 15 years of not flying I thought better of it.

Then shooting the alpine climbing segments was spectacular as well, because we got to go up in the Cineflex helicopter rig, which is the most advanced camera stabilization system for aerial shooting. We were able to do these super long, continuous, perfectly stable shots of him cruising up knife-edge ridges – the perspective is mind-blowing!

JTP:
Can we expect to see Ueli attempt to tackle bigger more ambitious projects in the future?

Lowell:
Ueli is always dreaming up big new ideas. I’m sure he has more he’d like to do with the paraglider, but in general I think he’s fascinated with the idea of covering lots of ground, and multiple peaks, in a single push. I think we’ll see him experiment with different ways of doing that over the coming years.

Ueli Steck Climbs/Paraglides Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger in 12 Hours 15 Minutes from EpicTVAdventure on Vimeo.

The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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