Exclusive Interview with Denis Urubko, Part 2: Brutally Honest

“Many of my stories are not polite…but I am following my truth and I am trying to be honest,” Denis Urubko said. “My past is not a fantasy…There is not a moral in the stories I share.”

Urubko was speaking about the books he has written, but what he says also applies to our interview. We discussed good and bad climbing partners, sweet and bitter experiences, and the difficult truth that no one defeats Father Time.

Current goals

ExplorersWeb: You are about to start a new stage in your mountaineering career. What are your goals?

I have done virtually no mountaineering in the last two years. Instead, I have focused on spending time with my family, my job, and on rock climbing.

It was a pleasant break, but my goals for this new stage were clear even before I stopped: To beat the record of Juanito Oiarzabal, with 26 ascents over 8,000m, to open a new route up an 8,000’er in alpine style with one woman as a partner (which would be a first), and to complete a winter climb on an 8,000’er.

These are the personal achievements I want to devote my next two to three years to.

Urubko during a training session for Gasherbrum II. Photo: Maria Cardell


I am not getting any younger, so I am not pushing myself for miracles. Just climbing classic routes on 8,000’ers, done four or five times, should be enough.

Pakistan vs Nepal

This year, you started winter mountaineering again, in Pakistan. Why?

Pakistan is a good place for ambitious mountain projects. The main reason is that there is not an aggressive attitude against mountaineers. I am aware that terrorism has sometimes occurred in mountain areas, but the government does its best to protect alpinists.

The army helicopter pilots are highly skilled and very familiar with mountaineering expeditions, as they have proven during many rescue operations. I remember the long-line evacuation of Tomaz Humar by Brigadier Rashid Ullah, and the help I received from General Khalil. The liaison officers are really efficient, too.

The paperwork of organizing an expedition in Pakistan is also cheaper and easier than in Nepal. Plus, you will not have as many discussions and quarrels with the locals as with Sherpas. I have never had any issues with people in Pakistan, but many negative experiences in Nepal.

Baltoro and K2. Photo: Denis Urubko


[Problems] are also apparent when Nepalis travel to Pakistan. Have a look at the camps on the mountain after the expeditions. You can tell where the Nepalis were from the piles of garbage they leave. Pakistani liaison officers are dutiful, but their Nepali equivalents will not even show up at Base Camp.

It sounds like you are not planning to visit Nepal any time soon.

I will try to visit Nepal too. To see the magic mountains and try to improve on my past experiences. But I have seen some people do things there that verge on criminal. I’ve come away with a horrible feeling.

I hope they will be able to change their mentality for the better. For the time being, I prefer to visit Pakistan.

Are you happy with your climb on Koshar Gang?

It was an experiment. The most difficult part was to put together the expedition from Europe, because of the COVID restrictions.

Denis Urubko holds the rope in a whiteout on Koshar Gang. Photo: Denis Urubko


Onto the Gasherbrums

What’s next?

I feel ready to go to Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II this summer, to launch a winter attempt on Cho Oyu from China, and maybe Everest, why not?

Real challenges are waiting everywhere, as long as we use our creativity. For instance, I have climbed Gasherbrum II four times and it was always different. Once a speed record [7.5 hours], once in winter, once on the easy classic route in summer, and once via a new route, solo in 24 hours.

And then there’s Nanga Parbat, a magical arena for adventure, sport, and art.

Partners good and bad

Are you climbing with friends?

On the classic 8,000m routes this summer, I am ready to climb without partners. I will just need to buy a place on a commercial expedition and share Base Camp services with strangers.

But why? You must know virtually everyone in the Himalayan climbing scene!

Honestly, I am tired of some other climbers’ irresponsibility. It takes time and effort to plan a joint project. To get the funds and share the costs, to find the best way to climb together, and then to see my partners making mistakes, not focusing on the climb as they should, not being self-disciplined enough…

But I might change my mind and climb with someone else. Let us see what the future brings.

Denis Urubko and Serguey Samoilov open a new route on Manaslu, 2006. Photo: RussianClimb



I had partners who were like brothers to me. Sergey Samoilov [lost on Lhotse in 2009], Boris Dedeshko [with whom he opened Reincarnation on Cho Oyu’s South Face], Gennady Durov [new route on Pobeda peak]. But right now, I have no partner like them.

But you climbed with friends on Koshar Gang last month?

I didn’t intend to invite anyone. I had planned to go to Pakistan alone, but then Anton Kravchenko, Maksim Berngard, and Andrey Shliapnikov asked me to join them. They were well trained after several ascents in Russia’s frozen mountains. In fact, they had got me quite jealous with their recent climbing stories!

During acclimatization near Skardu, we were joined by our friend Ali from Hushe village. He had spent the summer working on the slopes of the Gondogoro La pass. But he joined us not as a worker, but as a climbing partner.

Blade of attack

How do you choose your partners?

I am proud to act as the blade of attack [this is a frequent Urubko expression that means to carry out cutting-edge activities] with people of similar mentality. To create an idea, to have a challenge, and to overcome all difficulties to achieve it.

