Exclusive Interview: Denis Urubko on Nims, O2, and the Rules of Winter

In a wide-ranging conversation last weekend, Denis Urubko gave his take on the current and future state of high-altitude mountaineering — including his doubts that Nirmal Purja summited winter K2 without oxygen.

At 49, Urubko bears the confident air of a veteran warrior. At the same time, he recognizes the increasing gulf between his values and those of a changing world. However, Urubko is still willing to pick a fight in his coliseum of choice, the world of vertical rock and ice.

Urubko is not particularly interested in social media or correctness. Over cups of Pakistani green tea, the blunt but thoughtful Urubko discussed the changing world of mountaineering.

Denis Urubko and Angela Benavides, at an event in the Pyrenees organized by Urubko’s sponsor CAMP. Photo: Angela Benavides

 

ExplorersWeb: In winter 2021-22 there were a record six expeditions to 8,000m peaks but only one alpine-style attempt. Three expeditions relied heavily on O2 and two included clients with little experience. Finally, climbers spent a lot of time lower down the valley. Is this the logical evolution of high-altitude winter climbing or are these approaches killing its spirit?

This is quite a philosophical question. It’s difficult to answer, but I will try my best.

First, evolution may mean either progress or regression. If an activity provides good results, it will survive. If the results are bad, the activity will disappear. But positive results may not be immediately obvious.

Some people invest a lot in projects just for their own benefit, which results in weak achievements. The problem is that the media are part of the business too. The press often buys shit because it looks like chocolate.

Can you elaborate?

For instance, alpine style. What is it really? Alpine style is a pure ascent on unknown terrain, from the bottom to the top of the route. However, most alpine-style climbers actually attempt the same route several times, some even fix ropes…then they promote their expeditions as incredible achievements. And indeed, they may be excellent, but they must be assessed properly.

On the way to Camp 2 above the Baltoro Glacier on Winter K2, 2017-18. Photo courtesy of Denis Urubko

 

Choose your style but be honest about it

For all mountaineering achievements, it is essential to declare the truth. It makes me sad to see climbers pretending in public. How can you claim alpine style after several years of scouting and partly climbing a route, step by step?

What can we learn from the story of Nims [Nirmal Purja] and his 14×8,000’er project? Nothing. But the media, the market, and social media followers press for the confirmation of success. Something smells rotten in how sports mountaineering is developing.

All we get are increasing options for high-altitude tourists. In the end, this is not bad or good, just different.

Luckily, we also have some examples in mountaineering history of real strength. George Mallory and Herman Buhl were inspired. Wielicki and Cichy made winter history 40 years ago. The first no-O2 Everest by Messner and Habeler and their alpine-style ascent of Hidden Peak. Kukuczka’s creativity, Messner on Nanga Parbat’s Diamir face, the route Samoilov and I opened on Broad Peak, Steck’s incredible push on Annapurna. These are ascents far beyond the current combination of money and weakness.

Photo: Angela Benavides

 

Old climbers, young climbers

And yes, old climbers like Juan Oiarzabal and I are now turning back to the normal routes. We are not going to add anything to exploration. Our time is over. It will just be a personal adventure. But the younger climbers? I respect that they may want to climb the normal routes up 8,000’ers for training. But then they can show their true colors on the vertical by going for pure, real records.

Rather than aim to become the first person sticking his finger up his left nostril on top of the world, they can open routes like Bonington’s.

Photo: María J. Cardell

High-altitude doping

So, best we don’t speak about the use of oxygen…

Supplementary oxygen is doping at high altitude. I may forgive its past use during first ascents at 8,000m, but not now. I find it shocking that sports authorities are fighting against doping in all other sports, while the mountaineering community applauds O2-doped athletes.

As I see it, this is unethical. Supplementary O2 is now used by people who are too weak for the goals they have set. They use gas to simulate achievements.

Do you think it would still be worth trying to climb winter K2 completely without O2?

Yes, of course! It is a very good project for younger climbers. Winter K2 has been climbed with O2. Without it, it is a completely different target. It is the next step, as with Everest. Hillary and Tenzing summited with O2, then Messner and Habeler did it without.

Denis Urubko on Winter K2.

