Winter Soloists: Crazy, Maybe. Committed, Definitely

Solo winter ascents lie at the extreme end of the mountaineering spectrum. Curiously, climbers who attempt these ascents seem to have certain similarities. Craziness? Maybe. The desire to go beyond what most consider possible? Definitely. Preparation and skills? Necessary. Commitment? Maximum.

Join us as we run through some of mountaineering history’s most impressive solo winter climbs.

The Eiger Nordwand

The Eiger (3,967m), in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps, is famous for its North Face, the Nordwand. It’s sometimes called Mordwand, the deadly wall, a nod to the more than 60 climbers who have lost their lives here. This vertical face, more than 1,500m high, has witnessed both incredible climbs and many tragedies. The Nordwand features more than 30 climbing routes, all of which pose a stern challenge.

Before the first successful ascent of the North Face, several failed attempts took place between 1934 and 1938. Most ended in tragedy. In 1938, Edward Lisle Strutt wrote in the Alpine Journal that it was “an obsession for the mentally deranged ones, the most imbecile variant since mountaineering began.”

The Heckmair Route on the North Face of Eiger.

The Heckmair Route on the North Face of Eiger. Photo: Wikipedia


The first successful ascent came the same year that climbing was later banned on the Eiger because of the objective danger. On July 24, 1938, Germans Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vorg and Austrians Fritz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer managed to top out. Their route has become known as the Heckmair Route.

Harrer wrote about their experience in his classic book, The White Spider.

“On the Spider of the Eiger’s North Face, I experienced such borderline situations, while the avalanches were roaring down over us, endlessly,” Harrar wrote. “The Spider is white. Its body consists of ice and eternal snow. Its legs and its predatory arms, all hundreds of feet long, are white, too. From that perpetual, fearfully steep field of frozen snow, nothing but ice emerges to full gullies, cracks, and crevices. Up and down. To left, to right. In every direction, before every angle of steepness. And there the Spider waits.”

So, who would dare to climb this route alone in winter?

The White Spider on Eiger's North Face.

The White Spider on the Eiger’s North Face. Photo: Corvus/Summitpost


Hasegawa and Ghirardini

Legendary Japanese climber Tsuneo Hasegawa was the first to solo the Eiger Nordwand in winter. He climbed via the Heckmair Route, from March 3 to March 9, 1978. Just a few days later, Italian-French climber Ivano Ghirardini completed the second solo winter ascent of the same route, between March 7 and March 12.

By the end of the 1970s, both had completed solo winter ascents of the North Face Trilogy: the Eiger, Grandes Jorasses, and Matterhorn. In 1975, Ghirardini made the first solo winter ascent of the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses. He soloed it a second time in January 1978.

In January 1977, he attempted to solo the North Face of the Matterhorn, but he had to give up because of a storm. That same year, in December, Ghirardini tried the Matterhorn again and succeeded. In January 1978, he repeated the Grandes Jorasses solo. Then in March, he ticked off the Eiger’s North Face. He became the first climber to solo all three of those classic north faces in winter.

Tsuneo Hasegawa

Tsuneo Hasegawa. Photo: Mntnfilm


Hasegawa was not far behind. As well as becoming the first to solo the Eiger North Face in the winter of 1978, he was the second to solo the Matterhorn’s North Face, in winter 1977. Then, in winter 1979, he too soloed the Grandes Jorasses.

Ghirardini and Hasegawa, two exceptionally strong climbers, continued to rack up solo ascents on other peaks.

One of Ghirardini’s most impressive climbs ended short of the summit. In 1982, he made a solo winter attempt, alpine style, on the very difficult West Buttress of Makalu. He carried just 120m of rope. This is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable and highly committed attempts on an 8,000m peak.

Ivano Ghirardini.

Ivano Ghirardini. Photo: Ivano Ghirardini

Hearing voices

“I don’t know why or how I started extreme mountaineering,” Ghirardini recently told ExplorersWeb. “Since I was 17 years old, I have heard voices, I receive visits from apparitions…These voices were what led me to do this, and they told me to stop at Makalu. The question is not why I started, but why I am still alive.”

Ghirardini said that he and Hasegawa met for the first time in Zermatt, after the winter solo trilogy. ”We became like brothers,” he said.

Ghirardini once told Hasegawaga, “You are a samurai.”

Hasegawa answered him, “I’m more of a peasant.”

They went to drink beer together and shared their memories. Says Ghirardini: “I am so sad that he died. [Hasegawa was killed in an avalanche in 1991 on Ultar II’s Southeast Face in Pakistan.] Hasegawa had a special gift. He was a kind of shaman as well as an extraordinary mountaineer.”

