Interview: Simone Moro on winter K2

December 21 marks the official start of winter. This season, all eyes will be on the Polish expedition to attempt the first winter ascent of K2, led by Krzysztof Wielicki. ExWeb caught up with Simone Moro to talk about challenges the team will face and get some background on the expedition.

Remote and constantly battered by strong winds, K2, “The Savage Mountain”, is the last 8000m peak to remain unclimbed in winter. However, a 10-man expedition of elite climbers financed by the Polish government is about to try and change that. The expedition are aiming to arrive at base camp shortly after Christmas, with some 600kg of gear, to tackle the either the Česen or Abruzzi Route. Simone Moro is widely recognized to be the leading authority on high-altitude winter alpinism and is the only person to have summited four of the 8000ers completely in the winter. He also knows many of the team intimately, having climbed with them in the past. Simone was kind enough to spare some of his time and chat to us about what they will face adnd their preparations.

ExWeb: Can you describe why extreme cold is such a challenge at high altitude in winter?

Simone: Too many people talk about winter climbing without having even tried it and are therefore completely ignorant of what is involved in a winter expedition. I have undertaken 15 winter expeditions in my life and can honestly say that it is a completely different thing to attempting the same climb in spring, summer or autumn.

The cold is frequently combined with strong wind and those elements make everything complicated and hard. It is an effort even to establish base camp or wait there for good weather.

ExWeb: You said in a previous ExWeb interview, “A new route in summer is about technical climbing but in winter, it is more about psychological and physical endurance and pain; it’s like being at the edge of an inhumane situation for several weeks.” What kind of mental and physical training prepares you for this?

Simone: It is more the mental attitude than actual training. What is demanded is to be able to wait. And wait. And wait. Sometimes you wait for weeks or even years before the right day or good weather window or the right winter presents itself.

ExWeb: How do you feel the experience changes you as a person?

Simone: Well I have been lucky and brave enough to realize my dreams. To be able to achieve an historical first winter climb on an 8000-meter peak is something that could represent a life or career goal. To realize first winter ascents on four different 8000ers is something unbelievable for me, and the good thing is that I never got frostbite and am still motivated to have future winter experiences.

ExWeb: What route are they doing; is it a route you would have chosen yourself?

Simone: Wielicki has been a huge inspiration for me, as well as Kukuczka. So, I would never discuss or argue about a route they chose in the past or will do in the future. Wielicki is a very experienced guy so I trust in his strategy. What I like to do–and I have always done–is very light, small-team alpinism. The Polish expedition is a big heavy approach, but I fully respect this. I understand that it is a national expedition, paid for by the Polish government and they have to follow some rules and avoid failure as much possible. As Wielicki said, K2 is still unclimbed in winter by any style, so anyone attempting to do so is free to choose his own style, and I respect Wielicki’s decision in this respect. He is also a very good friend of mine and I still admire him.

ExWeb: I heard that BC will be in the shadow the whole time. Sounds like the team will be in a cold hell for those months but are there actually some advantages in climbing the mountain in winter, such as fewer avalanches and rock falls?

Simone: Rockfall will be the same due to the strong winds and often the mountain is very dry with little snow. The BC is NOT in perpetual shadow, but will get sun during some hours. I have been there twice in the winters of 2007 and 2008. I was at Broad Peak BC and I made some excursions to K2 BC. But for sure, it will be super cold and windy.

ExWeb: Your relationship with Denis Urubko goes back a long way, including winter ascents of Makalu, Gasherbrum II, can you describe him as an alpinist?

Simone: Our relationship has unfortunately deteriorated. I think he has lost his direction. I of course remember the wonderful moments we spent together and the nice climbs we did from 1999 to 2012. He has a Russian military mentality. It was very important that I act taking this into account, and it worked always well. He is very strong and he has no fear. These are excellent qualities, but he has to be managed properly to prevent him taking stupid or fatal risks. We always worked well together, but the leadership was always clear. So, Denis could be the right person for success on K2, but Wielicki will have to demonstrate strong leadership and be like a general with the whole team, especially Denis.

