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Best of ExplorersWeb 2011 Awards Winner: Gasherbrum II First Winter Ascent

Posted: Jan 01, 2012 04:47 am EST

For millions of years they had been standing there each winter, untouched by man. Last fall a change came in the air. The Pakistan giants were about to experience an explosion in winter attempts, and one victory was imminent.

After the void

There is greatness in suffering and no climbers suffer greater than those high up on an 8000er in winter.

The altitude deep freezes the air. Picking up what little oxygen there is left your syrupy blood pushes through constricted vessels to your choking limbs and lungs.

Your feet struggle to grip an ice-crusted slope checking out somewhere in Islamabad. You are in hell but there is no warmth to be found, inside or out.

They said only the Polish could take it and sure enough: in an eight-year marathon during the 1980s Polish climbers had grabbed all the seven winter firsts.

A void followed until somewhat shockingly a swanky Italian broke the chain.

In 2005 Simone Moro bagged the first winter ascent on Shisha Pangma with the late Polish Piotr Morawski. Becoming the first non-Polish to climb a Himalayan virgin winter 8000er - meh, people said - the Italian was with a Pole.

Disruptive mountaineering

In 2007 and 2008 Simone spent two frigid winters on Broad Peak with two Pakistani climbers until in 2009 he returned to Himalaya. The first winter ascent of Makalu was a fact, with Kazakh Denis Urubko this time.

Following almost a decade of winters spent on the roof of the world, Simone Moro had grabbed the last two winter-unclimbed 8000ers in Himalaya. He turned his focus back to the five unclimbed giants in Karakoram.

By now it became clear that Moro had unsettled the Himalayan 8000er winter scene in a big way. People were rushing in for Broad Peak, Nanga Parbat, and both Gasherbrums. This was new.

With Broad Peak "bespoke" by a Polish team Simone chose GII this time, with Denis again, light, fast and efficient, exactly the way they had climbed Makalu. Nothing was left to luck, except for the weather, and a dark horse added to the team: Cory Richards, the American.

The climb

Extreme cold and snow covering the landing airstrip grounded flights to Skardu. Sticking to their routine to climb elsewhere for acclimatization, by early January the trio was negotiating 6400 meter Khosar Kang.

On Gasherbrum a few weeks later, the trio went to work without much ado. A cold spell of -46C night temperature and over 70km/h wind gave a chill factor of around -100 degrees.

Their corner of the world was one of the absolutely most frigid places on earth. "Crazy cold...even Denis was shivering in his sleeping bag," Simone would Skype ExplorersWeb from Camp 2.

Back in BC after 4 days up on the mountain, the guys were in a hurry to get back up, and get out. They would try the summit as soon as their weather-hero Karl Gabl could find a weather window long enough.

The word came only 3 short days later, offering a wild card without much rest. "If you want to try to use this small window you must be ready for bad weather from the noon of the 2nd," Gabl told Simone.

Weighing the risk

They knew that they were short on acclimatization, and that the break was only good for a day and a half, but "we immediately decided to go for it," Simone told ExplorersWeb.

It was no gung ho decision. "I knew we could do it," Simone said, pointing back to Makalu, "if you train 365 days per year and can take suffering, you can do things like these."

January 31 the summit attempt was on, and it was full throttle. In order to be in position at the weather break, the men pushed through a gale to camp 1.

The three climbers reached camp 2 in more rough weather, wind and snowfall. Their hope stood to the weather data, saying it should clear up the next day.

In camp 3 the following day, Simone Moro, Denis Urubko and Cory Richards were almost touching the peak's first winter ascent. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps something else. The weather happened exactly as Karl Gabl had said.

February 2nd, Denis Urubko texted to Lena Laletina from RussianClimb: "Summit at 11:35. Going down, 7800. Hope to reach tent before darkness."

And that was that.

With three short sentences a new page had been written in mountaineering history: a Pakistan 8000er summit had been climbed in winter, for the first time.


It was Italian Simone Moro's third winter 8000er (all firsts), Kazakh Denis Urubko's second, and in his second 8000er summit ever, Salt Lake City homeboy Cory Richards had bagged the very first winter Great One for good old USA.

To celebrate: the ExplorersWeb exclusive Karakoram 3D Mountain Tracker went up complete with all winter teams' locations and updates.

The victory was triumphant but it was not over yet.

About 5 hours into the descent, a short message from Denis: "We've found our tent in this terrible storm. That's all. Tomorrow descent to BC. Thanks for the support."

Even the veteran winter mountaineers Simone Moro and Denis Urubko were shaken by what happened next.

The avalanche struck around 11 AM not far from BC. The climbers had marked the route from BC to C1 with wands. Foul weather had covered their track in fresh snow up to their hips, making for slow progress in a straight line between the flags, with crevasses hidden below.

In a Skype interview only hours after their return to BC on February 4, Simone told ExplorersWeb it was an Annapurna/Anatoli avalanche deja vu that almost buried them alive. Denis reckoned it was just sheer luck that they made it back.

"When we passed below Gasherbrum 5 we knew we were in the most dangerous part," Simone told Tom of HumanEdgeTech, "but we could't be fast due the deep snow and spent too much time there. Suddenly a big serac fell from G5 face and a big powder avalanche. We were fucked..."

Tom: What then?

Simone "The avalanche hit us. We were roped up and tried to run away but were caught for 150 meters. We flew above a huge crevasse and finally stopped/landed just 5 meters from it."

"By miracle, I was on the surface. I unclipped the carabiner and ran to Cory... I dug him out without my Mitt (lost in the avalanche) then I ran to Denis and did the same. They were buried with only the head sticking out."

Simone said Denis was dragged 400 ft head down before he felt the rope tighten and finally came to a halt, turning into the right position thanks to the safety line.

"The avalanche was huge, the kind that kills you," Simone said.

In the next episode...

Carrying a small camera and filming through it all, even the American turned out a lucky strike. “It was about the most fucked up day I had in the mountain,” Cory Richards said about the day of the avalanche and then went home and made a movie about the ascent. COLD has since swept virtually every available film award.

"Will the recent Gasherbrum II winter victory prove a Karakoram dream mile - considered impossible until broken and then followed by many in short time?" we asked in a poll. "No," said you.

The ExplorersWeb community didn't expect any of the other expeditions to make it, and they didn't. So what's next?

With four winter firsts, only the late Polish legend Kukuczka is ahead of Simone. The Italian is back for more this winter, with climbing buddy Denis by his side and Gabl once again at the weather maps. Nanga Parbat is where you'll find them.

COLD - TRAILER from Forge Motion Pictures on Vimeo.

Video of the the way up to the summit:

GII Winter Expedition | Dispatch # 4 | The way up to the summit from STORY.teller on Vimeo.

Video: The Long Way down

GII Winter Expedition | Dispatch # 5 | The long way down from STORY.teller on Vimeo.

Previous Awards in 2011

2. K2 North Pillar
3. Everest paraglide
4. Hemingway award: Mr Park
5. The Wanderer: Henk de Velde
6. Himalayan knights: Abele Blanc

Special mentions:

Adrian Ballinger: Manaslu ski descent
Erden Eruc: Indian Ocean row finish
Arjun Vajpai: youngest on Lhotse and Manaslu
Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry: kiting the NW passage
Erik Boomer & Jon Turk, Ellesmere Island
Irena Mrak and Mojca Svajger, Nanga Parbat Diamir face
Christian Eide, South Pole speed record
Ueli Steck - Shishapangma speed climb

We have covered hundreds of expeditions in 2011. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who continue to linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 6 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2011.