After his death, Ghirardini visited Hasegawa’s tomb in Pakistan.  “This extraordinary man had a smile in his eyes and a light in his heart,” recalled Ghirardini on Facebook. “A great and beautiful soul.”

Hasegawa and Ghirardini on Aconcagua

In 1980, Hasegawa climbed the North Face of Aconcagua (6,961m) solo in winter along the normal route.

Meanwhile, Ghirardini was the first to solo the South Face of Aconcagua, during the southern hemisphere’s summer, on Feb. 3, 1981.

Hasegawa then made the first solo winter ascent of that same South Face on Aug. 16, 1981. He was in the area with a team but he made the ascent solo.

On the South Face of Aconcagua, both climbers followed the 1954 French route and the 1974 Messner variant.

Metanoia route on Eiger.

Metanoia route on the Eiger. Photo: Jeff Lowe



Returning to the Eiger, no one can forget Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia route on the Nordwand in February 1991. Metanoia is a term for a spiritual transformation.

Lowe had read Harrer’s book as a child. By 1991, he set out to climb a new, direct line in the middle of the North Face. He wanted to pay tribute to the first climbers of 1938, who did not use bolts, just simple pitons.

Just 300m below the summit, snowfall and spindrift trapped Lowe in a small cave for one day and two nights.

“My awareness detached itself from my body,” Lowe recalled in an interview with Sidetracked. “I could focus on any place or time and instantly be there. My soul took me to the farthest reaches of the universe and back. The clarity of sight, hearing, and consciousness was like nothing I’d ever know, beyond words. I’d had my own Metanoia in that little hermit cave on the wall.”

His climb lasted nine epic days. Lowe’s route remained unrepeated until December 2016, when Thomas Huber, Stephan Siegrist, and Roger Schaeli topped out.

Pumori 7,161 m, seen from Kala Patthar.

Pumori 7,161m, from Kala Patthar. Photo: Uwe Gille


Pumori under moonlight

But Lowe’s winter solos didn’t start with Metanoia. On Dec. 18, 1983, Lowe made a winter solo of Pumori (7,161m) via the South Face.

Initially, Lowe and his partner, Earl Wiggins, planned to climb together, alpine style. However, two days after reaching base camp at 5,330m, Wiggins developed a life-threatening case of pulmonary and cerebral edema. Lowe had to escort Wiggins to the nearest village.

Lowe then returned to base camp alone and decided to climb the wall solo. He set off on Dec. 12, 1983. It was a tricky climb across several huge rock bands and included a bivouac at 6,250m.

Lowe finally reached the top of Pumori on the afternoon of Dec. 18. An almost full moon accompanied him down to the ice cave, where he spent the night. He descended to base camp the next day.

Catherine Destivelle on the North Face of Eiger, seen from a helicopter. Photo

Catherine Destivelle on the North Face of the Eiger, photographed from a helicopter. Photo: Rene Robert


Destivelle’s North Face blitz

On Mar. 9, 1992, Catherine Destivelle soloed the 1938 route on the North Face of Eiger in 17 hours.

Her onsight climb was a non-stop fight against the abyss, cold, and fatigue. Every time she stopped, her fingers started to freeze. At nightfall, bivouacking was not an option.

“If I waited for daylight sitting upright or standing, dehydrated as I was, my fingers and toes risked freezing,” Destivelle said. “It was better to move on, even if it meant climbing all night.”

The following February, Destivelle also climbed the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses alone in winter. One year later, she soloed the North Face of the Matterhorn in winter, thus becoming the first woman to complete the North Face winter solo trilogy.

Ama Dablam 6,812 m.

Ama Dablam 6,812 m. Photo: Nepal Himal Peak Profile


Big wind, blue sky, no rest: Ama Dablam

Buntaro Kato, a legendary Japanese solo climber, once wrote of solitary mountaineering: “If you only go because you know it’s right for you, then you can make progress without agonizing about it. If you’re weak, you’ll be tormented, crushed. The strong will grow stronger and flourish. So, soloists, be strong!”

Yasushi Yamanoi, the winner of a lifetime Piolet d’Or, was certainly strong. He was always looking beyond what most thought possible. In December 1992, there were five teams on Ama Dablam (6,812m) — a Swiss party, a Belgian team, two South Korean groups, and a four-person Japanese team, led by Yoshiki Sasahara.

All five groups climbed the Southwest Ridge route, but Yasushi Yamanoi decided to climb the West Face solo.

The west face of Ama Dablam, seen from Periche.