 

Nirmal Purja claims that he has already summited Winter K2 without O2.

Well, that’s what he said. But I saw his pictures and the summit video. It is impossible to be like that on K2’s summit without O2. Least of all to keep pace with a crew of climbers on O2. Check the footage of people who reached the summit of K2 in summer without O2.

[Here is an example: Adrian Ballinger, Topo Mena, and Carla Perez, in summer 2019]

Not sport or art but PR stunt or business

So nothing worthwhile has been done in the Himalaya recently?

Everything was worth it for those who climbed! Look, every climb is valid as long as one gets back home safely. Sometimes you are happy and satisfied, sometimes frustrated and feeling you wanted more. Each climber has criteria, and so do I. Under my personal criteria, I understand mountaineering as a mix of adventure, sport, and art.

For me, it makes no sense to set a specific winter deadline when you can just fly by helicopter from Kathmandu whenever you want. What is the point of climbing in winter but using chemical heat packs throughout the ascent? Or worse, relying on supplementary O2 in the 21st century? That is not a true sport and not art. That is a simulation, show, a PR stunt, business…

K2. Photo: Denis Urubko

 

The same goes for winter climbers who leave Base Camp for lower altitudes. They may climb as they please, but that is not for me. My rules should be pure, should embrace winter conditions, cold included. One must concentrate and be completely involved in the adventure from beginning to end.

But if others prefer different criteria and choose to be airlifted to civilization, why not? You could even argue for it during acclimatization. For example, before going to winter Gasherbrum II, Simone Moro, Cory Richards, and I acclimatized on Koshar Gang at 6,000m. Then we retreated for some rest in Skardu before heading to Base Camp at the Gasherbrums. I admit that resting after acclimatization was a great help, both physiologically and psychologically. A purist could criticize me for that. As I have said, it is a question of each person setting his own rules.

 

Part II of Denis Urubko’s conversation with ExplorersWeb will appear tomorrow.

Angela Benavides is a journalist specialised on high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news working with ExplorersWeb.com.

Angela Benavides has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of national and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporates, press manager and communication executive, radio reporter and anchorwoman, etc. Experience in Education: Researcher at Spain’s National University for Distance Learning on the European Commission-funded ECO Learning Project; experience in teaching ELE (Spanish as a Second Language) and transcultural training for expats living in Spain.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
52 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sid
Sid
4 months ago

Minor typo: “Bielecki and Cichy.” It’s Wielicki with a W.

Jerry Kobalenko
Admin
4 months ago
Reply to  Sid

Thank you, fixed.

Ande Rychter
4 months ago

After I questioned Purja’s ‘no gas’ winter K2, I caught viscious flack from the Sherpa community. One had warned me not to show my face in Kathmandu. Now Denis joins the club. I fear that if he again requires the services of the Sherpas, he might get (far) less than he pays for.
When asked about climbing K2 in winter with bottled oxygen, Adam Bielecki famously quipped, “Sure you can climb K2 in winter on bottled oxygen. But why?”
Indeed!

Last edited 4 months ago by Ande Rychter
sour grapes
sour grapes
4 months ago
Reply to  Ande Rychter

Nirmal Purja is not a Sherpa. He is from Magar ethic community. For disclosure, I am from the ethnic Sherpa community. I would have liked to see Mingma G or another Sherpa summit K2 without O2 but it was not to be. However, it seems downright ridiculous that some people still believe that Nims summited with O2. If Nims had climbed with O2, no Sherpa climber would prop up a lie that would only glorify a non-Sherpa Nepalese climber, in this case Nims. Moreover, there were ten climbers were from three different teams. The other teams don’t owe anything to… Read more »

Youka
Youka
4 months ago
Reply to  sour grapes

Grapes, Dennis says one should compare the K2 summer non-O video footage with that of Nims in winter. Did you? If you see how people move without Oxy you can understand that something in Nims non-O climb just does not check out. We’ve seen Dennis Urubko and Andrzej Bargiel running up Mt Elbrus in between 3 and 4 hours, we know they are the top performers in high altitude as well. We never saw any similar kinds of achievements from Nims. No one can deny he is the world’s top boaster, i can agree that he is one of the… Read more »

Delwyne
Delwyne
4 months ago
Reply to  Youka

Is it valid to compare Nims’ no-O2 performance to Adrian and Carla’s? To conclude that since his performance was noticeably better than theirs he must have been lying about summitting with no Os? Based on the fact Nims summitted more 8,000m peaks in 6 months than Adrian or Carla–both extraordinary alpinists in their own rights–have in decades, I believe comparisons of their performance at altitude should be made with caution.

Carl Farrelly
Carl Farrelly
4 months ago
Reply to  Delwyne

Wasn’t it down to Nims and his team the only reason that Adrian, Carla, Topo mena and Paulda topped out on K2 that summer anyhow?

MV Alvarez
4 months ago
Reply to  Youka

There are scientific studies for medical purposes that support that the Sherpas of the highlands, not those of the valleys, even in basal conditions, have an energy output up to 30% higher than that of any acclimatized climber. It is due to genetic factors that have been changing their response to cold, the level of phosphocreatinine in y their mitochondria…. and other adaptive changes. They are the only ethnic group in which this occurs. They are made to live at extreme altitudes, and that is canno´t in dispute. Quite simply, cannot be compared their natural capacities associated to their ethnicity… Read more »

MV Alvarez
4 months ago
Reply to  Youka

“Lessons from Everest’s Sherpas could aid intensive care treatment”

The links includes are even more interesting than the article.
https://www.physoc.org/news_article/lessons-from-everests-sherpas-could-aid-intensive-care-treatment/

blabla
blabla
4 months ago
Reply to  sour grapes

Dennis is now just a bitter old man, but I really don’t understand this “Nepalese” and “Non-Nepali” climbers division. Someone to climb all 14 without O2 in a year in the near future? Nah, sounds like sci-fi to me. Plus it makes no sense and carries no value in the world of alpinism – doing the same thing over and over again, just in a shorter period of time.. Not to take away anything from the achievement, but the Sherpas approach on K2 was completely different from all previous attempts. Even if Nims climbed without O2 (which I believe he… Read more »

Rich VW
3 months ago
Reply to  blabla

And just who are you BlahBlahBlah, some young ignorant jerk? Expressing an opinion you disagree with does not make one “bitter”. Expressing an opinion without facts is ignorant. Denis tells us his opinion which has a solid basis in a factual difference between his clear definition of alpine style climbing and what is now considered “climbing”. Feel free to disagree, but doing so in this manner makes you look those who climb without helmets.

Sadi.elkayam
3 months ago
Reply to  sour grapes

really do not understand why you think Dennis is jealous or crying over Nirmal Purja’s achievements? It’s really not true. You did not understand the article. Maybe you will read it
again without thinking about competition and jealousy.
Thanks

bannanas
bannanas
4 months ago
Reply to  Ande Rychter

I don’t think he gives a damn about climbing in the Himalayas. He seems more like a Karokoram guy to me.

Sherpas are amazing!!

Don
Don
4 months ago

Steck didn’t summit Annapurna.

Marie
Marie
4 months ago
Reply to  Don

Clarification: We do not know for sure whether Ueli Steck summited Annapurna or not, but if you gathered some information on his character, you would clearly see that he is not the type of person to lie about something like this.

Damien François
Damien François
4 months ago
Reply to  Marie

My friend Rodolphe Popier (Himalayan Database) has published a very detailed analysis of Ueli Steck’s ANNAPURNA climb and has come to the conclusion that it is impossible US summited.
The article “Fake Climbing. La vérité si je mens” appeared in VERTICAL (hors-série “L’année montagne 2017”, early in 2018, pages 133-4) – I have it here, I can send a scan…
Also read this:
https://english.elpais.com/usa/2021-04-09/mountaineering-expert-rodolphe-popier-i-think-ueli-steck-lied.html
https://www.widermag.com/news-alpinisme-ueli-steck-il-menti-ascensions-himalaya

Damien François
Damien François
4 months ago
Reply to  Marie

Also, Marie, reputation… Well, Simones was also caught stealing gas from higher camps while pretending climbing without O2. And then Tomo Cesen… (here, too, I think it was Popier who debunked)