By their performance, these expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:

- Courage
- Determination
- Persistence
- Self reliance
- Ingenuity
- Pioneering
- Idealism
- Comradeship
- Compassion
- Respect towards competition
- Honesty

Before this success, 9 out of all 14 eight-thousanders had been winter climbed: all located in Nepal and Tibet. The remaining five, located in Pakistan, had rejected the few attempts until this year when Italian Simone Moro, Kazakh Denis Urubko and American Cory Richards made history from the summit of Gasherbrum II on February 2nd.

Simone had already changed winter climbing history back in 2005, by summiting Shisha Pangma; before that date, all first winter accents had been made by Polish climbers. Over only eight years in the eighties, their feats revolutionized Himalayan climbing.

First out was Leszek Cichy on Everest in 1980. Then came Maciej Berbeka and Ryszard Gajewski on Manaslu in 1984. In 1985 Maciej Berbeka and Maciej Pawlikowski bagged Cho Oyu.

That same year (1985) Andrzej Czok and Jerzy Kukuczka took Dhaulagiri. The following year (1986), Kukuczka came back for Kangchenjunga together with Krzysztof Wielicki.

In 1987, Kukuczka returned again, this time with Artur Hajzer, to accomplish the first winter climb of Annapurna. Krzysztof Wielicki summited Lhotse solo on New years Eve in 1988 and that was the last time someone set foot on a summit higher than 8000 m during winter - before the Italian/Polish combo Simone Moro and Piotr Morawski summited Shisha Pangma in January 2005 bagging number 8 of the 14.

Karakoram is even harsher than Nepal/Tibet in winter. Before 2011, closest to a Karakoram success was Polish Maciej Berbeka (Manaslu winter 84, Cho Oyu winter 85) who solo climbed to Broad Peak's central summit. A Spanish TV team also attempting BP said that just to get to BC was a long, frozen walk from hell.

Note on winter firsts: At AdventureStats, Simone Moro is the first climber to achieve three winter firsts on 8000ers, since all his expeditions were completed within strict winter calendar dates. Indeed, Krzysztof Wielicki had stepped first on three winter summits before - Everest in 1980, Kangchenjunga in 1986 and Lhotse in 1989. However, two of Wielicki's successful winter expedition started before the beginning of calendar winter.

#Mountaineering #topstory #choice

L/R: Denis Urubko, Simone Moro and Cory Richards on top of winter GII.
Image by Cory Richards courtesy TNF, SOURCE
An emotional Simone, with trusted climbing buddy Denis, on GII summit, Feb 2nd, 2011. Cory shot the picture.
Image by Cory Richards courtesy The North Face, SOURCE
2011 Denis (in image) led the way in another world first winter ascent: of Gasherbrum 2 (26,362'/8,035 m)
Image by Simone Moro courtesy Simone Moro, SOURCE
Denis Urubko, Simone Moro and Cory Richards celebrating the climb that won them the 2011 ExplorersWeb Best of Award. Following the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II, Cory joined Conrad Anker for an attempt on Everest west ridge but was airlifted for health concerns. Today Anker aborted the attempt, citing dangerous conditions.
Image by Alex Txikon courtesy Alex Txikon/ ABC GI winter team
Simone at 7900 meters. Ready or not, after three virgin winter summits the climbing community was forced to accept that a ritzy Italian was dominating the high altitude winter scene.
Image by Cory Richards courtesy Simone Moro, SOURCE
Denis 'the mountain goat' Urubko can climb anything. They even had to invent an Asian Piolet d'Or just for him. Pictured on the Gasherbrum glacier between C1 and BC where the avalanche struck.
courtesy http://urubko.blogspot.com, SOURCE
Carrying a small camera, Cory Richards filmed non-stop and produced COLD - an award-sweeping film about the climb.
Image by Denis Urubko courtesy GII winter summit team
With four winter firsts, only the late Polish legend Kukuczka is ahead of Simone. The Italian is back for more this winter, with climbing buddy Denis by his side.
Image by Denis Urubko courtesy GII winter summit team