The Northwest Face of Ama Dablam, from Periche. Photo: Flickr


On the West Face of Ama Dablam, Yamanoi fixed four pitches of 50m each on the 70° slope. A strong wind ripped across the cold, blue sky. Yamanoi climbed fast to minimize the risk of rockfall. After reaching the summit on Dec. 7, 1992, he went down the Southwest Ridge, with one of his fingertips severely frozen. Maybe nowadays it would not be considered a real winter expedition, since it happened before the solstice, but The Himalayan Database registered it as a winter climb.

Yasushi Yamanoi climbing on Gyachung Kang 7,300 m.

Yasushi Yamanoi on 7,300m Gyachung Kang. Photo: Yasushi Yamanoi


Winter Patagonia

Yasushi Yamanoi made another winter solo two years earlier, in 1990, in Patagonia.

In July 1990, three Japanese climbers planned to climb 3,405m Fitz Roy. The Iwata brothers, Mitsuhiru and Kenji, wanted to climb the 1968 American route on the southwest buttress, while the third member, none other than Yasushi Yamanoi, aimed to climb the Argentine route solo.

However, there were some problems. Kenji had to abandon the climb before the start, and Yamanoi joined the other Iwata brother, Mitsuhiru, on the southwest buttress.  During the climb, Iwata frostbit his hands and had to give up.

Yamanoi decided to continue solo.  He had to spend a horrible night hanging from his ice axes, buffeted by the constant Patagonia wind. But he persisted and topped out on July 28, 1990. He became the first winter soloist of the legendary peak.

Fitz Roy.

Fitz Roy. Photo: Todor Bozhinov


In Patagonia, other important first winter solos included Aguja Cerro Pollone in 2016 and Aguja Guillaumet in 2017, both done by Austrian Markus Pucher.  Pucher also attempted the first winter solo of Cerro Torre in 2016. He did not fail by much, stopping just 40m from the summit.  The late Marc-Andre Leclerc made the first winter solo of Torre Egger on Sept. 17, 2016, after a 21-hour push.

Markus Pucher on the summit of Cerro Pollone.

Markus Pucher on the summit of Cerro Pollone. Photo: Markus Pucher


Denali winter solo

Japanese adventurer Naomi Uemura was famous for his solitary adventures to the North and South Poles, along the Amazon by canoe, and across the Sahara. In 1970, he became the first mountaineer to solo Denali. He went fast and light.

In early February 1984, he returned to Denali to attempt the first winter solo. He brought little gear and food, just the basics, and some bamboo poles to mark crevasses. He planned to sleep in snow caves, so he had no tent.

Uemura climbed the West Buttress and summited on February 12, his 43rd birthday. He left a Japanese flag on top. It was very windy and -45°C. Then he began his descent.

The next day, Uemura spoke by radio with Japanese photographers who were flying over Denali. He told them that he had summited and was descending from 5,500m. He hoped to reach Base Camp within two days, he told them. But Uemura never made it.

Denali 6,190 m.

Denali 6,190m. Photo: Medium


He was last seen at about 5,000m on February 16. Jim Wickwire and Eiho Otani searched for him but only found some of his belongings. His diary was in a cave at 4,300m that he had used as a refuge. In it, Uemura described the difficult conditions. His last entry went, in part, “I wish I could sleep in a warm sleeping bag.”

Uemura’s decision to pursue solo climbing is perhaps related to a 1971 Everest expedition. It included climbers from 11 countries but was a failure, and one person died. Because of poor cooperation and coordination among the climbers, the expedition left a bitter taste for everyone. After it, Uemura turned to solitary adventures.

“Loneliness in all its splendor is a test for myself,” Uemura said. “One thing I hate is having to prove myself in front of other people.”

Vernon Tejas at Denali.

Vernon Tejas at Denali. Photo: Vernon Tejas

A fitting tribute

Four years after Naomi Uemura’s disappearance, American mountain guide Vernon Tejas paid a fitting tribute.

On Feb. 15, 1988, he began his ascent via the West Buttress, just like Uemura. He reached the summit on Mar. 7. At the top, he hoisted the Japanese flag in tribute to Uemura.

Tejas also took refuge in snow caves during his climb, where he listened to Alaska Public Radio and played the harmonica. He reached Base Camp on Mar. 15, one day before his 35th birthday, another symbolic nod to Uemura. “Naomi did this for me, he made it possible,” Tejas said after the climb.

Kris Annapurna

KrisAnnapurna is a writer with ExplorersWeb.

Kris has been writing about history and tales in alpinism, news, mountaineering, and news updates in the Himalaya, Karakoram, etc., for the past year with ExplorersWeb. Prior to that, Kris worked as a real estate agent, interpreter, and translator in criminal law. Now based in Madrid, Spain, she was born and raised in Hungary.