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Legendary American Climber Allen Steck Dies

From high-altitude expeditions to difficult big walls, Allen Steck pushed the limits of climbing in the 1950s and 60s

Photo by: Tom Frost

Allen Steck was one of the most influential American climbers, he died this week at the age of 96. Steck’s climbing career started in Yosemite Valley in 1947, where he learned to establish routes using pitons and trial-and-error practices. Over 70 years, he established first ascents in mountain ranges around the world.

In 1949, he made the first American ascent of the famous Comici Route on the north face of the Cima Grande in the Dolomites with Karl Lugmayer. And then in 1950, with John Salathé, he completed the first ascent of the now-famous Steck-Salathé on the north face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite. Steck described the climb in an article originally published in the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1951: “The ascent of this wall was probably the toughest that either of us had ever made, or ever hoped to make again. Though John has 51 years to my 24, the climb seemed to have little effect on his endurance; only toward the end of the third day, did he seem to show signs of wear, but then both of us were ready to acknowledge the pleasures of simple back country hiking. It was just too damned hot.”

Also in 1950, he made the first ascent of the north face of Waddington in Canada, it was only the peak’s third ascent. Steck participated in the first major American mountaineering expedition to the Himalaya for an attempt on Makalu in Nepal in 1954. In 1965, he made the first ascent of Mount Logan’s Hummingbird Ridge with Dick Long, John Evans, Jim Wilson, Frank Coale and Paul Bacon. The massive route has never been repeated and is considered among the most challenging climbs in mountaineering history. Read Steck’s story about the 35-day ascent here.

Along with Steve Roper, he has been the long-time editor of the mountaineering journal Ascent, which was originally published by the Sierra Club and later by the American Alpine Club. In 1979, with co-author Steve Roper, Steck published the seminal Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Steck and Norman Clyde were the first recipients of the Sierra Club’s Francis P. Farquhar Mountaineering Award in 1970. In 1995, Steck won the American Alpine Club’s Literary Award for co-authoring Fifty Classic Climbs of North America with Steve Roper. His memoir, A Mountaineer’s Life, was published by Patagonia in 2017.

In 2018, Steck visited Canada and participated in the Banff Mountain Book Festival, where his memoir was shortlisted. His longtime partner and friend, Steve Roper, wrote a review of the book in the American Alpine Journal, saying: “Steck’s character comes quietly through: steady temperament, always on for the hardest pitches, super-sharp mind. Like Fred Beckey, his great North American contemporary, Steck in his prime was masterful both as a rock climber and as an alpinist.”

Tommy Caldwell and Allen Steck in Banff in 2018. Photo by Brandon Pullan
Tommy Caldwell and Allen Steck in Banff in 2018. Photo by Brandon Pullan

Steck celebrated his 70th birthday by climbing the Steck-Salathé. On his 75th birthday, he visited Red Rocks and climbed classics like Crimson Crysalis and Epinephrine. At 86, Steck was still gym climbing twice a week, public speaking, and occasionally visiting the high peaks.

Steck once famously said, “We do not deceive ourselves that we are engaging in an activity that is anything but debilitating, dangerous, euphoric, kinesthetic, expensive, frivolously essential, economically useless, and totally without redeeming social significance.” Our condolences to his family and friends.

Legacy of Allen Steck

Lead photo: Tom Frost