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

Rescues

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.

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.

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bannanas
bannanas
4 months ago

Grande, Denis, you are truly unique, and that is why I am your biggest fan!!

F v
F v
4 months ago

Nice article! Didn’t he summit K2 in 2007 by traversing to normal north ridge?
http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web07f/newswire-kazakhs-k2

damiengildea
4 months ago

This is very good, thanks Angela. I enjoyed it more than Part 1, he seems more eloquent and focused here.

And I love his comments about Pakistan v. Nepal 🙂

sour grapes
sour grapes
4 months ago
Reply to  damiengildea

Everyone knows helicopter rescues are easily available and lot cheaper in Nepal than in Pakistan. In Pakistan, no private sector helicopters are allowed in the K2 region which often creates delay in the rescue. As for the trash, yes Nepalese people should put more effort. However, lot of expeditions are led by foreign companies so they too share the blame. He is correct about the Nepali liaison officers not appearing in the mountains. That is because the liaison officers are almost always from the non Sherpa community. They are not used to the harsh conditions in the mountain so they… Read more »

damiengildea
4 months ago
Reply to  sour grapes

If my comments were racist why would I not direct them toward Pakistani climbers too? On these pages I have been critical of Ueli Steck – am I racist against white Swiss guys? I wrote a whole article on the misleading claims of Colin O’Brady – am I racist against rich white American guys?

I am prejudiced against those in the climbing business who deal dishonestly and damage the culture of mountaineering. If they are Nepalese, so be it.

Sadi.elkayam
4 months ago
Reply to  sour grapes

I have a question for you please, but answer it only if you really know what happened in camp 2 or 3 on Everest in 2013 if 3 foreign climbers- Ueli Stec from Switzerland, Simone Moro and another British climber all three were almost killed by 100 guys what sherpa, I I do not think that the climbers simon moro and ueli stec did anything very serious that justifies lynching them “even after they get down on their knees and apologize at the request of the sherpa’s and then take advantage of the fact that they are on their knees… Read more »

John
John
4 months ago

A true titan and currently still the best!

B G
B G
4 months ago

This second half addresses much of the noise generated from the first half.

bagra
bagra
4 months ago

a no nonsense Legend !
thanks for the article Ang ! 🙂

Shivering Yeti
Shivering Yeti
4 months ago

Great lines. Straight no chaser. Dennis spot-on in both interviews. So sorry for Nims. Not really. The side alleys of Thamel are dark and mysterious. BTW, Jost changed his panties after mother reminded him.

Uttam
Uttam
4 months ago

Well Denis never misses an opportunity to denigrate Nepali climbers (which has become part of the baggage he carries everywhere with him) and toot his own horn. His most memorable line from this so-called “brutally honest” exclusive interview, at least to me, is: “Fifteen to twenty years ago, I was so strong. I could break a wall with my head!” Enough said!

Last edited 4 months ago by Uttam
Sadi.elkayam
4 months ago
Reply to  Uttam

Denis Urubko is all human and after that he climbs and as a person he is definitely aware of his strengths and limitations as a climber he knows his place very well he has a lot of experience with people around him he worked with the sherpa’s and the Napal’s and also with the Pakistanis he says what he has To say about the sherpa’s and the pakistanis it’s only from his personal experience and how he saw felt and what he went through with them, he is a professional consider going with the truth and with his believing self… Read more »

B G
B G
4 months ago

Worth watching is Urubko’s presentation that has some good detail on K2 in winter and lots of other stuff https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ARBDfN-5Zcs
It’s definitely not the Jimmy Chin Netflix melodrama for broad consumption those seeking easy comparison may want, but it’s in the public sphere for those wanting a bit more insight.

Sadi.elkayam
4 months ago
Reply to  B G

Worth watching is Urubko’s presentation that has some good detail on K2 in winter and lots of other stuff https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ARBDfN-5Zcs
It’s definitely not the Jimmy Chin Netflix melodrama for broad consumption those seeking easy comparison may want, but it’s in the public sphere for those wanting a bit more insight.

Jahan
Jahan
4 months ago

Denis is truly a no non-sense legend. Massive RESPECT to him for the rescues he did… He never boasts about them.

Sadi.elkayam
4 months ago

Today unlike the previous time I very much appreciate and understand Denis Urubko, and I do not agree with the respondent who wrote in the comment in the first article part 1 which is Denis Urubko, bitter old I do not accept it today, this article part 2 helped me understand very well that Denis Urubko because of experience His as a mountaineer his seniority in mountaineering made him get to know himself and the strengths and limitations of the body he is self aware there is a line and way and according to this he goes he truly believes… Read more »

Sadi.elkayam
4 months ago

True he is really unique in my opinion Denis Urubko is a legend of a climber, he is really the last remnant of an extinct breed of a true authentic professional alpinist,

fred west
fred west
4 months ago

Would not expect anything less from a trash can rummager.

Jess
Jess
3 months ago

Phurba Tashi Sherpa has the record for most ascents on 8000ers – he has 30.

Jess
Jess
3 months ago
Reply to  Jess

Forgive me. I’m wrong – Kami Rita has achieved 38 ascents on 8000ers.