Some great climbing mates were former pupils of mine. I worked as a coach, guide, and mountaineering instructor for over 15 years at the Central Sports Club of the Kazakhstan Army. Also, for several expeditions in the Himalayas and Tien Shan, I had my Urubko-CAMP program. And many of my students eventually became my climbing partners on difficult ascents, such as Dedeshko, Durov, Otepbayev, Sharipova, Shutov, Komarov, Trofimov, Cardell, Ryazantsev, etc.

I have worked as a private guide but I am an expensive guide, and not many people are willing to pay. I make no money from teaching. This is something I do because I believe I must support people who dream of climbing. If it’s about sharing passion, emotions, challenges, and effort, it is a pleasure for me to join in.

Urubko hams it up in Poland recently. Photo: Denis Urubko


You have participated in many rescues, both of climbing partners and people you had not met before, sometimes alone, sometimes without even interrupting your own climbs. When you return to the Gasherbrums, there will be other several expeditions and someone may get in trouble again. Will you be willing to help?

Doctors, hospitals, firemen, and police are there to protect us in normal life, and some of us expect their help in emergencies even in the mountains. But I don’t. I’ve already passed my limit for rescues. I too created problems for my partners and many strangers in 1994-1995. But I also learned some good lessons.

What happened then?

I was young and strong. Had many good achievements in 1991-1993, and they made me much too reckless. In 1994-1995, I had four very bad accidents in the mountains and even in town. It was a miracle I survived. I was in hospitals, spent a lot of time in rehab.

Now I prefer not to count on any external assistance, but I am ready to help others. Many years ago, my instructors taught me how to organize rescues. It’s not that I like to help in accidents, but I do feel a duty to lend a hand when needed, even if I lose my own chance for a summit push. I am really grateful to people like Sergi Mingote, Don Bowie, Jaroslaw Zdanowicz, Adam Bielecki, and others who have joined me on the difficult, unpredictable searches on Nanga Parbat, Annapurna, and Gasherbrum VII.

Denis Urubko, left, and Adam Bielecki, right, rescued Eli Revol, centre, on winter Nanga Parbat. Photo: Adam Bielecki

The bright mosaic

Talk about how you feel at high altitude, especially without supplementary O2.

Ah! Over 8,000m, you feel a bright mosaic of strong sensations. The problem is, without O2, your mind is bogged down in a kind of liquid gel. Once, I died. It happened on Cho Oyu’s South Face in 2009. Deep in the middle of the night, Boris Dedeshko and I had reached our limit. We were at rock bottom, without even the strength to feel anything. We felt certain that we had no chance to return. Bad weather, avalanches, no fuel, no food, fatigue, darkness had crushed us. I died then and there.

In the end, we survived by following the rules and being lucky. We followed the trail down from the summit and discovered the turn from the ridge to the South Face. We rappeled through avalanches and had enough screws, pitons, nuts, and Friends to descend many pitches on overhanging rocks. All this, without food or water, and I had a head injury. It was unbelievable when we finally got down. We didn’t feel happy or sad, just reborn.

Another experience that conveys the miracle of 8,000m life occurred on Broad Peak in 2003. After helping rescue [Jean-Christophe] Lafaille, I did a very fast ascent. Despite feelings of loneliness, I was full of power. A huge wave of positive energy took me step by step from 4,800m to the top. The emotions were so powerful, I was screaming in happiness!

I’ve had other experiences like that too. Every successful expedition gives me the satisfaction that a master chess player must feel. You construct one game from beginning to end, you win, and have also won the right to relax, to look ahead to a bright future. High-altitude mountaineering is that unique world that mixes risk, luck, personal ability, and brotherhood into a cocktail of happiness.

Unfinished business

Is there a climb that you would like to do but know that you will never do?

Yes! The North Face of K2. I tried in 2007 [with Sergey Samoilov] in alpine style. But it got too late during our summit push and we had to turn back or we would not have returned from the mountain.

Oh! And Kangchenjunga’s North Face! There is this magic line that could be possible. That would be a dream route to open, too.

But you can go there any time!

No, I am too weak because of my age. I am not young anymore, and I am tired after so many years of mountaineering.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, I was so strong. I could break a wall with my head! But now I am a different person. Okay, maybe I could [complete those climbs] if everything went perfectly. Perhaps someone could give me a million euros, so I could focus completely on a great mountaineering target. But miracles just don’t happen in life. Not in my life.

Reality is reality. I may consider opening a less demanding route on a lower 8,000’er, like Shishapangma, but not something as high as Kangchenjunga.

Denis Urubko at a recent event organized by CAMP and Barrabes.com.

Back to the coliseum

You have nothing left to prove and chain-climbing 8,000’ers is not new. So what really drags you back, and what are your expectations?  

For me, the high-altitude world is the music of the void, the deepness of self-exploration, something that elevates me above everyday life. I feel young when I am touching the stars with my fingertips over the Karakoram and Himalaya. Then later at home, I appreciate more keenly the treasures of civilization. I rediscover the happiness of a warm bed and the smiles of my kids. Or enjoy feeling my tendons tighten in perfectly safe conditions when I practice sport climbing.

I admit that I get some satisfaction from sporting goals, like opening new routes or summiting a record number of 8,000’ers. But that is not the real aim. It is just a motivation, maybe an excuse, to see the huge mountains again, the open horizons. To feel my blood pulsing and the limits of breath at 8,000m.

I want to be back in my coliseum again.