Stephan Keck, born in Schwaz in Tyrol in 1973, is an extreme mountaineer, expedition manager, mountain guide and photographer, as well as being a committed father of three. Ever since he was a child he has felt comfortable in extreme environments, whether on eight-thousanders in the Himalayas, balloon-skiing in his local Alps or undertaking a six month road trip in Africa with his family in a converted truck.
As one of Russell Brice’s trusty mountain guides on Everest and leading Martin and Terry on their Everest attempt this May, Stephan has climbed 9 x eight thousand meter peaks, 42 x six thousanders and over 50 5 thousanders.
We caught up with Stephan to find out a little more about that smile behind the beard…..
How did you first get to work with Russell / get to hear of him etc?
This year is the first time that I am working officially with Russell, but we have known each other from several expeditions and have built up a solid friendship since then. We collaborated on a fantastic project in the aftermath of the Manaslu avalanche and that crystalized our relationship. I am really honoured to be guiding for him and one of the most renowned guiding companies in the world – HimEx.
How many times have you been to / guided on Everest, or other Himalayan peaks / 8000’ers? (As much as you can here would be great).
My first private expedition was in 2008, and since then I have been lucky enough to guide and climb on every continent on our planet, and have climbed 9 x eight thousand metre peaks, 42 x six thousanders and over 50 x five thousanders.
How did you become a guide - and which came first. Mountains or photography or were they simultaneous?
I grew up in the Austrian Alps and started skiing and enjoying mountain sports at the age of 3 ! I started traveling around the world for mountaineering at 17 years old, spending more than 4 years in South America on a climbing expedition. At the age of 27 I qualified as a UIAGM mountain ski and canyoning guide - before this I was a ski instructor and was part of the Austrian mountain rescue team for 16 years. I started as a professional journalistic photographer when I was 34 years old, but have had my lifelong passion for expeditions and travel photography for ever.
Being able to guide on 8000’s but also being able to capture them on camera is an incredible skill. Is it ever a struggle to focus on mountaineering when you have seen an incredible vista which you’d like to capture, but you can’t reach for it at that specific moment!?
It depends always what I’m booked for. There are some projects where I’m booked as guide – that is my job and focus and photos are a fleeting hobby. Of course I always try in any situation to achieve the best outcome photographically. If I am working as a guide then the safety of my clients is front and center, but there are also bookings where I can follow expeditions just as the photographer. This is a treat, as I am not responsible for any expedition member, just for the photography !
The camera belonging to George Mallory has never been found. If you were to find it – what would be the first thing you’d do (if there were no vast pressures to own up and hand it in!).
It would be interesting to finally know what the last photo was which was taken, and as a photographer it would of course be nice to have his camera in my collection!
If you had to choose one favorite mountain photo from your collection – what would it be and why? Why is it so important to you? Is it the photos, or the memories which go with it? As a mountain guide and photographer there is no one special photograph for me. There are too many memories of different trips to pick one out. The most emotional photos are always the ones which combine nature, culture and a human element. They evoke powerful emotions in me and often in the viewers of my photographs.
Who is the most experienced mountaineer / climber you have had the privilege of working with / climbing with and why ?
On skis it was Franz Llame, and in mountaineering it was Hans Kammerlander - the South Tyrolean whois one of the most successful extreme mountaineers of our time.I grew up with the stories and adventures of these men, and it was a great inspiration try to follow their footsteps. It was absolutely stunning to complete the movie Manasluwith Hans Kammerlander. Firstly it was an absolute pleasure for me to be the climbing partner of Hans, and it was a challenge to be the expedition leader and manager of the complete project at the same time as climbing myself. With Franz Klammer I have built a deep friendship over the last 15 years, we worked a lot together with professional jobs but have also undertaken some fantastic private trips.
I think everybody could imagine what it would mean for an indivudyal who had observed and followed a National Olympic ski hero as a little boy on TV, and then persevered to follow in his footsteps, some years later mountaineering with him and skiing as friends. What an incredible honour.
Do you have a partner / kids ? How do you ensure that you always focus on getting home to them? How has your attitude changed to mountaineering / guiding since having kids?
I have 2 wonderful children with my ex-wife Anita - Sina who is 17 years and Silas who is 13. I also have an 8 month old daughter Tara with my girlfriend of two years, Sabine. The children all know each other and I feel incredibly lucky to have two families.
At the beginning of my guiding life it was very important and helpful for me having a family to keep me focused on staying alive. I felt a huge sense of responsibility for my family and kids and it is much easier to make safe decisions if you feel that you want to come home to them.
If your profession is guiding then you are always responsible for other people and their lives. It is easier to make some more compromising decisions on private trips, but I take a much more calculated risk to reach my goals.
What mountains / mountain ranges are in your sights for future expeditions – and why?
In the future I would like to combine ocean and mountain expeditions - for example sailing from Patagonia to the Sandwich Islands, crossing the mountain range on the island and then returning by yacht. No people live there in the winter due to the extremely hostile conditions, and this would be one of the most extreme advetures to undertake. There is no ‘back office support’ which you can ring if you get into trouble – it is just 3 months alone with nature.
You can read more about Stephan and his incredible work (and beard) here: