Top 10 Expeditions of 2019: #2: Denis Urubko, Again

At the end of every year, regular as Christmas cake and egg nog, the spotlight shines on Denis Urubko for his accomplishments during the previous 12 months. His self-sufficient style and daring projects make him impossible to ignore. No one else opened a new route on an 8,000m peak this year, least of all on a single, no-O2 push — solo! What’s more, he did this after rescuing people almost daily in the days before the climb. So applauding Urubko yet again may not be very creative, but it’s fair.

Denis Urubko and María Cardell. Photo, Denis Urubko


Urubko was not intending to climb Gasherbrum II on his own. He had planned this new route as a joint celebration with his partner María Cardell. Since they’ve been together, they have adapted and shared each other’s specialities — Cardell’s fluency in rock climbing and Urubko’s love of higher mountains. This summer’s expedition to the Karakorum was supposed to be their culmination as a climbing pair, and possibly a turning point for Urubko who, to his fans’ despair, has recently started speaking of retiring from the 8,000’ers to spend more time at home.

However, the transition into a more domestic Urubko might have to wait until he finishes a couple of long-standing Himalayan dreams. One of them was the diretissima line from bottom to top on Gasherbrum II.

Denis Urubko heads toward Gasherbrum II.


For Cardell, the Pakistan climb ended before it began: She hurt her back in an odd fall during the trek to Base Camp. Then Urubko kept receiving SOS calls almost daily to help other mountaineers in trouble. He responded to all of them. First, Ricardo Cassardo seriously injured himself in a fall on Gasherbrum VII and needed immediate evacuation. Then two consecutive rescues of sick people on the glacier.

Finally, he found time to head off toward the summit of his own project. Despite her back pain, Cardell remained in Base Camp, waiting for her partner. Don Bowie of Canada and Lotta Hintsa of Finland joined him on the relatively flat glacier as far as Camp 1. There, they planned to part ways, with Bowie and Hintsa continuing up the normal route and Urubko proceeding on his new line.

Poor conditions prevented Bowie and Hintsa from advancing further. An American expedition was also forced back. Extraordinarily high temperatures, with no night freezing to firm up the terrain, left Gasherbrum II’s slopes unstable and avalanche-prone. Crevasses opened up on the glacier, rendering the otherwise straightforward section tricky and dangerous.

Everyone waited in Camp 1 for conditions to improve, except Urubko. Late on July 31, he just went up — no company, no satphone, no way to communicate. In an era of live streaming video, 5G and global connectivity, this old-fashioned approach to mountaineering got on everyone’s nerves, as the hours ticked by without news. The climbers down below briefly spotted Urubko a day later, somewhere above 7,000m. Then night fell, and nothing stirred on Gasherbrum II.

Hintsa commented on how dangerous the conditions were, and silent concern grew in the climbing community. Urubko was not like any other climber, they said: He was the one who rescues others, never the one in need.

Finally, after 42 nerve-wracking hours, the Americans in Base Camp broke the news to their home team, who passed it on to ExplorersWeb: “Denis Urubko is back in Camp 1; he summited!”

Urubko later explained that since he was going solo, he just went non-stop and completed the line in less than two days, rather than the three days planned for a two-person team.

“I tried to work in the center of the pyramid along as direct a route as possible,” he said. “I crossed the first small bergschrund (6,050m) at the foot of the wall, then moved up ice and firn, past seracs and avalanche slopes. A one-kilometre drop lay beneath my feet. I reached the top at 20:40. The effort exhausted me.”

Denis Urubko had already summited Gasherbrum II via the normal route to acclimatize the previous week.


In his philosophical  and somewhat cryptic style, Urubko explained to ExplorersWeb that he considers this route the realization of his idea of freedom, of “personal art” and  “real mountaineering” — mountaineering that “is rather than merely seems.”  In an interview with’s Anna Piunova, he also hinted that since no woman has ever opened a new alpine-style route on an 8,000’er, the dream remains alive for him and Cardell.

Urubko is not spending New Year’s Eve at home, munching one grape for each bell-stroke at midnight, in the Spanish tradition. Instead, he is back in the Karakorum, preparing to climb Broad Peak in winter. He reached Base Camp by breaking trail through thigh-deep snow and -30ºC temperatures on December 26. He aims to summit before February 29 — the end of meteorological winter, by his definition.

And then? He says that if there is time left and conditions are good, he might give winter K2 a try. With a larger team already in place and the route at least partially fixed — well, he might be the first to gain another podium position on our list next year.

Related stories:

Denis Urubko: the Man of Few Words Opens Up

Urubko on his Honeymoon

How Urubko Nailed His New Route on Gasherbrum II

Urubko Summited and Back in Camp 1

GII: Waiting for News from Urubko

Urubko to the Rescue Again