Damien François
Damien François
4 months ago
Reply to  Marie

Correction: Simone Moro!
And it is in this same article ““Fake Climbing. La vérité si je mens” appeared in VERTICAL (hors-série “L’année montagne 2017”, early in 2018, pages 131) that Tomo Cesen’s claims are debunked.
I liked Ueli Steck, he as a very nice guy, but that unfortunately does not lies… I don’t know if Ueli Steck made it or not, all I know is that Rodelphe Popier is a very serious and honest analyst.

damiengildea
4 months ago
Reply to  Marie

On the contrary, Steck had a history deception, most notably his claim on Shishapangma. This has been well-documented in Popier’s dossier on the subject, if you gathered some information on the facts.

blabla
blabla
4 months ago
Reply to  damiengildea

While we’re on the subject, do you happend to know if there’s any proof of Urubku’s highly praised new route on GII in 2019? GPS data, photos, anything?
I’ve always been curious.

Matt
Matt
4 months ago
Reply to  blabla

I was with Denis, Don Bowie and Lotta hintsa at Camp 1 on GII in 2019. Don, Lotta, and I decided against trying to go up the standard route due to lots of new snow so we got to watch Denis climb his route from Camp 1. I have pictures of this if anyone wants to see them. It was really cool to witness. I even got to be at the base of GII and meet him after he descended the next morning on the standard route.

Aga
Aga
4 months ago

Sadly he forgot to mention Sherpa being used as doped durig the summit. Simply jealous sad man. We remember how he left his team behind to try to be the first one

S R
S R
4 months ago
Reply to  Aga

Denis went alone because his definition of winter is much shorter than the rest of the team. As “his winter” was running out, he had to make one last ditch effort in sketchy weather when no one else would dare to join him. Denis’ record of helping his brethren is epic.

blabla
blabla
4 months ago
Reply to  S R

Nah, he knew he had no chance for summit but went for the highest altitude ever reached in winter, as he knew it was his last try.
It’s really sad how he treated all the people that ever gave gim a hand in his life – especially Moro and the polish ice warriors.
He really lost everyone’s respect.

Dan
Dan
4 months ago

Steck claims to have summited Annapurna – Urubko says amazing achievement

Nims claims to have summited K2 winter without O2 – Urubko doubts. Despite the fact Steck was alone and Nims had an entire team backing up his claim?!

I believe Steck summited Annapurna and I believe Nims summited K2 without 02. So petty to throw either into disrepute. (and Nims has provided far more evidence than Steck did)

Toby
Toby
4 months ago

Sad. Lost a lot of respect for Urubko through this interview. I used to love him but now he just comes across as a bitter old man.

Rich VW
3 months ago
Reply to  Toby

OK, I’m getting to be a “bitter old man” about this “bitter old man” crap. Even if he is a “bitter old man”, Denis’ opinions and facts have validity and your opinion about his mental state has neither. There are many reasons to doubt claims related to the Winter K-2 ascent. But like so many of the “doubtful” claims in mountaineering history, the truth may never be known. For us “old timers” watching the “sport” become a marketing/money-making/profit-driven joke tends to make us bitter.

OldHikerDude
OldHikerDude
4 months ago

With all of this jibber-jabber concerning Nims, everyone seems to overlook the fact that Angela actually got to meet, sip tea, and interview one of the greatest Moutaineers of our time. She’s got a great job!

bannanas
bannanas
4 months ago
Reply to  OldHikerDude

“one of the greatest Mountaineers of our time” …
haha, yeah, what was the name of his Netflix movie?

glu
glu
4 months ago
Reply to  OldHikerDude

Oh, when did she meet Nims? Is that interview getting posted here soon?

Vik
Vik
4 months ago

This bitter old man should try to climb with Nims and as he gets left behind may he realise not to ruin someone elses ability just because they can do it better
Nims might even rescue him when he gets in trouble

Last edited 4 months ago by Vik
damiengildea
4 months ago
Reply to  Vik

Nims has never climbed an 8000er without Sherpas, fixed ropes and usually bottled O2, and all on straightforward well-known normal routes. He executed an impressive logistical feat and an effective business promotion.