What I can’t accept is the last declaration of Denis saying that the Broad Peak and G1 winter ascents achieved by the Polish are not winter climbs because the summit was realized in the first days of March. This is so disrespectful to those who gave him Polish nationality, those who invited him and paid for his participation in the K2 winter expedition, and to Berbeka and Heizer, who died during those two successful frozen climbs. Astronomical winter starts on the 21st of December and ends on the 20th of March. He can see this by Googling it!

All the world respects this definition, and he did too while he climbed with me. But now he decides to invalidate the winter climbs of his polish partners and remove Broad Peak and G1 from the list of Polish victories. It is very stupid!

ExWeb: Krzysztof Wielicki prefers to stay out of the media spotlight. What can you tell us about him as a person and an expedition leader?

Simone: He is a wonderful, gentle and very friendly guy. He is extremely charismatic, and this could be helpful during the K2 expedition. I like him so much; I spent days with him and his wonderful family in his home. He has always been generous in his compliments and appreciation of my winter attempts and climbs. He is a gentleman and has been a visionary alpinist.

ExWeb: What factors will determine their success? What do you think of their chances, if you had to say?

Simone: On K2 in winter, you have a maximum of a 25% chance of success, even with a big group. So, you need to be very lucky with the weather and the team. Any kind of internal discord in the team can destroy the expedition. Wielicki has to be friendly, but also very clear and even forceful in saying what has to be done to make all members respect the rules.

ExWeb: Have you spoken to the team? What are their feelings in the lead-up to departure?

Simone: I met Wielicki quite recently and I spoke about the K2 winter climb to my sponsor The North Face, which will provide some tents and equipment for the K2 team. I know some of the members and I’m positive. I hope they will close the competition for the first winter climbs on 8000ers. For me, there is no doubts that Broad peak and G1 have been climbed in full winter by the Polish. I reached the summit of all four of my 8000ers in January and February, but I have no doubt that K2 can be climbed until the 20th of March and it still would be winter. If anyone believes that March is warm and less windy, they just have to go there and see if they can survive.

ExWeb: Can you give an outline of a “normal” day spent over 7000 m in the winter?

Simone: The daylight is short, the wind is a constant 30 km to 120 km /h, so erecting the tent and jumping inside is something that has to be done extremely quickly. Melting snow and cooking something represents quite a challenge, because you always want to stay inside your sleeping bag looking for warmth. Despite the days being so short, it is nearly impossible to start the summit climb in the night. It is simply too cold, too windy and dangerous. So, you have to start at the sunrise, knowing that you have less time to get to the top and back down in time.

ExWeb: You are a Himalayan Winter Climbing All-star. What would be your three most important pieces of advice for their success and to safely make it home?

Simone: First of all, leave at home any summit fever or competitive attitude. In winter you have to survive, NOT compete and challenge nature or others.

Second is to be very patient, extremely patient in waiting the right good weather window. You must not climb in winter as you climb in summer.

Third, believe in your forecast bulletin. I always worked with Austrian “weather guru” Karl Gabl and he is the number 1 for me.

I want to conclude the interview by wishing all the best for all the winter climbs that are going to happen, included my other friend, Alex Txicon, on Everest!

Thank you very much for the interview, Simone.

The concluding comment by Simone is interesting to say the least. Simone has yet to summit Everest in the Winter and has remained silent about his plans for this year. At the same time, there has been much speculation that he may be joining Alex Txicon on Everest.

Explorersweb will be following the K2 winter expedition closely, and reporting back as it progresses, we would like to wish the entire team good fortune for their attempt.

Links / Previous

Simone Moro’s Website

Simone Moro: North Face Athlete

Interview: Denis Urubko on Winter Ascent of K2

Progress on Nanga Parbat, Simone Moro’s New Project

Interview: Simone Moro “I’m going again this winter…”