Photo Gallery: A Day at the Office with the Swiss Machine

We spent a day training with Ueli Steck to see how much work goes into being one of the fastest mountaineers in the world.

by Reto Sterchi
Feb 29 2016, 12:58pm

Copyright Reto Sterchi

Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck, 39, earned the nickname the Swiss Machine for his speed. He's set the record for fastest time climbing the north face of the Eiger on three different occasions, in 2007, 2008, and last fall. He also holds speed records on the north face of the Matterhorn and the Grandes Jorasses. Last summer, he climbed all 82 peaks in Europe taller than 4,000 meters during a 62-day blitz.

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Not surprisingly, Steck's workout routine involves a lot of time training at altitude, both in the gym and on the mountain. Though soft-spoken, the man is driven, focused, and very intense about his physical fitness. Photographer Reto Sterchi (retojames on Instagram) accompanied Steck for a day while he trained in and around his home in Ringgenberg, Switzerland.

Steck's training day begins on skis. Before sunrise, he ascends from Grindelwald to Männlichen, climbing 4,226 feet.

Roughly an hour and a half later, Steck reaches the top, at an elevation of 7,300 feet. His heart rate measured about 120 beats per minute. "This is baseline training," he says.

Steck was born 1976 in Langnau, Switzerland.

Steck getting ready to ski down the slopes of Männlichen. Behind him looms the infamous north face of the Eiger. He reclaimed the speed record for the 5,500-foot face last fall, in two hours, 22 minutes, and 50 seconds.

Loading weights at the gym S4Sports in Wilderswil. Steck's routine builds coordination and strength.

When it comes to working hard, Steck says, "I never have problems with motivation. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it's hard to relax and wind down."

Strong legs are crucial to moving fast in the mountains. Scaling the Eiger, one of the most difficult climbing locales in the Alps, is a half-day trip for Steck. "It's really not too stressful. I leave home around 7 AM, take the train to the foot of the mountain, do the ascent and the descent. I'm back home for lunch."

When he's in the mountains—and during workouts—Steck is frugal with water. On a speed ascent, he takes very little of it with him. "One small bottle," he says. "More slows me down. Drinking that much during a climb is just not necessary."

Working his upper body in the basement of his home in Ringgenberg, Switzerland.

Steck's collection of boots and shoes. "The pink moonboots belong to my wife," he points out.

Running up the mountain in his backyard, the Harder Kulm. He calls it his "home run." He usually makes three laps, for a total distance of 14.4 miles and total elevation gain of 7,575 feet. It usually takes him about four hours to complete.