Denis arrives under things like the south face of Broad Peak and the south face of Cho Oyu and climbs huge new routes with just one other person, no fixing, no O2. He is the most accomplished high altitude climber of the last 20 years.

As climbers, there is simply no comparison.

glu
glu
4 months ago
Reply to  damiengildea

I don’t think it makes any sense to disparage Nims for climbing using fixed ropes, when he is the one fixing those ropes for other teams…

Rich VW
3 months ago
Reply to  Vik

I love the Sherpas and agree they are the world’s greatest climbers. I like Nims and appreciate what he has accomplished. What happened on K-2 during their “winter ascent” is hardly laudable while clearly demonstrating how much “climbing” has become “ascending”. (I have ascended to 35,000′ w/o wearing an oxygen mask – in a 787). Climbing a rope (with ascenders) is hardly climbing a “mountain”. The sherpas who cut the steps, carry the gear, takes the risks, and fix the ropes are the climbers, not he people who follow them. But even that ascending is far from traditional alpine climbing.… Read more »

fred west
fred west
4 months ago

Typical Urubko. Quick to mock others achievements.

B G
B G
4 months ago

The most basic of references shows that what Urubko does and what Nims does are not even the same sport. The oxygen matter is only a small factor in what separates the two, as is the silly race card some try to play.
Denis has had striking opinions on climbing and climbers conduct for decades and is in the position to make them. Nims and others chose this game and that goes with it. The mountains are there to prove anyone’s point.

Military mind
Military mind
4 months ago

I can understand his comments on nims but most western climbers fell vunable when it comes to the new standard nims has achieved and the company he has set up

Rich VW
3 months ago
Reply to  Military mind

It seems apparent that Nims is an amazing athlete, a talanted climber, and a good businessman. The “standard” he has created seems far less about “climbing” than benefitting from “ascending mountains”. Everyone gets to choose where they “draw the line”, including Denis. Ascending to 100′ below a summit by helicopter, joggig to the top while breathing bottled oxygen, and then flying back to you hotel is “ascending” a mountain in the minds of some. I prefer Denis’ viewpoint and “standard” even if it factually and rationally “disparages” some.

guwinster
guwinster
4 months ago

It’s interesting how a lot of people talk about “oxygen doping” but you never hear them talk about actual steroids.

We know a lot of climbers are injecting themselves, using inhalers and taking all types of medicine that would get them in trouble with WADA if climbing was a regulated competitive sport. Are the purists not complaining about this because they are taking performance enhancers too?

B G
B G
4 months ago
Reply to  guwinster

The use of steroids, vascillators and cortisone has discussed for decades and always written off as doping. Oxygen gets treated differently because of the industry built around it.

Its not purism that criticizes O use, thats a relatively recent thing to have crept in. Especially in Pakistan lots of ascents were done commercial style but without oxygen. Some of the fanatical definitions and arguments are more recent that some think, the products of hyper-commercialism.

glu
glu
4 months ago
Reply to  B G

Hermann Buhl famously was using amphetamines on his solo Nanga Parbat ascent, and yet, rightly in my opinion, pretty much no one considers that as diminishing his insane achievement. So I don’t think the issue is as clear cut as you make it seem.

Uttam
Uttam
4 months ago

Dennis, if you are so good in mountaineering, why do you cast a doubt on Nims’s accomplishment on K2 in winter without oxygen without a shred of evidence? Be like a wise owl, shut your trap until you have some evidence, ’cause it says more about you than Nims. It actually diminishes you,shows you have no class. If Nims had climbed K2 in winter with oxygen we would have known by now, for Nepalese are legendary for pulling each other’s legs. Your comment about comparing Nims on the K2 summit in winter with the video footage of the K2 summit… Read more »

Trent Parks
Trent Parks
4 months ago
Reply to  Uttam

Very well said! And as I agree almost completely..%100 with your reply as you almost read my mind yet voiced in writing much better than I could have UTTAM, I can’t help but to re iterate how obvious this article or interview…whatever you want to call this, but it just screams…Bad Taste!!! Disrespect..feeling very inadequate or self conscious…am not sure but I am sure that this lost this guys credibility with any respectful pure/true climbers despite how in my opinion the author, to her credit on this shit post seems to be overly trying to help ease Denis Urubkos thoughts… Read more »

Rich VW
3 months ago
Reply to  Trent Parks

“Actions speak for themselves”… Nims used O-2 on all his “seven summits”. On Annapurna, during the Dr. Chin “rescue” he (and his team) bailed (after summiting) from Camp III because they were low on bottled oxygen… leaving Dr. Chin to fend for himself. On K-2 the Nepalese teams displayed great incompetence or they purposefully undermined the opportunity for their clients (who financed the climb) to summit (while leading to several deaths). I wasn’t there, and know that it is impossible to make sound judgments about such actions. But there is PLENTY of room for legitimate criticism the the Nepalese actions… Read more »

Rich VW
3 months ago
Reply to  Uttam

Huh? Do you know who roped the winter ascent to Camp One? It wasn’t Nims or the Sherpas. You seem to have no ideas (zero, zilch) what you’re talking about. John Snorri and his team (Ali, Sajid, and Fazel) fixed rope on the lower part of K2’s Abruzzi Spur route from Advanced Base Camp (“ABC”) to Camp I (18,700’-20,000’). Mingma G and his two Sherpa teammates fixed the rope between Camp I and Camp II… all before Nims arrived at base camp.

RealClimber
RealClimber
4 months ago

While I never climbed 8000er, I do climb in Alps and other mountains. Style is applicable to all mountains, isn’t it? Normal routes on 8000ers are not climbing for me, living in 21st century, especially when you walk a fixed line and use extra O2, sherpas etc.. It is more like extreme hiking nowadays. Sure, you can do it, but can you really talk about it as of a groundbreaking achievement? Where are we, in 1950s? Come on guys. You know Nims is not a climber, do you? 🙂 How can you ever think of comparing him with Dennis? Give… Read more »

Trent Parks
Trent Parks
4 months ago
Reply to  RealClimber

I’m soo damn bewildered I guess at how you came to the conclusion that Nim is not a climber…? I think I kindof see what you where maybe trying to say..but your definition of climbing as you compared/stated isn’t very clear…if you watched his documentary you will clearly see while yes he has sherpas climbing with and helping..he too is setting lines, the whole team is and yes it looks like normal routes where taken on some of the Climbs…and some were not however to those whome might not know 8000m is 8000 damn meters… To put it simple….If Nim… Read more »

Last edited 4 months ago by Trent Parks
Sadi.elkayam
4 months ago

I did not understand Dennis if to climb k2 with oxygen it is not called alpine climbing it is high altitude doping it is for the weak, so Dennis let’s climb without a rope without all the special clothing for high altitude let’s climb without shoes we will feel the cold climb with clothes it for the weak let’s climb completely naked On k2 and Everest natural climbing Dennis will try it for you .

Rich VW
3 months ago
Reply to  Sadi.elkayam

You go first, “I’ll be right there” (with camera) :). I don’t understand either? Why can’t you grasp the difference between using a rope to catch a fall and climbing a rope using ascenders? Nobdy of any sense is critical of climbers who use modern equipement or methods for safety (and even comfort). Certainly, that was not anything Denis said. “RealClimber” (above) and real climbers appreciate how different climbing with O-2 is. Nims obviously knows as well and wants credit for a first no O-2 ascent of K-2 in winter. But then he waits for two days after descending to… Read more »

Sadi.elkayam
3 months ago
Reply to  Rich VW

I’m sorry my translation from Google distorted my response,
I appreciate and admire Dennis
And do not want to comment anymore on Google Sorry,

Chris sizemore
Chris sizemore
3 months ago

What nims did was incredible regardless of all the drama he got to the summitt on all 14 peaks in 6 months he went from unknown to maybe the most famous climber in the world in record time . He’s a beast and anyone who can’t give him credit or respect what he did regardless of your personal beliefs it’s just pure jealousy . Maybe you regret not promoting yourself and gaining the fame and respect of the entire world for doing somethiing never done before in the history of climbing even messner respects nims and what he did .… Read more »

Sadi.elkayam
3 months ago
Reply to  Chris sizemore

I think you exaggerated a bit about Dennis is neither bitter nor jealous, maybe you did not understand him well,